Using Design Thinking to Develop New Journalism Products

CUNY social journalism students pitch ideas to The Guardian

Social-j students Ghita Benslimane, Sebastian Auyanet, Angelo Paura and Alyxaundria Sanford pitch a resistance hub — a place where veteran organizers and those new to the movement can connect and get informed. Picture credit: Carrie Brown (Insta: @brizzyc)

As protests against the Trump administration escalated across the country in early 2017, The Guardian began to think about how it could best serve this growing community often self-dubbed as “The Resistance.”

After some conversations with CUNY-J professor Jeff Jarvis, the British news organization asked our social journalism class to use some of the design thinking techniques they were learning to help them better understand this community’s needs and come up with some new ideas for products or services that might serve them.

What is Design Thinking?

CUNY-J’s current cohort of social journalists first learned the phrase “design thinking” during an orientation workshop given by Median in late January. We learned that the process of design thinking involves several steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. To practice design thinking, Median had students partner up and design their ideal wallets for each other. Students had to empathize with each other’s needs, brainstorm fresh solutions to problems, test ideas and use the results to make quick adjustments.

Though the activity, on the surface level, may have seemed rather silly (we were master’s students making wallets out of paper), we eventually understood the two key takeaways: 1) design thinking puts the audience/user first, 2) design thinking is an efficient tool that can be used in the process of designing/creating virtually anything — though it’s often not and 3) products designed with the user’s needs are more likely to succeed.

Understanding “The Resistance”

To help The Guardian understand what kinds of news and information would best serve the growing Resistance movement, we had to start by attending as many protests, rallies, and huddles that we could in the New York City area. We also reached out to people on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We went to community centers and talked to people in different neighborhoods. We asked people why they were protesting, how they felt about it, what they hoped to achieve and how they thought journalism could best serve their needs.

Once we had gathered as many perspectives as we could, we put it all together to define some journalism-related problems that we could begin to think about addressing. We brainstormed new ideas on everything from bots to apps to new ways of approaching a coverage plan. We then took those ideas back to members of The Resistance for additional feedback and tweaking.

And finally, late last March, after more than a month of getting closer to different sub-communities in the resistance movement, social-j students got the opportunity to pitch product ideas to Adam Gabbatt from The Guardian, which had just launched “The Resistance Now,” a project dedicated to covering the resistance movement that was still evolving.

The Pitches

  1. Watchdawg: An App for Changemakers (Melissa DiPento, Monty Lokesh Kataria, Viktoria Isabel M., Max Resnik, Sheena Townsend)

Some of the insights this group gathered were that 1) “It’s easy to feel anonymous at large events,” 2) “Our phones are the most powerful tools for letting everyone know what’s happening at events. Hashtags and photos help unify and solidify messaging,” 3) People want to find better ways to “keep track of guest speakers,” “synchronize chants, accessories and apparel” and “utilize common social media messaging.”

Max Resnik, Viktoria Muench and Lokesh “Monty” Kataria present their insights to Adam Gabbatt from The Guardian. Picture credit: Ghita Benslimane (Insta: @theghitashow)

To address these needs, this group created “Watchdawg,” an app that could be used “before, during and after protests, rallies and gatherings.” The app would include geolocation capabilities, relevant information about resistance events and allow users to check in. Other features of the app would include synchronized hashtags, a meme generator and curated lists. All in all, the app would be a useful tool to streamline social activity, make information more efficiently available and keep track of community members.

2. Resistance 411 Bot (Jennifer Deseo, Maria Fraschilla, Celia Clarke, Jennifer Groff)

Celia Clarke presenting “Resistance 411,” a chatbot in service of the resistance movement. Picture credit: Carrie Brown (Insta: @brizzyc)

Throughout the design thinking process, this group saw that a lot of people wanted to get more involved in the resistance movement but weren’t sure how. They needed a useful tool to get access to specific, personally targeted information. And so they thought up the “Resistance 411” chatbot.

Resistance 411 iPhone 6 demo. Picture credit: Jennifer Deseo, Maria Frashcilla, Celia Clarke, Jennifer Groff.

