How We Make Hardbound Stories
Lessons learned from the frontiers of mobile storytelling
Hardbound is a platform for visual storytelling.
We’re less than a year old, but we’ve already learned a lot about designing stories for mobile. Some of our best so far are “How Humans Learned to Cross the Ocean,” “Where Do Emoijs Come From?”, and “Understanding Venture Capital.”
We’re often asked how we make these stories, so here’s a peek into our process, as of May 2016.
If you have any feedback or questions, we’d love to hear from you! Just leave a response or send us a note on Medium :)
Ok, here goes:
First, we try to come up with a solid hook. The hook is everything you see before you click: headline, description, image, etc. It’s how you describe the story to your friends. It’s how you remember it a month later.
The point of a hook is to give the story a yummy “information scent” that attracts the kind of readers we want (smart, curious, always learning). We avoid “smelling” like clickbait or other types of junk articles you often find online. The title needs to look interesting — we can’t take your attention for granted. (This New Yorker article beautifully explains how headlines affect the way we think).
Our formula is simply to pick an interesting topic and title it as clearly as possible. Our goal is to explain things you might have wondered about, but never really knew what was going on.
For example, we wanted to do a story on “How your body turns food into energy”, because it’s such a fundamental part of being alive, and we didn’t understand how it works. But we suspected that the positioning was a little weak. After some brainstorming, we came up with a hook that we like better:
“Why You Get Hangry”.
Why do we think that will do better?
- Everyone has been hangry, or knows someone that gets hangry.
- “Hangry” is a funny word, which signals that the story won’t be dry or academic.
- When we told people the old title, they had a lot of trouble remembering it. But nobody forgot the second title. That’s a good sign :)
Once we’re happy with the hook, we start the real work!
Basically, we just start by reading a bunch of stuff. The goal is to discover lots of interesting things about the topic, and become knowledgable enough to write on it with credibility.
When we’re researching, often we’ll have moments where we think: “Oh shit, that’s interesting!” We’ve learned to pay very close attention to those moments, and we even gave them a name: gems.
If the hook is the value proposition, then the gem is the actual value. It’s the moment the story makes you feel something: surprised, angered, amused, etc. At best, gems can stick with you for a lifetime. So that’s our mission: we want to be competent at hooks, but amazing at gems.
Once we have a good mental picture of all the facts about our story (in this case, hanger) we start thinking about how to structure the piece.
Here’s where creating for Hardbound starts to diverge from traditional writing.
When we first started making Hardbound stories, we’d write essays and then “translate” them into Hardbound. But after going through a few “translation” cycles, we realized we were wasting a bunch of energy. Almost all the words in the essay would need to change in the process, sometimes because we replaced them with a visual, other times because they just didn’t flow.
So now we just start by creating a loose story outline. We don’t spend time polishing our words or writing a lot of prose — it’s just a rough game plan. Kind of like a screenplay. Right now we aim for stories that are 40–60 slides long (~5 min read).
After that, we get right into making a first draft, directly in Keynote.
Note: We plan on developing our own tool soon, but for now Keynote works just fine.
In Hardbound, each page contains visuals and words. Users briefly read each page, then tap to see the next one. Sometimes, there’s an animated transition.
This creates a rhythm: read, tap, read, tap, read, tap, etc. That’s why we sometimes refer to pages as “story beats”.
The trickiest part about creating Hardbound stories is thinking in terms of visuals and story beats, rather than paragraphs of prose. We’ve found that writing directly in Keynote allows us to get a better feel for the story beats that readers will ultimately experience, and forces us to think visually from the start.
Of course, most writers aren’t capable of producing professional-quality illustrations or visual designs, but that’s fine! The storyboard is not meant to be beautiful, it’s meant to figure out how the story should flow. As you gain confidence in the story beats, you gradually replace rough sketches with polished visuals (this usually requires the help of a designer).
For example, here’s an early version of “How Humans Learned to Cross the Ocean”:
And here’s the final version:
Lots of different styles are possible in Hardbound, and we’ve only scratched the surface with our own stories. That being said, here are some tricks that we think are fairly universal:
- Show, don’t tell. Instead of writing “The polynesians have really cool double-hulled boats, and are amazing sailors” just say “The polynesians are amazing sailors” and show a picture of one of their boats.
- Don’t completely change the visuals every single slide. Think of it more like a scene that can go on for a little while, then transition into the next scene. Every time you make a drastic change in the visual, it slows the user down and costs some energy.
- Use animated transitions like section breaks. The animations slow down the rhythm a little bit, and energize readers to continue. Basically, they’re eye candy.
- Have characters talk to each other. Narration is fine, but dialog is engaging, too. If you mostly have one narrator, it’s good to show them once in awhile to remind people who’s speaking.
- Vary the information density of each story beat. Pages with a lot of words and visuals require readers to spend more time parsing everything, which makes them feel slower. Short pages feel faster.
I could go on all day 😉
This is where the bulk of the work happens. Every story we write goes though several major revisions before anyone outside our team sees it.
