The designers and developers at Parent Co. created Notabli, the best way for families to save their kids’ photos, videos, quotes, notes, and audio clips.
All those moments are automatically organized, making it easy to find them later by kid, date, and location. It’s a beautifully designed experience.
The ability to print books from Notabli moments was always an important product goal. However, instead of leaning on a generic, third-party printing plugin, the design team decided to build a solution from scratch.
The result is Automatic Photo Books. They are a new concept in photo printing, designed for the unique needs of parents.
I sat down with Jackson Latka, Jory Raphael, Katrina Weigand, and Alli Berry to learn about the design process behind Automatic Photo Books.
Notabli for iOS has been around for a couple of years, but when did the book project kick off?
JACKSON: We’ve known for a long time that books were something that needed to be part of Notabli. But the project started late summer 2015.
It took that long to figure out where books fit in with the current product and making sure that we could do it right from the start.
Why didn’t you just use a plugin or third party printing service for Notabli?
JACKSON: That would’ve taken a lot less time to get going, but it didn’t meet our design standards or aesthetic. Early on we knew we didn’t want to work with third party plugins.
JORY: They were clunky. They forced you into landscape format when the iPhone is primarily portrait-based. Nothing fit the bill for exactly what we wanted.
JACKSON: We spent so much time crafting the face of Notabli that it felt like a regression to add a third party interface. So we built it from the ground up as a Notabli-specific feature. We wanted complete control over the interface and how the experience happens.
How did you get feedback from users and parents as you started working on this?
ALLI: Our former UX designer Katie McCurdy went out and interviewed parents. I accompanied her a couple of times. As she interviewed people, printed books were something that real-world users kept bringing up.
They were saying “I just need some way to print these out, but I don’t have the time to select and lay them out, and sit down and do it myself.”
JACKSON: As a digital product, Notabli was already providing value. Parents can save photos and videos and other moments of childhood and privately show them to family and friends.
But then it becomes about, “When can I turn my great digital collection into something physical that I can have in my home, that I can share with people so that I don’t always have to bring out another screen to share moments of my kid’s childhood?”
I mean that’s what we all grew up with. Printed photos. That’s what we’re all accustomed to, but we’ve lost a sense of the physicality and tangible nature of these objects.
Some people might be surprised that a successful digital platform is adding a major print element.
ALLI: There’s an argument that print is dead. But I think print now has a different meaning. It makes sense that parents want to print their Notabli moments. They want to hold something and show it off on their shelf. They value those moments enough to own them.
Jackson: Plus, there’s just a utility aspect of books.
What do they look like?
Katrina: Because the content of the books is relatively simple- one photo per page, with a date, location, and caption- we knew we wanted to focus on specific details to make the books feel special.
We knew we wanted to bring in the fun bright Notabli colors. So we gave users the option to select from 6 different colors for the cover, which would be repeated on their bookshelf over time as they print more and more books.
Because Notabli is all about childhood and growing up, the span of photo dates in the book is prominent on the cover and spine.
On the title page, we included the kids’ avatars and their age at the time the photos were taken. The technical ramifications of including ages was a little complicated, but we thought it was important.
Even the paper used in the books seems very specific.
Jory: We had a lot of different printers that we got samples from, and we tested their paper quality, the photo quality, the cover stock, and ultimately came up with the design of solid color washes.
They felt unique but simple and eye-catching. And easy. For example, parents don’t have to choose which photo is going on the cover.
At some point, you decided that one of the most important aspects of the new books would be ease of use vs. customization with frames and stickers and other embellishments. Why?
JORY: Well, because you’re a parent. Parents don’t have time for anything. Every parent we talked to if we were to ask them, “Would you like to print a photo of your kids- a book- of your kids’ photos?”
They say, “Yes.” And we’re like, “Have you done it?” They’re like, “No.”
When we ask “why not?” the response is almost always “I keep meaning to, but I don’t have the time,” or “I started one, but I didn’t finish it.”
We just wanted to save time. Like Jackson said, there are many ways to print photobooks. If people want to do it, they can do it. Let’s just make it easier for them.
