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“What is code?” illustrates rich content potential

The painful reality is that we still live in a print-under-glass world, struggling to produce content that leverages our powerful phones and tablets. I was explaining this to a publisher recently and the phrase “escape velocity” came to mind.

In simple terms, escape velocity is what’s required for an object to break free from another object’s gravitational pull. For example, a rocket being launched from earth or, in this case, a publisher trying to create content that’s more deeply engaging than simply putting the print edition on a digital screen. In the latter case, everything from significant print revenues to industry indifference represent the gravitational pull that needs to be escaped.

The latest example proving we’re still in the print-under-glass era is a terrific Businessweek article called What is code?  The fact that rich and engaging pieces like this draw so much attention and are so few and far between proves we’re still only in the early innings of digital content innovation and evolution.

If you haven’t read the article I highly recommend you take the time and carefully go through it. If you’re not a programmer you’ll learn a lot. But even if you’re a coding master you’ll still learn a thing or two, including how content will eventually take baby steps away from today’s print-under-glass approach.

Here are the most takeaways I got from this Businessweek article: 

  • Measuring visits and reading time – I opened and closed it a few times before finally reading the entire piece. I found it interesting that a pop-up noted how many times I had opened it previously as well as how long I had already spent scanning it. This information may not be valuable for a magazine article but it would be very useful for tutorial content to see how long it takes to learn a subject. It would also be extremely valuable for publishers to discover where readers tend to spend the most time.
  • Dynamic visuals – Be sure to check out the circuitry animation that appears at the start of the second section. If you’re not familiar with the concept of logic gates, take a minute or two to read the callout and watch the animation. And have you ever wondered what happens when you press a key on your keyboard? There’s another animation for this and, as the callout notes, quite a few things happen behind the scenes before the key you pressed appears on your screen. Note that neither of these are “enrichment for enrichment’s sake”. Creating deeply engaging content like this requires a great deal of work, especially when it comes to figuring out exactly what type of dynamic visuals will add to the experience, not interfere with it.
  • Deeper dives, but only if you want them –Note the rounded rectangular numbered items interspersed throughout and how they’re used as pop-up notes. It’s not the best UI element but I love how they quickly provide more depth without taking the reader away from the current paragraph. A key here is to provide this additional depth unobtrusively. The best UI enables a smooth reading flow for readers who don’t care to read these pop-ups while ensuring the additional content is easily accessible for those who want it.
  • Annoying visuals – As good as this Businessweek article is, it would have been even better without the animated blue box character with the black hat and flower. The designer probably felt it added personality or maybe even gave the piece an attitude; in reality, it made the whole experience feel like a 1980’s experiment featuring a Walking Dead version of the Charlie Chaplin PC Jr. character. The lesson here is to focus on functional value rather than gimmicks.

If you read to the end you’ll discover another feature that combines something useful with yet another gimmick, which is unfortunate.

I applaud Businessweek and author Paul Ford for helping show the possibilities of a post-print-under-glass world. Here’s to hoping escape velocity is just around the corner and soon this sort of content will be considered standard, not edgy.


Anne Zieger


Thanks for this piece! I happen to be researching presentation strategies for digital content delivery and this example and analysis was very helpful.

-Anne Zieger

Dennis Fitzgerald

I agree this is an excellent, well-written, and terrific article for anyone who has ever used a computing device. Yes, it's mostly about code. And the article is long. (It took me a few sittings to get through the whole thing.)

This is the kind of article I want my parents, family, and non-tech friends to read, even though I know they won't, or would have such a difficult time making it all the way to the end without having their eyes gloss into a bunch of 0's and 1's. There may be more info than they need (or really want) to know.....but, for those who have no concept of how digital devices work, or why the computer doesn't work they want it to, having some tertiary knowledge of what got us all to where we are now would be a bit enlightening for us all.

My key takeaways, as quoted from the article:
1. "Data management is the problem that programming is supposed to solve. But ...we keep generating more data, which requires more programming, and so forth. It’s a hell of a problem. This is why people in technology make so much money. [T]hey sell infinitely reproducible nothings, but they sell so many of them that they actually have to come up with new categories of infinitely reproducible nothings just to handle what happened with the last batch. That’s how we ended up with “big data.”
2. "The greatest commercial insight of the technology industry is that if you control a computing environment, you can move the market. You can change the way people do things, the way they listen to music, watch videos, and respond to advertising. People who work at technology companies are supposed to take an idea and multiply it by a few million people, yielding a few billion dollars."
3. "When everyone goes to Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco and they stare rapturously as some man in an untucked, expensive shirt talks about “core data,” this is the context. Onstage, presenting its Kits, Apple is rearranging abstractions, saying: Look at the new reality we’ve defined, the way that difficult things are now easy and drab things can be colorful. Your trust in our platform and your dedication of thousands of hours of time have not been misplaced. They’ve pitched variations on this annually for 30 years."
4. "Perhaps the Internet of Things will turn everything into a sensor. (Already you wander Disneyland with a wristband, and it watches and tracks you; the whole place is a computer.) This will require yet more low-level thinking. And then there will be websites to make, apps to build, and on and on."
5. "Disruption is just optimization by another name." Not sure I agree with this. Or perhaps I don't know what it means. 'Disruption' is the overbuzzed, buzzed word nowadays that every time I see I get so disrupted. 'Disrupted' has become so corrupted, I think it needs some serious optimization to be relevant!

-Dennis Fitzgerald

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