How to make an ice-cream sundae

Nicholas Jones
Opinion - Books Thursday, 19 March 2020

In publishing and in software development, Nicholas Jones finds, serendipity is crucial

The Persian fable about the princes of Serendip inspired 18th-century writer Horace Walpole to coin the word "serendipity". The princes, he explained in the 1754 letter that first used the word, were "always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of". Serendipity is one of the pleasures of life, as long as we are open to it and willing to make constructive connections between things that at first seem quite unconnected. How fortunate that publishers are in particularly fertile territory, dealing as we do with so many different subjects.

Strathmore has been producing audio versions of children's books for more than 20 years, including Horrid Henrys, many Julia Donaldsons, and three recent Costa Children's Prize winners (by Sally Gardner, Frances Hardinge, Hilary McKay). Cassette tapes, and subsequently CDs, were a central part of childhood from the 1970s. CDs of young children's titles still sell but, now that most audiobook listening is on smartphones, children's books are getting lost in the sea of audio titles on apps. I consequently decided to develop an audiobook app specifically for children's books, and established Cloudaloud Ltd.

The Cloudaloud app has just been released for iOS, soon to be joined by an Android version. It is particularly designed to provide a platform for shorter titles, such as those that would once have been put on a CD in the back of a printed book. Its royalty model and contract is flexible, and as well as hosting existing audio titles from major lists can support smaller publishers who might not internally have the resources or expertise to release audio versions of their books. Cloudaloud is proud to have originated for launch more than 40 titles from independents such as Maverick, New Frontier, Otter-Barry, Scallywag and Wacky Bee. It also carries Nosy Crow's Stories Aloud (recorded at the Strathmore Studios), which the publisher created to accompany its picture books.

Complexity squared
Book publishing has to be a very systematic and coordinated process, and requires, as the eponymous William Collins once remarked, "endless attention to detail". A printed book is usually consumed in a linear way, but an app can be experienced in almost unlimited sequences, so app design - we can confirm - introduces a whole new level of complexity. If expensive coding resources are not to be wasted, it is critical to define the exact user path. Our internal procedures at Strathmore for creating audio or printed books have been refined over 25 years, but adapting this experience to the development of app technology was a steep learning curve.

Serendipity played its part in pinning down the ways in which our thinking needed to change so that we could manage software development effectively.

First, I read Eric Girouard's description of his after-school class in computing*. Entering the room for the first lesson, Girouard was surprised, if delighted, to see spread out along the front bench not rows of monitors and keyboards, but all the ingredients for making ice-cream sundaes. Everyone in the class, the teacher explained, could have a sundae, but they'd have to write down instructions for making it, and she would follow those instructions to the letter. Easy, thought Eric, and soon handed in his set, only to have his keen anticipation thwarted by watching his teacher bashing the serving spoon on the closed lids of the tubs containing his chosen flavours of ice-cream. Next time, the sundae reached completion, but the teacher then ate it herself: he had forgotten to conclude the instructions with the command: "Hand completed sundae to student."

It's not coding skills that define good software, but detailed analysis of the real-world tasks that are to be embodied in the app.

One has only to look at the high failure rate of attempts to build large computerised systems, such as the BBC Digital Media Initiative, abandoned after five years and nearly £100 million. That failed, it is suggested, not chiefly because of technological problems but because those expected to use it had not been involved enough in the development process to appreciate the benefits**. Anyone who relishes a bit of schadenfreude will enjoy browsing the Parliamentary Public Affairs Committee report on this debacle***, but we at Cloudaloud absolutely understand the scenario. It is essential to know who your end-users are, and ask how they will interact with what you are designing. We learned never to assume that anything is obvious. Something crucial may be so subsumed into an over-familiar process that you don't even recognise it as a discrete step.

Know your end-users
We had to analyse how children choose and listen to audiobooks, and then try it out: we observed primary school children using it. We expected children to listen to audiobooks in a fundamentally different way from adults, and the test proved us right. Children love listening again and again to favourites, but they don't read blurbs, so instant sampling and strong visual design are essential. Those features are embodied in the Cloudaloud app.

The second serendipitous find that helped our thinking is a novel about the implementation of new software in a car-parts company. It might seem unlikely that this could be a gripping read, but I found The Phoenix Project**** to be just that. The key message is that since software development is too complicated to be done by one person, change must be closely controlled so that amendments don't produce unexpected consequences elsewhere in the process. Work is classified into four types: work for clients, necessary internal work, work in managing change and unproductive work. In IT, that corresponds to customer-facing software, behind-the-scenes systems, the process of identifying what needs doing and implementing it, and finally, fire-fighting and unplanned maintenance. That was really helpful in scoping the Cloudaloud app, but I also think the same classifications will inform our printed and audiobook publishing workflow.

I was pleased to find (serendipitously, of course) that the word "serendipity" has acquired a specific meaning in software development: it is a desirable design principle for online activity software that tries to ensure that multiple viewpoints are presented so as to counteract the echo-chamber concentration of Twitter or Facebook. As Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein argues: "A well-functioning information market needs to provide exposure to new ideas, people and ways of life, and serendipity is crucial because it expands your horizons*****." This diversity, he argues, is necessary for effective democracy and open-minded debate - something the world increasingly needs.

Historically, book publishers have been pretty good at presenting a diverse range of ideas; our role in facilitating this has never been more important. We should welcome serendipity in both the processes within publishing and the experiences its products engender.

** See article by Steve Hewlett in Guardian, 3 February 2014
*** House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, Fifty-second Report of Session 2013–14, available here
**** The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps and Helping Your Business Win, by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and George Spafford. Third edition 2019. Portland, Oregon: IT Revolution. ISBN 9781942788296.

Nicholas Jones founded Strathmore Publishing in 1995, and has since recorded voices ranging from Boris Johnson to Russell Brand and Rik Mayall to Gillian Anderson. He founded Cloudaloud Ltd in 2018, and the app is now available on the iOS App Store.

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