JACKSON: How do we add value to that process? Beyond the idea of what the interface looks like or making it look good. I mean, from the user standpoint of actually creating the book, or not creating it, or having us do it automatically.
We had to create something that added value to the experience, as opposed to just being another place that prints books.
JORY: People spend so much time curating their content in Notabli that we wanted to make it super easy for them to get that content back out of Notabli in a printed form.
If you’re spending all, this time, curating the content you’re putting in Notabli, why should you have to then spend a whole lot more time making a book? You’ve already done the hard work; you’ve already put the best stuff here.
Let’s just print it for you and kind of take that stress out of a parent’s life. Make it just that much of a time-saver, that much easier.
“The part that we’re solving is curation.”
JACKSON: That brings up the point of why we wanted Notabli books in the first place.
Every time you add a photo to Notabli, you’re consciously doing so for a specific reason. Over time, that turns into a really great collection. If you’ve already spent time putting it together, then it makes it super simple just to print a book. That’s where we started with the idea of automatic books.
When we came together as a design team to start working on this as a product team, it was important that Notabli photo books were much easier to use than anything out there, looked great, and offered a premium, top-notch experience.
As designers, does it feel different to see something you’ve created in the physical world vs. on a screen?
ALLI: I’d say so. It’s weird because physical products feel more special. You almost feel like you made something that means more because you can hold it in your hands.
JORY: Because they’re permanent.
Jackson: I think what’s interesting about this project is that it spans physical and digital. It’s something that you’re creating in the digital world that needs to be an experience that you’re going through creating this book.
JACKSON: What I think is fascinating about that, though, is this transition that’s taken place over the last decade. You used to consider physical products as permanent. Those were the things you would keep. Digital was throw-away.
It was like, ‘it’s okay if the digital file goes away but I need the box of photos that I have of childhood.’ But now it’s almost flip-flopped in the sense that the digital is the keepsake.
If I spill coffee on my book- luckily, Notabli Books have spill-resistant covers- but if you spill coffee on the book, you can just order another one. You can just easily go back in Notabli, find the book you printed and hit reprint and another one’s shipping out to you.
How did the design team divide up tasks?
JACKSON: Katrina pretty much led books.
KATRINA: My role from the beginning was kind of investigate it in many different ways. This included everything from researching various printing vendors to refining the over-all product description of what we wanted to start with.
JORY: Katrina led the whole process and was doing all the initial comps and kind of the wire framing, and user flows for the book process. Like everything we do at Notabli and Parent Co., it’s all very collaborative. Though we have specific roles on projects, we’re always talking about everything. We’re always jumping off of other people’s ideas.
ALLI: It’s kind of funny – no one’s ever like, “Katrina, you’re on books!” or “Jackson! You’re on the web!”
We all get psyched about one thing. We all know what needs to be done. But at the same time, we have to keep everything else running on Notabli.
We kind of just rotate around and fill in the gaps where they need to be filled. While everyone was gunning really hard for books, I was assisting, but I was mostly just keeping my eye on everything else: with Notabli’s Android app, iOS app updates, and QA.
How many developers worked on the books project?
JACKSON: All in all, there were probably six developers working on the product at different times and for different reasons. Collaboration with developers has been one of the most important things, the back and forth between the design team and the development team.
We always seem to do best when we’re both creating a shared vision as opposed to telling one another what to do.
ALLI: The best times working with developers are when we’re working with them side by side on something. You’ll work on a design for something in the morning, and you’ll send it to them.
The next day after they go over it, you’ll be talking about it and probably changing it based on what’s reasonable for them and what other ideas they have.
When you can ping-pong back and forth, that’s the best.
Sara: Do you feel like this product will change the way people interact with the app version of Notabli?
ALLI: That’s something we continually are trying to cope with. Because now it’s like, we make this change in Notabli, how’s that going to affect books? Everything has this epic domino effect. And these things are being printed.
JORY: Yeah, we always want to preserve the intentional aspect of Notabli, so that the photos people upload are ones they’ve intentionally chosen. The best of the best. But, you know, we always want to iterate and improve on that.
