Start to Finish: From Idea to Reality

Hi, everybody. My name is Kate. I developed Start to Finish. With the recent attention the project received in Publishers Weekly, I thought people might be interested to know the story of how Start to Finish went from a straightforward idea to the manifestation seen on Ooligan Press’ website today. While web developers have been known to write dryly, rest assured: I have exited my dark coding fortress.

My biggest goal as Digital Content manager at Ooligan Press was to provide a reason for people to keep coming back to the website. In the best-case scenario, it would also get people excited about our press’ books. Previous manager Anna Smith and I recruited four website copywriters to help us with the task of creating new content, and the project I was most enthusiastic about was the plan to have each copywriter interview the project managers of a different Ooligan book-in-progress. One book would get an update every week, and each would get one update a month. We scheduled the first interview to go up a week before a serendipitous email showed up in my inbox inviting me to a meeting to talk about Project “Start to Finish.”

As it turned out, Jonathan Stark also wanted to share the story of each book’s creation. Instead of once a month, he proposed each book get a brief update once a week. Instead of indirectly, the updates would come from the project managers themselves. Laura Larrabee added the idea to have a progress bar somewhere on the page that project managers could update without much thought.

When you’re super enthusiastic about an idea, the best thing in the world is meeting people who make it better. Having the project managers write the updates directly was something Anna and I didn’t think we could convince them to do. Jonathan had the charisma to pull it off. He also had the knowledge of what exactly project managers did—something I was unfamiliar with that was indispensable in figuring out how the page should function and what it should look like.

With only four months HTML/CSS experience, I had no idea how I would do it. Manipulating code to get a progress bar to automatically show the right percentage? Brainstorming ideas to make the layout more interesting than just brief text updates on a page? Those would take some thought and ingenuity, especially for a coding novice.

In the Digital department at Ooligan Press, you never know what skill set the next manager is going to have. If the doomed chap doesn’t know how to troubleshoot problems on part of the website, that part is crippled. With the way our press works—without IT professionals—Start to Finish had to be easy to use and future-proof. It couldn’t be fragile.

Fortunately, I love a challenge. I knew Start to Finish had to be done in a way that:

  1. was within the limitations of WordPress—the content management system the website is built with,
  2. was easy to use by everyone,
  3. was maintainable by Digital managers after me, and
  4. motivated project managers to reach their goals.

It took several days of brainstorming and Googling (if you want to be a programmer, there’s the number one skill you need) for the plan to come together. After the strategy was decided, I sent Jonathan a mockup to make sure we were on the same page—turns out we were—and then started codin’.

Start to Finish mockup

The original mockup, via Balsamiq. Don’t hurt me! If I had the choice, I would have changed the font the program uses.

The success of the project hinged on one question: how was I going to automate the progress bar? It couldn’t be project managers entering their best guess at a percentage in a text box; that was too clumsy. WordPress plugins existed that had progress bar capability, but they weren’t flexible enough for what I needed. That meant I was on my own. Yikes. What I knew for sure was that the code had to be maintainable after I was gone, and the best way to do that was to integrate it with WordPress as closely as I could.

Ultimately, the answer was a task list. There needed to be a determinable number of items that project managers could check off, behind the scenes, in WordPress. With that data, code could be written to calculate a percentage based on the completed items. Since I knew the tasks for each book would be mostly the same, I came up with a fixed list of milestones in a book’s development. I also added customizable task slots that project managers could use for any unique milestones a project might have.

The super math you all want to know, and have probably guessed: we decided each task would have the same weight, so three thousand characters later, I had code that tallied up the number of completed tasks and divided them by the tally of total tasks, then rounded up to the nearest whole number.

Once I created the checklist of tasks, I knew it was the answer I was looking for to make the page more dynamic. It had to have a bigger role than only calculating the percentage: the checklist had to be an integral part of the layout on the front end.

Start to Finish on the Back End of WordPress

A snippet of the task list on the backend of WordPress.

Start to Finish on the front end

The corresponding task list on the front end.

Figuring out how to get a checklist on the back end of WordPress to display on the front end was really, really… yeah, I didn’t so much enjoy that challenge. It was a nightmare. I don’t want to talk about it. But once that was done, I wrote some random strings of punctuation that translated to, “if a task is checked off in the backend, give it this checkmark graphic on the front end, otherwise, make it look transparent and sad.” With that, the checklist was ready to be put in its place (where it belongs!).

As for putting the bar in progress bar, you know you have a psychological need to see that blue dirtbag reach the end of the box. I do, so I animated it with a web language called CSS3.

I contacted Jonathan and told him the pages were done. A few weeks later, we pitched it to the project managers. A few weeks after that, the first updates went live.

I’ve always been interested in how products are made. It makes me feel closer to them. That’s what Start to Finish is. It’s a look behind the scenes into how books are made, by a publisher that puts a lot of hard work into them.

Jonathan brought management to the idea and I had the skill set to make it possible, but it’s the project managers who make Start to Finish awesome. It depends on them. They spend the long hours writing the stories people care about, about the great stories we want our readers to care about. You all rock. Thank you for making this idea work and get better.

Ooligan Press Project Managers

Ooligan Press’ current project managers and Start to Finish pimps.

I hope my development of Start to Finish helps motivate project managers to reach their goals and readers to become interested in our projects for years to come. Collaboration and the freedom to innovate are what make Ooligan special. I can’t wait to see how new students with great ideas help Start to Finish evolve.

Kate Burkett has been the manager of Ooligan Press’ Digital Content department since May 2012. She graduates from Portland State University’s Book Publishing Master’s program this spring.

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