From Journalism to UX (and maybe back again)

by Alex Schmidt

A few weeks ago, I met up with an old journalist contact whom I hadn’t heard from in many years. He, too, was a public radio reporter, and he too was in the process of leaving reporting (full-time) to make a transition into the same field I’m joining: User Experience, or UX Design.


That journalism is in a period of turmoil is an old saw at this point. I know of many conflicted journalists who have dipped toes into other fields, either out of necessity (being laid off or needing an additional source of income as a freelancer), or because they’re simply tired and fed up. For a few years, I’ve been one of these — while freelancing for public radio, I made money from online content or marketing work, which I enjoyed at times, but which ultimately was not my passion.

One scenario you don’t often see: journalists voluntarily getting into some other field because they’re interested in it. When it comes to intellectually stimulating, ego-boosting, fulfilling work, journalism is tough to beat. If you’re at all introspective as a journalist, you know this. Perhaps you’ve even grown uncomfortable with the fact that being a “journalist” at some point becomes much more “who you are” than “what you do” (especially in the cult of public radio). For reasons I can’t quite explain, this feels icky. It’s liberating to emerge into another area of work that is equally stimulating for me, but less “fascinating” to people I talk to at cocktail parties. This is UX.

There are so many overlaps between journalism and User Experience design,

a relatively new field that I describe to friends and family as “the blueprints of the Internet.” (The explanation I keep in my back pocket, which I’m aware some may disagree with, is this: the graphic designer decides on colors and fonts and look, the programmer or developer writes the code that makes the web product live, and the UX Designer creates the overall plans — the organization of the site, which screen leads to the next, the placement of buttons, the gestures that take users between experiences. And there’s more to it than that. User Research is a huge part of UX — interviewing users about how they use web products, finding out what they want from them, and making recommendations about how to improve. This is the part of UX that most interests me personally.)

It’s been thrilling, over the past few months that I’ve been learning about UX at a consulting firm that I’ll soon be joining full-time, to notice all the ways that UX and journalism intersect and play off each other. It’s not such a coincidence at all that the radio contact I mentioned earlier is getting into this field, too. This may be a bit of “insider baseball,” but perhaps this list will be interesting to journalists and UX folks alike.

So here goes — a list of things journalism and UX have in common:

  1. Our job is to learn new things.
    As Adrian LeBlanc once said, “After I’ve reported on something, I’m ready to report on it.” On the web, as in the “the real world,” we sometimes start from next to zero knowledge on X topic, and become experts in the course of our reporting/research. Of course, we draw on past work and experience to inform what we do, but there’s so much out there that we don’t know and we must work hard to learn it all.
  2. We are professional question askers.
    Skepticism and being critical are highly valued traits in both journalism and UX. We may assume that users want something built in a certain way, but until that’s supported by actual adoption, it’s simple conjecture. Likewise, we must question our own assumptions when reporting on a story and always dig deeper to find the truth.
  3. There’s a pragmatism to it.
    If our listeners/readers/watchers don’t “get it,” we’ve failed as journalists. Likewise, if our users don’t use the product, we’ve failed as Experience Designers.
  4. We observe professionally.
    Whether user behavior online or events out in the real world, it’s our job to watch them and then report back.
  5. We’re interested in uncovering the secret codes behind human behavior.
    My favorite moments in reporting have always been talking to some expert (usually in the social sciences) who illuminates some issue about people — how they act, what motivates them, the secret codes behind their behavior (some favorite examples over the years: why do parades exist? why do some people pretend to be a different race or gender? why do people anthropomorphize animals?). Now, as a researcher, I am helping to generate those insights.
  6. We take lots of info, synthesize it, and wrap it up with a neat little bow.
    Interviewing, turning it into something (a radio story or a report + recommendations) is the basic work of both reporter and UX Researcher.
  7. We know that we will never have the full picture.
    On the web, as in “the real world,” there is always — always— more to uncover. We can never have the full picture, and we can only strive to do our very best within the constraints of time and physical matter.
  8. A huge part of the job is making people care.
    As reporters, we must make our editors care first, and then our audience. If we don’t “grab” either group right out of the gate, we will fail. In UX, we must grab both our clients and the user. I’ve been impressed at what a huge job it is to make clients believe in and trust our recommendations — to convince them that inputs from users matter perhaps more than anything else. A ton of energy goes into the reports we create, into making them digestible, interesting and actionable for clients. These “templates” are a constant effort and we can always do better at it.

And for good measure, here’s a shortlist of what UX and journalism can learn from each other.

  • Make it collaborative.
    In UX, our work is a collaborative process between us and our clients, between us and our users. Our users inform our product and guide us to be the best we can be. Likewise, journalism should become more of a collaboration between journalists and the audience (some innovative publications and writers are practicing this already).
  • Make it iterative.
    The web based product is iterative, improving constantly and never in a state of completion. Stories should be this way too, rather than the outdated model of “publish and it’s done.” How can the concept of iteration guide us toward the article of the future? (Some exciting innovations already here too.)
  • Use the tricks of the trade.
    In both journalism and UX, we’re working to find some sort of clarity in complexity. It’s tough sometimes, like solving a puzzle. One of my favorite tricks when working on a difficult story is to start from the end and work backwards, because I usually know where I want to end up. In UX, I’m learning to use the simplest tools of sketching with pencil on paper to just get ideas out of my head messily and go from there.
  • It’s okay to say you don’t know.
    When an editor asks some question during the editing process, and we as reporters don’t know the answer, we must tell the truth. We shouldn’t make up facts in UX either. If you truly know your stuff, and have done your homework, then you know it’s okay to say you’re clueless as you reach some hazy or unclear area of work. You will figure out the answer (though it could take some time and require yet more work), but just go ahead and say you don’t know. It’s empowering and liberating.

——————————————————————————————-

A little postscript: I’ll always report.

In fact I’m on a long overseas trip now and have a few stories lined up that I’m excited about. There are some cool, future reporting-type possibilities that I’m thinking about (though right now I’m dreaming big of applying my growing UX knowledge to the future of journalism). I’m happy and relieved that, for now, journalism is moving more into the realm of hobby for me, becoming something that I enjoy more purely. (One thing I’ll miss a ton, for the record: cultivating a beat. Stinks that I won’t hone knowledge in one specific area. Anyway.)

As always, it’ll be important to approach topics only that I feel I can report on objectively, and to separate my work in UX from reporting. The reporter’s bubble, the firewall between “marketers” and “journalists,” has been dissolving for a while now. Striving for objectivity is one of the key challenges of journalism today. It’s a topic that deserves a whole lot more attention as people like me increasingly diversify and do many other things while we report — and as people maybe move back and forth more freely and comfortably between journalism and other professions. I hope and believe that we will suss out the conflicts of interest and move toward greater transparency in reporting.

It can feel a bit sad to move away from something you’ve loved for a long time. But there so many things to do in this world. And lots of them are awesome.