Right now, we’re limiting each moment to one photo. That may change in the future. I don’t think we’ll ever let people dump their entire camera all into Notabli. But if you can suddenly upload four photos per moment, how does that look in books?
Right now, we’re a photo per page which is nice. It maps nicely to the Notabli user experience.
But when there are more photos, do we put those on one page? Do we spread them out across pages? It’s an interesting and a fun challenge.
JACKSON: It’s a great question, Sara, because I think the constraint aspect for products, and especially digital products, is really important. It’s fun to work within those constraints to try to create things. It becomes more meaningful.
Sara: I feel like this is a step in the right direction for teaching people that, you know, sense of curation.
ALLI: The digital archive and the physical archive complement each other. That’s one of the reasons we have the dates on the front of the book.
There’s something so reassuring to about seeing dates on cover of the books. It feels so organized and distilled.
JACKSON: When you talk about what it’s like designing these products, the digital and the physical book product, I think the most gratifying part is seeing how people respond to it.
Notabli has users with thousands of moments. Once those users start a book subscription, seeing 20, 30 books already created for them, and seeing them go in and purchase all of them just to know that they’re getting every moment they’ve ever added in Notabli, you know, like a really nice physical collection, is something that’s really cool to see.
What are you hearing from friends and family who’ve received these as gifts?
JACKSON: Well it’s great because these are out in the wild now. People are already getting these books. It’s exciting and gratifying to hear that people are very happy with their quality.
JORY: You can create a book for your family. We have a bunch of grandparents using this subscription feature and aggregating all of the moments created for their grandkids, which is awesome to see.
How do you prioritize requests for new features?
JACKSON: To keep a product on track it’s important that we don’t tackle every feature request, as much as we’d like to. I think most of the time, the good news is that they already fall somewhere in line with the road map. Very few are really very far deviations from the direction we’re headed.
Sometimes, we hear something enough that it starts to change our trajectory and starts to modify te road map a little bit. Ultimately, I think we try to stay focused.
JORY: Things come up all the time that are exciting and interesting and new. We will spend a little bit of time kind of thinking through them, maybe even like sketching things out for various features on various products.
I think the ones that we end up shipping and actually creating are the ones that have stood the test of time and that keep coming up. Custom books and printing have been part of Notabli since Day 1.
The need for it has always been there and it’s kind of prioritizing. The trick is like, what comes first? What’s more important? Now that we have Notabli available on all the major platforms, it just makes sense for the next step.
JACKSON: It’s also safe to say that we aren’t always right, so we’re learning as we go and hopefully creating a really appealing product for parents and families.
How did you settle on pricing for Notabli Books?
JACKSON: We’re trying to walk the line between creating something that’s premium yet affordable. I think that was particularly important with subscription products because it’s something that someone has to say, “Yes, I’m going to enable this subscription and I’m going to start receiving these.”
We have to offer a price point that people were excited about while covering our costs for a higher-end product.
Where are these books printed?
JACKSON: The books are printed in the US. We ended up working with a wholesale printer. We started from scratch and built out a technology solution that enables us to work with them.
How much is the shipping for the subscriber or the customer?
JACKSON: Shipping is free for books that automatically print. But in addition to automatically printing or enabling a subscription, you can also print one-off books. For one-off books, the pricing is $4.99 within the US and $8.99 in Canada.
How far are you in the process of custom books?
JORY: We’re close. I think the designs are pretty much wrapped up for custom books, and for the user interface for how we do that. We’re just entering the technical side of it.
ALLI: That’ll be a little different because it’s going to start in the mobile apps first rather than in the web app. Everyone’s on their phones all the time.
Why is design relevant to parents?
JACKSON: In addition to parents being under-represented in the design world, it was one of our theories initially that fathers were under-represented as recipients of or users of kid-focused technology or parent-focused technologies. As part of our design … Really, our design rules. Our internal design rules. What we are trying to do is create a product that is not only appealing to mothers but also equally to fathers, and that you can have a playful, fun design, and it can be appealing to everyone.