2012 in Review: Heather Billings

Faster, Bolder & Better Tested

As we reach the end of 2012, we’ve asked a few designers and developers working in journalism to talk about a few projects and posts they loved—and didn’t work on themselves. Chicago Tribune app developer Heather Billings agreed to tell us what’s been blowing her mind this year.

This has been a year of learning and experimentation, not only for me, but for the whole news apps team here at the Chicago Tribune. As we’ve wished some of our teammates good luck on new adventures, we’ve also gotten the opportunity to grow the team and our approach to journalism in new ways. These are some of the things that inspired us in that transition.

Working Better

The biggest change in the way we work came from a trip to Menlo Innovations, a software development lab in Ann Arbor, Mich. Their methods are based on the agile method of software development. The biggest twist is the emphasis of joy as a workplace value. (The room of attendees got very quiet when we were asked, “What would bring you joy at work?” It’s a tough question to answer.)

Practically, though, the most counterintuitive method Menlo employs — and one we’ve adopted — is a paper-based task-tracking system. Once you’ve broken a project down into its component pieces (like Menlo, we separate these tasks into four buckets based on priority level), each gets written on an index card. Yes, an index card. Which is then tacked to a giant corkboard under the developer’s name and day of the week it’s assigned. The estimated time each ticket will suck away from the developer’s life is noted on the card. Colored dot stickers represent the ticket’s status: accepted, blocked, needs testing, finished. If it sounds like third grade, well, it kind of is. But it’s amazingly effective at keeping everyone on point.

Teaching Quicker


I get excited about teaching folks how technology can make their journalism stronger, but it’s always tricky to teach code in a way that doesn’t choke their enthusiasm in a tangle of messy problems. (Anyone who has ever tried to set up a dev environment on Windows knows what I’m talking about.) My new favorite tool for teaching HTML and CSS is Scratchpad. Scratchpad is a friendlier variation on the “try before you buy” idea that jsFiddle and other sites have used for ages. And you get default styles that look pretty nice, which beats starting with 12-point Times New Roman all to heck.

User Testing

Part of my job as a journogeek is using technology to lower barriers between people and information. (Hell, news apps exist pretty much solely to make information more usable.) This year, we started doing user testing as a way to assess where our “blind spots” are: what’s confusing people? What do they want that we aren’t providing?

When we launched crime.chicagotribune.com, we loosely followed the basic procedures laid out in the classic book Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug (read it!). Four of us sat down with four non-newsroom folks in wildly different walks of life. We asked them to locate their neighborhoods and find various tidbits of information on the page. We asked them to talk through what they were thinking. When they paused, we asked what they were looking for. It was extremely important to keep saying any confusion was the fault of our bad design, not the person’s inability to understand the page. After 20 minutes, the eight of us regrouped and discussed what worked and what didn’t. As a result, we learned the navigation we had been so proud of was, for all practical purposes, invisible. That things that people wanted to click didn’t work as they should. On the feedback of just four users, we were able to make improvements that made the whole app better for everyone. While we haven’t done such extensive user testing since, we definitely want to expand our user testing in 2013.

Responsive Tools

I’ve found a couple of tools invaluable in my attempts to become a responsive designer. The first is responsive.is. This is a great site for two things: getting inspiration, and demoing responsive design to stakeholders. It looks more trustworthy than grabbing the side of your browser and saying, “See, this is what it will look like at 600px.”

When you DO just want to resize your browser, though, I’ve found nothing more useful than the simple Chrome extension Window Resizer. Pick an existing resolution, or add and name your own. Plus, it adds a pixel count to the corner of your screen, which I find handy for writing media queries.

Bolder Risk in Storytelling

It has been a delight to see the experimental, creative story formats this year has brought. I’ve especially been inspired by ESPN’s Outside the Lines. I don’t see ESPN mentioned much in journalism circles, and that’s a shame. One piece I kept returning to while I was working on the layout for the Trib’s school truancy series was this piece about soccer player Lionel Messi. The huge, stunning graphics, generous whitespace and fantastic placement of graphics makes it easy to get lost in the story (even for a sports ignoramus like myself).

Outside the Lines features pieces like this all the time. Puts my work in perspective for sure. Though hubris may be one of the three virtues of a good developer, I’m still a fan of humility. (Maybe I’ll develop hubris as part of my New Year’s resolutions.)


  • Heather Billings

    A steamroller in heels. Front-end dev @18F. Helpmeet to prolific tweeter @DrewBattaglia. My heart’s in the high country of the Sierras. ✝


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