Why do we edit so much? This quote from Alex Blumberg (CEO of Gimlet Media) has really stuck with me:
The first draft always sucks for everybody. You just have to get over yourself a little bit. It’s not about you or your ego, it’s just about trying to make it better. […] The commitment to excellence means being comfortable hurting people’s feelings, and being comfortable having your feelings hurt, and trying to take the feelings out of it.
So true. Here’s another quote, from that same interview:
A lot of it is just about the effort you put in. Yes, you have to have a creative brain, but watching Ira [Glass] work, a lot of times he just keeps thinking about it longer than other people keep thinking about it, and eventually he comes up with an idea that’s good. […] What being a perfectionist is is just putting in a little more time.
So yeah, we just try and work on it just a little bit longer than other people would. The key is to just keep thinking of how it can be better.
Nothing magical :)
To be honest, “production” isn’t actually a discrete step. It happens gradually as we edit the storyboard.
As soon as the first outline is ready, our Story Designer, Matt Montgomery-Taylor, creates illustrations of all the important characters. We start with characters for two reasons:
- No matter how many rounds of edits the story goes through, the main characters almost always remain in the final version, so there’s little chance of waste.
- Human brains are especially sensitive to illustrations of people — if they look even a little goofy or awkward, we notice. So these are the hardest, and it takes time to get them right.
Once the characters are done, we incorporate them into the storyboard and start illustrating the major backgrounds and scenes that we need.
Often these are done in a reusable way. We’ll export backgrounds and foregrounds separately. Then we go into keynote and swap out the rough versions for the good versions.
We’ll also look for images that we can use if we think an image is appropriate. We’ll tweak the typography, fine-tune the layouts, and sharpen the animations.
Lastly, we’ll design cover images and social previews in Sketch.
6. Ship it!
Once the story is finished, we export from Keynote to images and videos, and upload them to the Hardbound backend. Usually we’ll send it out to advisors and friends the day before launch, as a sanity check.
Assuming there are no major flaws, we email it out to our list, post to Twitter, Facebook, Medium, Product Hunt, etc.
This is the fun part! 🚀
The main metric we look at is overall pageviews. Each time you tap to see a new page, we count it as one pageview. It’s pretty close in spirit to Total Time Reading, a metric that’s favored by Medium and other media companies. We make this metric available publicly in the app, because we think it’s a good way for readers to gauge how popular a story is.
Here’s a graph of our monthly pageviews:
We also look at completion rates, but take it with more of a grain of salt. Why? It’s an easy metric to game. The best way to make completion rates go up is simple: publish really short stories. We’re not going to do that, because the experiences we want to create for our readers just aren’t possible in 5–10 taps.
Caveats aside, our completion rates are pretty good compared to most media companies. How good?
- Our “worst” stories have a ~60% completion rate
- Our “best” have an ~85% completion rate.
How does that compare to traditional web articles? Pretty damn good, it turns out. Here’s what the CEO of Chartbeat, a company that monitors web traffic for almost every major media organization, wrote in Time Magazine:
A stunning 55% spent fewer than 15 seconds actively on a page.
So yeah, I think Hardbound compares favorably :) And readers are starting to catch on! But ultimately, our main goal isn’t to make a graph go up, it’s to make people feel amazing.
We promise to never lose sight of that.
The ultimate goal for Hardbound isn’t that we’re the only people creating these stories. We want to create a new creative community, kind of like how podcasters and youtube creators have emerged in recent years.
Want to create your own Hardbound story?
If you’re interested in experimenting with this new medium, we’d love to work with you! Applications are now closed for our first ever writer’s program, but we plan on running another batch, assuming this first one goes well, and we have enough money ;) To stay in the loop on that, sign up for our email list here.
Also, if you want to just create something for fun, we’d love that. In fact, here’s a Keynote template you can use! When your story is ready to go live, you can submit it here and we’ll put it in the app, and send you a link you can share with your audience. If it’s really good, we’d love to promote it to our community (as long as it’s OK with you).
Want to sponsor a Hardbound story?
Our last story (How Humans Learned to Cross the Ocean) was sponsored by Hitlist, and it did really well! If you have a consumer product that you think would be a good fit, feel free to reach out! I’m firstname.lastname@example.org.
Phew, that’s it! So, why do we do all this work?
We want to empower creators to have as much fun making these stories as we do, and make stories that cause millions (billions?) of people to feel smarter and happier, in a way that’s just not possible with plain text.
Yes, it’s going to take a lot of time. But we’re patient. The first novel was written hundreds of years after Gutenberg invented the printing press. The first feature film wasn’t created until decades after the video camera was invented. It took Pixar years to make Toy Story, the first CGI film.
I know this probably sounds a little grandiose and cheesy, but we believe it’s important to stay in touch with our core purpose. Otherwise, it just becomes a game of making graphs go up. And that’s no fun.
We just want to make people feel amazing through stories.
PS: if you got something out of this, press that heart button! It helps us know when we’re doing something well, and when we need to do better :)