Based on the user’s zip code, the Resistance 411 chatbot could inform the user about who their representative is and which congressional district they’re located in. It would give users the opportunity to guide the chatbot into giving the them the specific information they are interested in, whether that be a daily civics lesson, news relating to the resistance movement or information about nearby rallies or protests.

3. The Resistance Hub (Ghita Benslimane, Angelo Paura, Sebastián Auyanet, Alyxaundria Sanford)

One of the biggest insights this group gathered was that there are a lot of people who are new to the resistance movement and who need support and information to get more involved.

To address this, the group came up with “The Resistance Hub,” a place where members of the resistance movement could connect, find resources, get informed and do their own reporting.

Match page of The Resistance Hub demo, a mockup created by the students of what it might look like. Picture credit: Ghita Benslimane

On the hub, users could set up a member profile that would be used to match them up with organizations of interest. Their matches would allow them to get in touch with organizations they would like to get involved with. Organizations could also use the hub to reach out to potential new members.

The hub would also include a substantial news section — made up of crowdsourced news, news from The Guardian itself and a podcast — as well as a resources section, where users can get access to important tutorials, browse various courses and sign up for text notifications.

4. The Resistance Community (Charles Michio Turner, Laura Calçada, Kristine Villanueva, Jessica Brockington)

Charlie Turner pitches a new website feature to The Guardian. Picture credit: Carrie Brown (Insta: @Brizzyc)

Rather than focusing on one idea, this group divided and conquered, coming up with different ideas to address different insights. One of the insights Charlie Turner gathered in the research phase was that people go to protests and other resistance events in order to feel inspired. They want speakers at these rallies who will actually engage with the listeners. In his pitch, Charlie suggested that The Guardian include a new feature that would allow readers to vote for people as speakers for a rally.

Charlie, like others working on this project, also saw that veteran and newbie activists weren’t communicating efficiently enough. It’s hard to get involved when you don’t know where to begin. To this effect, Charlie pitched a channel, not unlike The Resistance Hub, where people would be able to meet with organizers who are already working on issues that they care about. This platform would allow users to make profiles and meet like-minded folks to go to rallies with.

One insight gathered by Jessica Brockington was that organizers aren’t as organized as one might think. This lack of preparation and difficulty in accessing information can hinder an organizer’s performance during an event. In response, Jessica pitched a “Smartphone Rallykit,” which would include important information for before, during and after different rallies and protests. The kit would include guerrilla guides, important social media handles and hashtags to be aware of, a link to broadcast videos on FB Live and more.

During the empathy phase, Laura Calcada found that a significant portion of the resistance movement is concerned with statehouse issues and that “there is a large audience for stories on education privatization,” for example. As a result, Laura proposed that The Guardian find a way to have investigative journalists work with activists and statehouse reporters, to create content “geared towards local issues, with a national context.”

One insight Kristine gathered was that the resistance movement “also exists in intimate spaces” like huddles or small gatherings in homes. To help people get access to these smaller events, Kristine pitched a news alert function where users would be able to get information on events based on location and individual interests.

The Guardian news alerts pitch demo. Picture credit: Kristine Villanueva

Key Takeaways

By the time we had all pitched our ideas, it seemed clear that, without having gone through the process of design thinking, our products would not have been as strong or as well-informed.

Keeping in mind the design thinking process throughout this whole experience has kept us immersed into the community’s needs. We took the time we needed to fully understand what journalism could do to serve the resistance and formed our ideas and designed these products around that understanding.

Most important takeaway: If you care about the person/people you’re designing for, you’ll probably want to use design thinking. As social journalists, we are committed to caring about our audiences and putting their needs first, and therefore design thinking is a crucial tool in our work in journalism.

Thank You

To Adam Gabbatt from Guardian US, for visiting the CUNY J-School and listening to our product pitches.

To Median, for giving us an awesome crash course on design thinking during orientation.

And to our professors Carrie Brown and Jeff Jarvis, for guiding us through this project.