Audience Design Thinking

Cynthia Young
Feb 23, 2018 · 10 min read

Masters Thesis — Summary

On November 29th, 2016 Jan Wenner, Publisher of Rolling Stone Magazine sat down and interviewed Barack Obama for one of his last White House interviews. Halfway through the interview, Wenner asked Obama what his plans were for the future. In true Obama brand, he smiled and said, “Take my wife on a well-deserved vacation” but after that he planned a new book, the development of a youth leadership training facility, and he put forth a challenge that news organizations around the world need to step up and accept.

“How do we rethink our storytelling, the messaging and the use of technology and digital media, so that we can make a persuasive case across the country?” (Barack Obama; Wenner, 2016)

Perhaps Obama knew something on his last day about the role of news in the coming months? Would he have known of the favour and the flavour of the news in a Trump presidency? Perhaps he spoke of the importance of it because of what he believed was good and true of modern democracy and not the fallacies that come out of telling people what they want over also telling them what they need to know.

“The truth isn’t the truth until people believe in you, and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what you’re saying, and they can’t know what you’re saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you’re not interesting, and you won’t be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly.” (Bernbach, 2011)

Storytelling is the heart of journalism and in this statement Obama shares a mutual goal for newsrooms to rethink how best to tell stories in ways that audiences can trust, understand and value them. Storytellers around the world must also rethink the way in which they tell their stories to make cases, to be persuasive enough to motivate change and to be valued by an audience.

Theoretical Context

As creative leaders, we have been taught that there is no one way of inspiring change but rather a constant tension between being authentic and adaptable to change which is driven in large part by the experiences we have and skills we’ve learned. The creative element for leadership is one’s perspective and mindset. Creative leaders look at problems from many angles and different perspectives. Design Thinking is a method used by creative leaders of asking “how to” solve for something that might not be apparently obvious within the existing chaos of day to day business. It places the end consumer at the front of the production chain. The creativity within design thinking is that it allows one to study behaviours, patterns and interactions as a mechanism of learning canvas and brush. Knowing that a paint brush of badger fur is soft when dry and coarse when wet makes all the difference to the way the ink will lay down. Knowing that thin Japanese rice paper can melt watery inks teaches us how much colour to dip. The creation itself is born of this knowledge that an artist explores before creating. Inspiring content creators to learn their canvases and their brushes are as integral to design thinking as valuing what makes the audience laugh or cry. This feedback, this knowledge the artist gains is what newsrooms must use to inspire them to continue to create storytelling.

Thinking about content creators, newsrooms and journalists as both creators and designers of content allows us to explore models that help us generate this feedback, this knowledge. Thinking this way helps us deliver content to many different audiences with nuanced styles and experiences. It pushes us to use the ecosystems inherent in digital networks and to validate audience success with clearer signals and better lenses of understanding. It asks us what the business problem is for content creators. Content creators need to find courage to understand and listen to their audiences while learning how to better tell them what they want to hear along with what they need to hear. This push and pull in chaos is where design thinking has been most successful in helping build confidence and reframe organizational problems. Rather than always looking at the lens of operations within newsrooms as spaces leftover for advertising to make money, design thinking affords the organization with a series of imperatives from which they gain insights into what the audience truly values. Where design thinking helps culturally is by repositioning the questions being asked about what the audience values most. Instead of solving for eyeballs for advertising rather solve for delivering content that’s valued more by audiences such that they exchange some value for it.

Much has been studied in software development around user experiences and product design. Silicon Valley product managers have been doing this for years. Paying attention to how your audience, your user, your customer uses your product, selects your product or ignores it, is integral to understanding what you produce. Brands also use this approach to discover purpose, write vision statements and set goals. Marketers spend remarkable amounts of attention understanding brands but little is understood of the audiences from which those marketers seek attention from. Media has been negligent at learning because the commerce of media was built on the lowest dollar for the broadest messages with little effort to understand impact.

Much has also been studied about media use and how to gain and game audience attention. Is all attention the same? Does a small mobile screen compare to a 50 inch Dolby sound television? Is sight, sound and motion easier to understand than words and images or are they all just different designs of storytelling on many different canvases. One can easily see how this isn’t just a business problem for newsrooms and content creators it is a business problem for storytellers. Understanding the audiences you have should always influence how you communicate with them.

Hypothesis development and methodology

Instead of typically explored business model frameworks like those that look to drive efficiencies within existing lines of business or drive horizontal growth in adjacent lines of business, design thinking is one of the most effective ways of gaining a new perspective that sits outside of the typical approach to business innovation. The argument is to prove that this new perspective can influence cultural change.

To follow design thinking methodology organizations, unpack elements of their business in ways they had never considered. Unpacking these elements revealed greater understanding of “audience attention” and its declarant value. The research evaluated the impact or change in attention, and the thesis explored the marketplace and the economics of “attention” to frame the problem solving with a lens toward audience needs. Investigating current modes of design thinking and testing empirical applications of design thinking’s logic and practices puts an organization in a healthier place to examine results. The research taken on in this thesis aims to show that design thinking does influence content creation, changes audience attention patterns and supports a new way to value content creation. The success of this would be seen in time since a cultural shift is not sudden and muscle memory in newsrooms needs to be built.

To regenerate, an organization must create new language. Creating new language is a responsibility of leadership. Leadership is not a property of an individual; leadership is a condition of an organization. Leadership ensures space in an organization for efficiency, discovery, and invention, and each may be required in different phases of change. Leadership requires that we ask unnatural questions (a source of new language).

