Gourmet Live and Rewarding Experiences

The short version: Gourmet Live, the new iPad app that reimagines Gourmet as a sort of massively multiplayer magazine, is live. I've been working on this for the past six months, and I'm enormously proud of it, so if you've got an iPad, you should go get it from the App store and try it out and give some feedback about what you think and how it should evolve. You can also read more about it on the Gourmet Live website.


The longer version: Gourmet Live is something new, and interesting, and I'm excited that Gourmet Live is doing so well — as I write this, it's the #1 iPad Lifestyle app in the store, and just below the Top 10 for free apps overall. But I'm far more proud of the ideas that inform and inspire it, because while the app is just in its very first version, the ideas are deep enough to support Gourmet Live evolving into something truly fantastic. So I thought I'd offer a little peek behind the scenes, because I think it represents something new, and it's gonna take a ton of insight from a bigger community to help it reach its potential.

Now Playing

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At Activate, we've been collaborating with the folks at Condé Nast on strategy for some time, and about six months ago, we started what became the Gourmet Live project by asking what a modern, thoughtful, completely native app would look like on devices like the (then not-yet-released) iPad. Because honestly, Condé has already sort of reached the apotheosis of the magazine-forward model of making an iPad app; From simple, clean experiences like the GQ and Vanity Fair apps to the elaborate and beautiful Wired app, they were setting the standard.

But obviously, there's a lot of interesting stuff going on out there from app makers who aren't in the publishing world. Flipboard and Pulse hadn't launched yet back then (though of course our team avidly followed their launches), but Instapaper, iBooks, Kindle — these really simple, clean experiences were kicking ass, by putting great content front and center.

And for me, the apps that take up my time on my iPhone or iPad are Foursquare and Words With Friends and Scrabble. They've got really interesting social aspects and gameplay, but most importantly, they're fun, and engaging, and keep me more connected with my friends.

It's significant that a game like Scrabble happens to be experiencing the greatest popularity of its 70-year history, and that the renaissance is directly attributable to being a really nice social experience that was available on almost every social network and mobile platform out there. That optimistic example suggested that maybe another brand of similar vintage could do the same.

Running With The Idea

With those ideas in mind, we tried an experiment to create a small nimble startup within this giant media company. This startup was going to try to do what the best new app makers do, but using one of the great media names of all time as the foundation. We'd work with Conde Nast to build a team of awesomely talented folks by drafting from within the company and across the world of tech and media.

Gourmet Live Astonishingly, the smart people in charge like Conde Nast CEO Chuck Townsend and President Bob Sauerberg heard this idea and after a bit of thought said, "Yes. Let's do it." Frankly, I spend a lot of time around startup folks who are always saying "Sure, let's give it a try!" But I spend a lot less time around folks who have the responsibility of running huge media companies, and my surprise at their agreement was overshadowed by the huge respect I found for seeing that they had that level of curiosity and willingness to try something new.

Ultimately, Gourmet Live began by bringing together people at opposite ends of the continuum of big-and-powerful and small-and-nimble and let them come together as peers to do something awesome. Maybe I'm not as much of a cynic as I used to be, but I found that sort of inspiring. There is something great about discovering that a big, successful institution can still be hungry.

How It Works

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The deceptively simple appearance of the Gourmet Live app that's available in the app store masks some pretty ambitious technology. It's probably worth describing how the experience works, if only so you can understand what's new about the whole thing.

You open the app and get a nice cover that fades into a set of stories, and then you tap on the stories to start reading. On some stories, when you finish reading you'll hear a little bell ring and you'll get a reward: access to even more content about that topic. That shows up in the form of a new "issue", and all the issues you collect show up on a Rewards shelf that works a lot like iBooks. Pretty straightforward.

Rewards are the best part of using Gourmet Live — read a story on tailgating, and you'll earn more stories about grilling. The goal was to acknowledge first that content is valuable, and that Gourmet readers are the kind of people who cherish collecting back issues that have meaningful stories in them. But we also wanted to capture some of that delight you get when you read an amazing story and just want to share it with people. Sure, it's "gameplay", but it's not like Gourmet Live is gonna name anybody the Mayor of Cheese.

