The VoiceBook Saga Part I: Genesis
Our 20 month quest to re-invent eBooks using voice recognition technology and what we learned along the way
You can see this progress we’ve made in understanding this medium in the products we’ve released over the past 18 months.
With each new title we’re pushing forward across one or more of the key dimensions of the format — personalisation in plot, personalisation in story visuals and texts, physical design, gift and keepsake value and many other elements.
But, as anyone that’s worked in a fast growth company, or any company that develops innovative products will know, behind every product that ships are numerous projects, prototypes and even entire strategies that never get to a public release.
This essay is about one of those examples.
It’s the story of a significant investment we made over the past two years to develop a new format for digital story telling that we called VoiceBook.
We built it on a foundation of voice recognition technology and we hoped it could disrupt the eBooks category in the same way that Lost My Name disrupted the personalised books category.
This story ultimately ends in ‘failure’ — we didn’t ship our VoiceBook.
But we’re telling this story because we believe that the lessons learned are too valuable for our company to keep to ourselves.
We believe that there is an exciting role for voice recognition technology in pushing forward story telling and entertainment, but that we need to get other people as excited as we were to make that happen.
We hope that if you are interested in story telling, entertainment or digital product design there’s many different lessons you can take from our hard won insights — if you do decide to build on any of the ideas in this essay we’d love to hear from you.
We’ve broken the story into four chapters.
- In the first chapter, Genesis, we’ll outline the conditions that led to the spark in Liam’s brain that became the foundation for VoiceBook.
- In the second chapter, Voyage, we’ll outline the first stumbling steps towards a technical prototype and our attempts to codify voice interaction patterns for entertainment experiences, and our first major project failure.
- In the third chapter, Return, we’ll explain how we re-discovered the project and nearly shipped a very ambitious product with a full product design team and what we learned from this effort that led us to stop work.
- Finally, in the last chapter, Aftermath, we’ll summaries the core story and product design insights we’ve gleaned from this quest and where we think we might go next and what you could do.
It was a really tough decision to stop working on this project (again) in July 2017. Apart from the regret at the financial investment made and the lack of return, there’s always a huge amount of emotion and human relationships bound up in big, hard projects.
Before we start the story proper I just want to thank everyone that contributed along the way as either a contributor, cheerleader or cautionary voice — Liam, John, Douglas, David, Nicolau, Giorgia, Jonny, Sharna, Chris, Nadia, Jenna, Tal, Asi, Yotam, Squirrel — doing ambitious projects like this with passionate people like yourselves is why I love working on early stage stuff. Thank you.
Now, on with our tale!
It all begins back in the summer of 2015. A young eCommerce company, flush from 100x growth over a record breaking Christmas and full of super excited, super enthusiastic (and super naive) people is in the process of raising a Series A investment round while struggling to manage their breakneck growth…
Chapter 1 — Genesis
September 2015 — January 2016
Back in September 2015 Lost My Name was a pretty crazy place to work. We were growing incredibly quickly off the back of a product with super strong product market fit and a growth channel that just kept on giving — Facebook ads.
We’d just raised a series A investment from some top tier VCs including Google Ventures and a big part of the ‘vision’ part of our pitch was a personalised movie prototype we’d made of the Lost My Name story.
The concept for this ‘personalised movie’ was that we’d create an app that allowed customers to type in a child’s name and then we’d stream a series of animation segments to them that created a 3D animated version of the Lost My Name story where a child recovers their lost name one letter at a time.
The project foundered mainly because of the huge investment required and the lack of a clear distribution strategy, but there was also something nagging at us about the user experience that we couldn’t put our fingers on exactly.
We quickly explored an audio book version in an effort to reduce costs and actually ship something, but again, something was wrong — when we used the prototypes the experience felt … hollow … in some way compared to the magic of the picture book.
More importantly though, the reality was that the book was not only selling like hot cakes it was selling for £20 a pop, much more than we could imagine making from a digital product.
Despite the lack of progress from these two projects the desire to ‘do something with digital’ persisted. The company was overflowing with people who loved making stuff out of the Internet and computers.
The general feeling was that there had to be ‘something’ we should be doing to exploit our block buster story and broader focus on personalised story telling using apps, the web and digital content generally. But what?
