Design Thinking and Journalism Go Together. Here’s How.

“Design Thinking” is a buzzword to some, undeniable logic to others, and a completely foreign concept to many. For those who’ve decided it’s all post-it notes and bullshit, skip this post. This is not a persuasion piece.

Instead it’s an exploration of how this mode of thinking can be (and is being) applied to journalism and the rather interesting outcomes that ensue.

What is Design Thinking?

At its most basic, design thinking is an agile process for solving complex problems. It’s a way of understanding the needs of the people you’re building a solution for, and testing that solution with them before creating it.

While, on the surface, this might seem like a natural way to operate, for various reasons people don’t always test their ideas or solutions with their intended audience first, before the big efforts are applied. Often, organizations believe they already know what their audience, customers, and users need, and then spend buckets of money and time building products that ultimately flop. Or, perhaps worse, products that kind of work but don’t really solve the problem well. Design thinking is a way of avoiding these expensive mistakes by creating more room for failure (learning) as early on as possible.

Design thinking processes can be used over and over again in iterative loops on the same solution. There are a few variations out there as to the number and name of steps, but I’m going with the Stanford d.school’s version.

A brief outline of each phase

Empathize: This is the first step of any solution created through design thinking. The goal here is to truly understand what it’s like to be the people you’re creating the solution for: know what their lives are like, the problems they’re facing, what’s behind those problems, what solutions they’ve tried, and how they feel about these problems and solutions. This phase is about interviewing and observing the intended users, listening intently, and putting yourself in their shoes.

Define: This stage is about taking in all of that information from the people you’ve interviewed and studied, identifying common threads of those experiences, and synthesizing their perspectives to ultimately land on a coherent point of view to keep in mind as you design.

Ideate: This phase is straight up, uncensored brainstorming for generating a volume of ideas big and small. A common approach is to ask “how might we do x …?” and go hog wild with the answers.

Prototype: In this phase, you build a solution based on your best ideas from brainstorming. It’s good to start as low-resolution as you can be for time and money’s sake (think paper and pen, pipe cleaners and popsicle sticks instead of coding and A/B testing).

Test: This is about getting feedback on that prototype from the people you’re designing it for. Using that feedback, you can generate a higher resolution version of the product. If the test is a total success with your target audience: hooray! Put it out in the world! More often than not, though, you’ll have to repeat more cycles of design thinking before your audience loves and derives value from what you made.

How does journalism use this approach?

Now you know the basics of design thinking. So how does journalism use these processes?

It doesn’t.

The bulk of news stories get created without the customers (the audience) meaningfully involved in the decisions that shape the product (the story). The audience is usually only involved after a newsroom has put their story out into the world. At that point, an audience member might get the privilege to give feedback through a comment, but many newsrooms are on a tear of shutting down their comment sections. Or audiences may be able to add their feedback via Facebook comments, Tweets, or other social media. But oftentimes a newsroom’s social media presence is managed by someone who isn’t in a position to actually make that feedback matter to the newsroom. Feedback doesn’t make it’s way into editorial meetings or effect meaningful change. This means there’s scarce opportunity for reporters to learn from audience feedback, and there’s also no time. Most reporters have to sprint to their next assignment the second a story is published.

The way news is made in most shops, editors are the de facto surrogate for the audience. This is no dig on editors (I ❤ editors), but they simply do not have the average audience member’s perspective. And there’s just no substitute for getting feedback from the real deal customer.

Why this lack of learning matters

So newsrooms aren’t empathizing, prototyping, or testing their work with their audience before they publish. What does this mean? It means limited effectiveness. It means newsrooms create stories they think serve their audience, but they don’t know if they’re right until it’s too late and they’ve already made the investment. It means a lot of money and time sunk on stories that don’t necessarily resonate with, help, or serve people.

