Getting personal with innovative tech

As someone working in a digital startup I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I don’t fully understand our tech. 

But maybe I don’t need to. Perhaps the measure of smart technology is that it does spectacularly clever things without mere mortals like me even noticing. As far as I’m concerned, I click buttons and the technology just makes things happen seamlessly.

Just like magic.

Solving a tech challenge

Our personalised books are filled with facts, history and cultural curiosities, all designed to let the star of the show know just how incredible they are, while giving them a nostalgic look back at the world they were born into.

Each and every piece of information is painstakingly researched by the team (we’re now practically unbeatable at pub quizzes) and then gathered up in our ever-growing data warehouse.

Being able to sort through millions of facts, select the right ones based on a birthday and make sure they appear perfectly on the page in the time it takes for someone to click ‘Make A Book’ is no mean feat.

Building the book builder

When we started a little over four years ago, our original two-man tech team worked day and night to develop a book building engine capable of instantly sorting through all of the information in our data warehouse.

More than this though, it also had to be capable of offering a simple, easy to use, and fun personalisation experience. We needed our tech to be smart enough to complete complex tasks, but accessible enough for your 95 year old grandfather or your 11 year old niece to enjoy using it.

Our book builder allows people to make a truly one-of-a-kind personalised gift – complete with special messages, shared memories, and photos. All from the comfort of their own home and all instantly viewable on the screen in front of them.

Creating a personalised masterpiece takes a little effort. You might need to phone your friends to gather up all of the best stories, or search out the best photos in the family album. So the book builder also allows you to save your work in progress and come back later to get things just right.

These might sound like simple things, but they get to the heart of the creative experience we want people making our books to have.

Australia: a new book builder for a new book

When we got to work on Australian versions of our books, we decided it was also the perfect chance to launch our new and improved book builder.

For the tech minded amongst you, the new book builder will provide a wizard user interface. When I asked Dan, one of our developers, exactly what that means he looked at me – with a straight face – and said:

“The new wizard is a product personalisation platform made from decoupled components that handle rendering, product definitions, customer data and product instance creation. It lets us define products in Elixir modules and mustache JSON templates for the nodes, then we compile these with the customer data to create a product instance that is sent to the product wizard via websockets. The product builder is written in Elixir, deployed in AWS and the product wizard is written in Elm. The renderer is also written in Elm but using native modules for the HTML5 Canvas calls, it works on the browser and in Node.js to render PDFs in the backend, this is deployed in Google Cloud using Kubernetes.”

Makes perfect sense right?

Now I don’t know about you but all I got from that is that a mustachioed man called Jason uses templates for nodes (whatever they are) and that the word “Kubernetes” exists…

Essentially though, what all that really means is that the wizard will evolve to have some fancy new features designed to help people enjoy making even more personalised books. For example, writing your messages directly onto the page.

In the future, the wizard will also provide options to swap in and out individual pages. So, if your Aunt Susan loves animals but HATES history, then out go the pages about all of the amazing things that happened over the years on her birthday and in come the animal facts. For a company all about making personalisation more personal, that’s exciting stuff.

We’re all really proud of the new Australian book, and we’re also really excited that we’ve been able to launch an all-new book building wizard for Oz (sorry). And if I don’t understand all of the technology behind it (or the words the team use to describe it), that probably means it’s pretty good.  

Oh, and for any developers out there who are interested in reading more about the work of our talented tech team take a look here, here, here, and here to get your geek on. Just don’t ask me to explain any of it…

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