The Society for News Design is excited to announce that Sam Williams is joining our lineup of speakers for the SND Charlotte workshop on April 19-21 in Charlotte, N.C.

Williams is obsessed with rethinking journalism, working with data and making cool things at Quartz. He worked previously at Macmillan Publishers where he worked on various digital products, primarily focused on higher ed learning. He also has an unhealthy obsession with bitcoin and multi-color LED lightbulbs.

SND.org editor Aviva Loeb caught up with Sam about some of his projects at Quartz.

YOU’VE DEVELOPED LOTS OF THINGS FOR THE QUARTZ NEWSROOM, INCLUDING LAMPS THAT CHANGE COLORS WHEN IT’S GOING TO RAIN AND LIGHTS THAT GO OFF WHEN THE DISHWASHER IS DONE. CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT SOME OF THESE PROJECTS AND WHY YOU DO THEM? The weather bulb was one of the earlier projects I built for Quartz. We bought a set of programmable Philips Hue lightbulbs started playing around with different ways of using them to display data. I wrote a small script that used darksky.net to change the color of the bulb based on the 10-minute forecast (purple for rain, white for snow, etc). We’ve found it super useful, especially when deciding when to head out to grab lunch, or whether or not to wait a few minutes for the rain to stop before heading out to the subway.

I’ve always been interested in internet-connected devices and how they can be useful, not just at home but in an office as well.  One of the great things about working at Quartz is how we’re encouraged to experiment with new ideas and technologies, and that some of those could eventually turn into full-fledged products. We recently started the Quartz Bot Studio with this sort of experimentation in mind and even have a space (we call it the workshop) in our new office for building both virtual and physical things.

My latest project is a bot I setup that uses OpenAI’s Gyms and Google’s Tensorflow to learn to play Atari games. I did it as a way to learn more about techniques in machine learning and get a better idea how it could be useful at Quartz. I also thought it would look cool on display in the office. It did. In fact everyone liked it so much we eventually turned it into a semi-regular Facebook Live stream for the Quartz Facebook page.

THE QUARTZ APP USES CONVERSATION WITH A BOT. WHAT’S IMPORTANT WHEN DESIGNING A PRODUCT AROUND CONVERSATION? I think deciding how the user-side of the conversation will work is one of the most important aspects of building this kind of product. Accepting free-form user input can work well when the bot acts as a sort of smart, command-line interface, but it’s much more difficult to have something that feels like a real back-and-forth conversation on a single topic, like you might have with a friend over SMS. For the Quartz app, we really wanted that feeling of a back-and-forth conversation, so we removed the text input box all-together and limited the user responses to just a few choices.

CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE THOUGHT PROCESS BEHIND THE DESIGN OF THE QUARTZ APP, WHICH USES EMOJIS AND GIFS TO TELL NEWS STORIES? Because the app is meant to feel like a one-on-one conversation, it was clear the personality of the bot was going to be extremely important to make it work. We looked at our own text messages with friends and family for inspiration. Even when the topics were serious, we found we were still using emoji and GIFs because they did such a great job at conveying a lot of information in a small amount of space. So we tried to bring that same sort of style to a conversation about the news. In fact, we even added in a small, artificial delay and typing indicator to each message for pacing, to make it feel like a more natural conversation.

WHAT ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES DO YOU THINK THIS TYPE OF STORYTELLING HAS COMPARED TO MORE TRADITIONAL NEWS OUTLETS? I think the format works well for delivering short bits of news to the reader and is a natural extension of your phone’s notifications. I think it can fit well within a user’s daily habit, but don’t think it’s a replacement at all for in-depth, longer form news articles.

Telling a story through a conversational interface can be more complicated than traditional formats. For the Quartz app, our writers craft all of the bot responses, but they also need to write the possible user response to a bot message, to keep the back-and-forth conversational tone. At times it can be more like writing a screenplay than a traditional news article. Though there are more and more tools out there for creating bots, few of those are designed to be a CMS for writers to use on a daily basis and in our case, we needed to build our own from scratch.

DO YOU THINK NEWS PRODUCTS IN GENERAL SHOULD BE MORE CONVERSATIONAL? I think it’s a great way to engage a new set of users, and fits well with certain types of news, but traditional formats are still the best way to cover a topic in great depth.

WHAT IS THE KEY TO BUILDING A PRODUCT THAT STICKS? Keeping it as simple as possible and really focusing on a narrow set of features is a great place to start.

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About SND Charlotte

• Don’t miss your chance to UNITE & REBEL, register today: Register
• Book your hotel room (before they run out!): Use the SND discount link
• Check out the lineup of speakers we’ve announced for the workshop. What a team!
• Don’t miss the Think Before You Make pre-conference day at the U.S. National Whitewater Center