Though it wasn't a goal, we ended up hitting a lot of buzzwords with the design of the whole Gourmet Live infrastructure: All the content is HTML 5. It's built on Django and speaks JSON. It's hosted in the cloud on EC2. It incorporates both gameplay and a mobile client app, and can make smart use of geolocation though that's not the focus in the first version. It's got a really nimble architecture that lets us push out more ambitious rewards and to build clients for nearly any platform you can imagine.

And best of all, nobody who reads the awesome stories in Gourmet Live has to give a damn about any of that.

The Team

The reason we were able to make an experience that doesn't flaunt its cutting-edge tech and instead favors its awesome content is because we had a team that really, really understood that the priority had to be on the experience. If you read my site, the list of just some of the people on the team will blow your mind:

Yeah. And that's just the tech team. On the content side, the lineup had to be just as kickass, because the scariest idea in the world was if we didn't do justice to the Gourmet name. Turns out, we were in fine shape with this team:

  • Wrangling content contributors and partnerships was led by Elizabeth Spiers. I take no small amount of pride in having introduced her to Nick Denton not long before she became founding editor of Gawker, but the list of projects she's done in the decade since made her a no-brainer for Gourmet Live
  • And the first official producer to join the Gourmet Live team was Kelly Senyei. It was pretty astonishing to meet someone who not only had a great food blog, Just A Taste, but also had both a culinary degree and a serious journalism degree.

Of course, none of that would matter without the fundamental business of our little startup being well-managed. And in addition to the steady guidance of my Activate partner Michael Wolf (see his awesome post about the launch), we were led the whole way by the steady hand of Juliana Stock, who as General Manager set the tone right from the start of the project that Gourmet Live was going to be a hit from the moment it hit the app store.

Half of these folks are people I'd wanted to work with for a decade, and half were ones I wished I'd known about a decade ago. Let me tell you, if you have the chance to ever work with a team half this good, drop whatever you're doing and get in there and ship something awesome.

As we got closer to launch, more and more people from all over Condé Nast got behind the Gourmet Live project, really putting an amazing amount of effort into something that was totally different than any project they'd seen before.

The Guts Of The Thing

Gourmet Live has gotten a pretty good response, and though there are the expected bugs or wonky parts of any version 1.0 app (navigating around can be tricky, some people couldn't sign in when Facebook was down yesterday), overall the idea has been well-received.

But what's actually happening behind the scenes is even more awesome from a tech perspective:

  • The app you download is actually a super simple thin client that is less than two megs; All of the content and gameplay comes from the cloud and is cached while you use the app.
  • All the actions you do, like favoriting and reading stories, filter through a realtime gameplay engine that gets smarter as more people play. It makes the content and rewards available through a really well-designed API.
  • The gameplay engine pulls its content out of a custom-built CMS that incorporates both new content (most of the stories and stuff in Gourmet Live are brand new) as well as being able to reach feed in content dating back a year, a decade, or even half a century, depending on what's been chosen to be shown in the app.

What becomes clear pretty quickly is that this thing is going to evolve, and change shape, almost immediately. I try to pay pretty close attention to this stuff, and I haven't seen a single other app that's trying to combine a really clean design and some really ambitious gameplay elements and a really smart architecture all backing up the best possible content with world-class writing and photography.

app-store-badge.png I can guarantee that not every idea in Gourmet Live is going to work. But it's more important that it can start to be a framework for building ideas that will work. For almost a decade, I've been writing about ideas like microcontent clients and cloudtop apps and the pushbutton web and the web way and all these other concepts that sound like theoretical bullshit. But the reason why is because sometimes it takes a decade for really good ideas to mature into something great.

I'm pretty convinced Gourmet Live is gonna be something truly great.

Update: Pretty good sign the idea of iteration is really being embraced — there's already an update in progress for the iPad app, based on the feedback that some of the navigation and signin stuff was too complicated. On top of the fact that the gameplay engine's been updated a few times already, it seems like Gourmet Live really has become a living, evolving thing.

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