Around this time two key things happened in the history of our company that directly led to VoiceBook.
Thing 1: Taking story telling more seriously
The first big thing was we started taking the craft of personalised story telling and picture books much more seriously. As part of this we formed a Story Studio team to start building a pipeline of new personalised story products.
Sharna, an experienced kids / digital exec previously CD at Hopster, was tasked with unknotting the digital challenge and writing us a ‘digital strategy’.
Liam was an experienced interaction designer, digital product developer and ex-kids TV presenter joined us as a Creative Technologist in the Story Studio, tasked with bringing creative technical ideas to the projects we were developing as well as exploring his own product ideas.
Around this time I wrote an important blog post in terms of crystallising our thinking in the studio around the way that kids pictures books ‘work’ and why they are so powerful in delivering stories.
This post was inspired by a meeting with Alex Fleetwood from Beasts of Balance who had pointed out the cleverness of the Janet and Allan Ahlberg books and how they act like little ‘games’ with ‘levels’.
In the post I built on his idea and explored how a story book acts like a prop to allow an adult to become an actor, director, teacher and special effects person. This concept resonated with Liam and he started thinking about it…
Thing 2: Taking our brand purpose more seriously
Meanwhile, around this time the second key thing happened. Alongside investing in product through the Story Studio we’d also been investing significantly in many aspects of marketing and we’d hired a very smart strategic marketing person called Andy Whitlock.
He’d been tasked with, among many other things, figuring out our brand and helping to articulate a clearer ‘company purpose’ that we could all get behind.
It’s important to remember that Lost My Name had been born as a pet project. The company was only really created because the book was so successful.
Around this time we had just launched our second book, The Incredible Intergalactic Journey Home, which had meant we had to find a bigger idea than just ‘making the Lost My Name book as big as possible’ and so our VP of marketing at the time Shira Feuer had asked Andy to try and make sense of it all with her.
They did the marketing equivalent of what we were doing in the Story Studio and took a step back and asked, what do children’s books, and in particular super high quality personalised picture books, actually do for adults and kids?
Their answer was a very memorable phrase that we’ve had a the heart of our company ever since — they articulated it like this: We give every grownup creative super powers to make magical, meaningful connections with a child.
So at this point we’ve got two creative teams converging on the same idea — our books and our company are not about story telling per se, and certainly not about ’the Lost My Name story’, but rather they are about empowering adults to be creative and connect with the kids in their lives.
This was the explanation for the ‘hollowness’ of the film and the audio book in comparison to the picture book. Yes they were well executed and made sense as an extension of the Lost My Name story, but they lacked the killer feature of agency for the adult and thus the potential to create a shared experience. You watched the movie alone and the magic felt like it came from the Apple gods not your mum or dad.
So all this stuff is swirling around at the same time as we are trying to create a ‘digital strategy’ and generally keep the roof over our heads (seriously, we had major roof problems at the time).
Amid all this Liam had one of those ‘aha’ moments that happen every so often to people with the right experience in the right place surrounded by the right ideas… and he got Sharna, myself and Tal Oron (a founder of Lost My Name and the COO) into a small shed (we had to use some sheds as meeting rooms at that point) and introduced us to his concept for a new kind of e-picture book.
His insight was this — the reason that e-picture books are generally so rubbish is that they take away the agency of the adult in reading a story and replace them with technical tricks — Beeps, boops, general doodads that actually get in the way of the most important part of the interaction between the adult and the child, the adults voice.
His idea was this — what if we built a product that actually enhanced the role of the adults voice, using voice recognition technology, to bring the pictures and story themes to life in new ways? He called it ‘voice activated marionettes’. Everyone was blown away with the idea and the tiny demo he’d made.
Jaws hit the floor and we all high fived in the tiny shed — surely this was it, this was the digital product breakthrough we were looking for that could disrupt the eBooks category in the same way that Lost My Name had done so with personalised printed books.
It felt bigger than a product, it felt like a business platform. VoiceBook was born and we agreed to start hacking on it straight away…
Look out for the next chapter, Voyage, next week, which will include demos galore!
UPDATE: Read chapter II, Voyage, here!
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