Designing for Audience Behavior

My contribution to the Carnival of Journalism

David Cohn
Jan 30, 2017 · 3 min read

Designing for Audience Behavior

My contribution to the Carnival of Journalism

For some context on this post, it’s part of the “Carnival of Journalism.” What is that? It’s when we all agree to write about the same topic. So instead of responding to each others’ Tweets, we can respond in long-form posts. JOIN.

The prompt is: “Regardless of how we present our stories to our audiences — online, on-air, or in print — do we truly take them into consideration?”

Here’s my free-association response.

I don’t want to answer the question immediately straight away. Instead my brain goes to the classic debate about whether or not one should ask customers what they want or take a risk on an idea that users might not know they want.

One one side there’s the classic Ford quote: If I asked the people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.’ He knew that if he built something new, like automobiles, they would want that.

On the other side — theres’s the adage that “the customer is always right.” It’s important that we have empathy for users and that we build things for them, not us. I think this is the spirit of thinking that Brian Boyer asks the prompt.

When I think about the first impulse (build what the customer doesn’t even know they want) I can’t help but think that news organizations dropped the ball.

If they had asked customers what they wanted in the mid-90s, they would have said “a better newspaper.” When in fact, what people wanted was a better means of creating communities. This is, in a nutshell, the grand opportunity that “traditional” media lost and which new media tech companies grabbed.

And it’s very possible when considering the above paragraph that news organizations NEVER would have been able to come to social networks as a product because if they HAD asked customers what they wanted, the customers never would have responded with “we want a better way to communicate” because the question would have been asked to them by a news organization. Who is asking the question frames conversation.

I think this also speaks to another question in the prompt: “Can we look at internal reports like the NYT 2020 Report as a template or a bible for tackling how we interact with the communities we serve?”

I worry when a report like NYT 2020 comes out that other news organizations will try and duplicate it lock and step. That’s a mistake. The report is for the NYT solving NYT problems for NYT customers. If you are a regional or local news organization whether print, radio or broadcast, their learnings and ideas might not translate, because you have different customers with different needs (known or unknown).

Final Thoughts

As with most things, I often think the answer lay somewhere in the middle. I am an Aristotelian when it comes to virtue, which is to say, virtues are found as a median between two extremes. Being “brave” means not being a coward (one extreme) or foolhardy (the other extreme). Being wise is a median between being ignorant and being pretentious.

A good news product should be a median between meeting user expectations and introducing new user behavior.

It is easy to err too much to one side or the other. Critiques of apps like Path or even Circa (which I worked on) was that it was trying to introduce too much new user behavior. The new app from Josh Topolosky I think skirts right up the edge here. I tend to tip my hat to products that do this, because I think they make statements as much as they make products for users — and making bold statements is important.

On the other side of the coin, some products err too much on the side of relying on and fulfilling user expectations. I think of The Information in this example. From a product standpoint, there is nothing “interesting” here. It’s for people that want tech industry news and they are indeed getting it. Another part of me tips my hat to products like these because while they aren’t making interesting statements, they are making solid businesses.

Finding that balance with a product and within our industry will be an ongoing process. And I hope there are many Carnival of Journalists I can participate in along the way.

Carnival of Journalism

Once a month we get together and write posts about the same…

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