The New York Times' Beta620: A Public Site for New Projects

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Over the weekend, the Times debuted Beta620, a site where early versions of new products and features can be tested by the public

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Google Labs has shut its doors, closing the machine responsible for Google Maps, Google Reader, Google Alerts and dozens of other products. But there was nothing proprietary about its model for displaying early prototypes; it could be replicated elsewhere. And it has. Google Labs clearly inspired another giant: The New York Times Media Group.

Over the weekend, the New York Times debuted Beta620, a site where early versions of new products and features can be tested by the public. When the news of Google Labs' end was announced in late July, I worried here about how the search company would continue to innovate. "Without the testing ground and public development period that other prototypes have been subjected to ... you can ... expect to see more failures," I wrote. "Brutal, public failures." I hope that Beta620 will provide the Times, which can't really afford many public setbacks, with the courage to create strong, user-friendly products that could make its content more accessible and more engaging.

The site went live with seven projects:

  • Times Companion, which provides in-depth content with page overlays that is relevant to the stories users are currently reading.
  • TimesInstant, an instant search function that makes finding pieces on the Times' website easier than ever before. Immediate feedback allows for query modification.
  • NYTimes Crossword Web App, brings the paper's popular crossword puzzle into the digital age, with an HTML5 version that can be saved and stored for offline completion.
  • Community Hub, a dashboard filled with social activity, including reviews and comments and recommendations from other Times readers.
  • Longitude, an interactive map of the most important news of the day.
  • The Buzz, which aggregates and displays social media data. This isn't about comments -- the Community Hub does that -- but about buzz.
  • Smart Search Bar, which offers semantically-aware results from the Times' homepage.

Existing outside of the paywall, anybody -- subscribers and non-subscribers alike -- can visit Beta620, but you have to be registered and signed in to leave comments. The Times really wants you to do that. The point, of course, is to get a sense of how users respond to prototypes and new ideas bouncing around the newsroom before incorporating them into the NYTimes.com website. Some of those comments might even shape the direction that developers take these projects as they continue to iterate.

Beta620 is a big move forward from the Times' Insights Lab, an invite-only community where those select few invited past the gate can provide feedback directly to Times developers. Without access, I'm not sure how successful Insights Lab has been. (Though you've probably never heard about it, and that's a sign of something other than success.) But Erica Swallow, who wrote about the launch of Beta620 for Mashable, is a member and she's confident this is a step in the right direction. "I happen to be an Insights Lab member, and from what I can tell from logging in, the community has been relatively inactive since the last 'News Flash' update in January," she wrote.

As it currently stands, only employees of the New York Times can submit projects to the site. But the Times plans to tear down that wall eventually, allowing outside developers and individuals to submit their own work, which could take Beta620 (named for the address of Times headquarters on 8th Avenue in New York City) to a completely different level. There are plenty of Times enthusiasts out there with ideas for how to improve the existing product. See: Andy Rutledge.

Update: Beta620 will not replace the New York Times Insight Lab as the two are meant to serve different purposes, according to a Times representative that reached out to us. Insight Lab currently has "over 2,000 active members" and has conducted 16 studies so far in 2011, including surveys for the Times' iPad app and Sunday magazine redesign.

Image: The New York Times.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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