We work in an industry that’s increasingly financially imperiled, and one that’s absolutely critical for democracy. The news determines foundational information and facts that societies depend on to advance. So wasting money means more than under-performing stories, lost jobs and the death of a news outlet. It heralds a new type of dark age whose mantra is “I just don’t know who or what to believe.” If the facts are up for debate or no trusted source is even collecting them, then anyone can spread misinformation and fear, and manufacture “facts” to suit their needs. Like, for example, to win an election.

Alright. Enough with the doom / reality check.

There is hope, dammit.

Yes we can have feedback (and earlier)

I hadn’t heard of design thinking until 2015, when I went through the fantastic Matter accelerator program, but I’d accidentally been practicing this same logic for a while through a model I call “public-powered journalism.”

Empathize: In 2012, thanks to funding from AIR, I launched a “news experiment” at WBEZ in Chicago (purveyors of This American Life and Serial). The experiment was called Curious City, and every story we made started with a question from the audience. In other words, every story began with empathizing with the audience to learn about their information gaps. What was it that they didn’t know and believed a news organization could help them find out, or settle once and for all?

Define: After we took audience questions, we then invited them to help us define what to cover. We did that by curating the questions we felt we had the expertise / ability to answer, and ultimately let them decide which story would serve them best by letting them vote. In design thinking, if you’re ever at an impasse on the direction to take, the wisdom is always to let your customer be the referee and decide.

Ideation: Next, once the story was determined, we brainstormed, or ideated, about how we could best answer that question. That led to a platform-agnostic approach, and thinking about what medium would best serve the story being told. Sometimes it was radio and podcasts, other times video, interactives, comic books, and even once printed on a roll of toilet paper (to answer what happens to our waste after we flush the toilet).

Prototype + Test: The prototyping phase was the actual reporting. Oftentimes we brought the audience question asker (aka “user”) along for the ride so that we could better understand what information was most important to them. This meant we were able user test as we were reporting. Instead of an editor, an actual audience member played the role of surrogate for the rest of the audience. That audience member gave feedback and shaped the final story as it progressed.

By the time publication came along (the true test), we were pretty darn sure that the news story (product) we were making was relevant to our audience (customer), and that it was what people actually wanted. And the metrics certainly reflected that.

This public-powered model produced the type of “holy grail” type stories newsrooms are always looking for but seldom find: original, relevant and popular.

A model that’s not for everyone, or absolutely everything

This approach isn’t meant for the very quick, reactive news stories (This building is on fire! That person just dropped out of the race!). That being said, elements of this same approach can be applied to so many other kinds of stories a newsroom produces (see below). In fact, it’s a great way to generate follow-up questions and fresh angles to those quick, reactive news stories (What materials are most flammable in modern buildings? How do the candidate’s closest supporters and canvassers cope with her dropping out of the race?)

So many more experiments

At Hearken, we help newsrooms apply this public-powered, design thinking approach to their journalism. Our model is just one way to use design thinking in news media. There are so many new products and processes that design thinking will surely generate in the journalism space, and so many that have already been created.

We’d love to learn about your experiments in applying design thinking to journalism for a follow-up post. If you’re interested in being part of it, add yours to the comments below. Describe how you used the model and throw in a link of what you created. Extra credit: describe the steps for each process from empathizing to testing. We’ll round them up, share, and link to that post here when it’s up.

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Additional resources

Standford’s d.school has a ton of great materials on design thinking, including this crash course (they also offer materials in German, Japanese, Spanish, French and Basque!).

Ideo famously runs based on design thinking. Check out their blog.

Matter is an incredible accelerator program for early stage startups in the media space. Their entire program is run on design thinking. Learn how to apply here. They operate out of San Francisco and New York City.

If you’re a journalist thinking about doing design thinking applied to the story level, we are here to help. Our company Hearken is a framework for doing this work and we’ve got a ton of best practices to speed up the learning curve, and have built a custom technology to support and scale this within a newsroom or beyond. Get in touch or sign up for a trial.