(Esmonde, Gheoghagen, Pangaro, & Dubberly, 2002)


As we set out to simply learn the patterns of our audiences we learned much more about our purpose and our goals through this process than we had anticipated. Research highlighted clearly a way we can measure and monitor audience patterns and the patterns correlate highly to a temporal nature of content consumption. The research also proved that by measuring and analysing these patterns the organization gained better lines of sight into strategic decisions around resource management and priorities. The research brought forward audience patterns which highlighted areas that were lower or missing utility for the audience. The research provided detailed guidelines of audience needs and occasions allowing the organization to form a framework and workflow that introduced a tempo within the chaos. The conscious questioning of audience needs and occasions engaged the newsroom in new ways, inspiring creative projects that have received global awards for innovative storytelling. Finding a tempo within the chaos of news today came also with a shift in stability and ability to manage the rapid fire of events and the mighty turnover of news, this muscle memory is in its infancy. Much is still to be framed around a change in culture as research does suggest that this contribution may take longer to actualize. There are however signs of internal progress of adoption by other departments and understanding, which suggest that a momentum has started and our on-going month over month growth of audiences highlight that more people are listening to us tell stories.

Main contributions

This paper furthers the concepts that design thinking is not limited to products but can also be embedded into organizations at large. It expands on the many studies that design thinking drives cultural change along with business model thinking. It furthers the concepts that organizations moving from a goods dominant logic to a service dominant logic should see similar successes if approached the same way. This paper highlights how audience design thinking begins with listening and follows by reciprocating with better services to audiences and research suggests this approach shows tangible results. It sets forth new guardrails for publishers measuring and analyzing data related to audience behaviours and forms a framework to widen the perspectives and mindset of the creators of content. Lastly, this paper begins the conversation with creative agencies to explore the concepts of audience design thinking for both their media evaluations but also the advertising messaging they choose to deliver to audiences.


There is no doubt that this approach is limited in its testing within a newsroom and that not all content creators around the world would see similar results and furthermore that ‘content creators’ is a generic statement representing a large group of people who publish online. There is also the concept that many other correlative and potential implicative events heavily influenced the results. Other industries in similar chaos and the media disruption at large. There is a confluence of democratic nations suffering constituency swings, consortiums are splintering and terrorism remains insidious. This news is happening and society is changing because of it. Applications, frameworks and methodologies are just that, they are not predictive nor do they suggest a framework for artificially manufacturing any of this. The human element of this, the creative energy associated with storytelling is very much anchored in this and thus, the frailty is authentic.

The attempts to innovate may be met with false positives of a society simply seeking this everywhere. Perhaps newsrooms around the world would see the same results or their audiences would manifest themselves in entirely different modes because of various cultural nuances.

The paper is framed around embedding, learning, testing and experimenting so change is incremental. Validating that in a single fiscal year was not possible and the inherent challenge is that the prospective time frame is not clear either.

Directions for future research

All signs point to us needing to continue to listen better, it’s likely a pretty good life lesson too. Much more needs to be monitored around the responses audiences have, once presented with content in temporal manners. It is not yet determined how long a new behavior takes to become habit, although ex-cigarette smokers would tell you that it comes in threes. The first three days are the hardest, the first three weeks are the longest and the first three months are the easiest in retrospect. A lifetime of behavioral change takes an everyday mindfulness. The directions for future research are to expand the modes and theories within the learnings to other departments within the organization. The ongoing synthesis and adaptations will drive the sustainability of design thinking. The building of languages adds lenses that clarify and help explore what more can be done. The sharing of common language means that newsrooms need to gather together to drive new audience behaviours.

Perhaps the call from Obama needs to be answered by many more agencies and industries. Warranting the exploration of other empirical studies, how other content creators such as creative agencies, publishing firms and other forms of media agencies see this embedded in their services. Not as panacea for their business problems but rather for the lens of delivering audiences, consumers and people better value exchanges.


The differential change in where we were in November 2016 around news and journalism is that it is now part of the conversation; consider ‘fake news’ or the Washington Post’s new tagline ‘democracy dies in darkness’. Journalism is no longer dismissed, nor are journalists preparing for a lifetime achievement award. The awareness of how information gets to you, whom to trust and where to spend your attention properly is being spoken about. The discussion about changing the revenue models to be reader centric is starting to embed across news organizations around the globe and the promise to be mindful of the audience’s attention, to be better listeners and to tell better stories that can be understood in many different learning languages is being pursued by our organization with the hopes that many others will follow.

Where design thinking is prescient for us is in understanding the connection between how we learn and how we create, and the sustainable framework from which this exists. The ability to embed a design theory-based strategy within a large group of content creators and guide them on audience needs, occasions and learning styles has completely restructured and reshaped our organization but more importantly it has had this correlative sense of positivity, a momentum towards something closer to journalism’s origins, its purpose and the value that the audience sees in that purpose. In some ways, it’s given us a more confidence in a world where we were a little blind, a little deaf and a little too scared to move before.

Consider the story of the cat and the mouse, where the cat’s internal signals are hard wired to react to signals of very small movements, and the mouse is hard wired to stay out of peripheral view. What is most relevant in this analogy is that testing and learning that goes on between the cat and the mouse is iterative and it introduces a second feedback loop which naturally expands the capacity of each animal to learn.

Figure 1 — Cat & Mouse Analogy, Pangaro

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Build tools that help you listen better to what your audience is asking of you by paying attention to both the moments of that attention and what behaviours are attributable to the change in that attention.

In other words, what was it the mouse did that caught the cat’s eye and what can each of them learn from it?

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