Bringing user experience design to journalism education

Jonathan Stray is a computer scientist and journalist who heads up a team at the Associated Press that creates interactive news stories. He has great ideas about how computer science can be used to make journalism more credible, sustainable and responsive to citizens’ needs.

He also asks really good questions that challenge treasured shibboleths in our profession. For example, Stray challenges the simplistic notion that our job is simply to deliver news. In the era before computational media, there was a logic to this – we reported; our readers, listeners and viewers decided. When done well and fairly, democracy was served. At least that was the hope, or as political science Jay Rosen might say, that’s our creed. But the computer scientist in Stray doesn’t abide such fluffy abstractions. In an excellent essay that is well worth considering in its entirety, he asserts,

Democracy is fine, but a real civic culture is far more participatory and empowering than elections. This requires not just information, but information tools.

What are information tools? What are they used for? By whom? How? How do we know when they work? These are the questions Stray tries to get us to think about by starting with the needs of our news users, instead of starting where we usually do, which is with the stories we are trying to report and disseminate. It’s hard to argue with him in principle, but what does it mean in practice? As he points out, it’s more than experimenting with story forms and distribution platforms.

To create tools, understand the customer

Stray’s line of reasoning took me back to lessons I learned from Bell Labs quality engineers in the 1980s about quality by design: quality is fitness for use by a customer. Product or service design requirements should flow from an understanding of customers’ needs. Customers are both internal (other members of an organization’s supply chain) and external (end users). Quality by design is a process of continual improvement, based on continual communications with internal and external stakeholders. Methodologies such as Total Quality Management and Quality Function Deployment were developed to operationalize those principles and generalize them as approaches to product and service development and marketing.

News Design=User Experience Design

Now comes the field of user experience design as a way of focusing an organization on ways of understanding and staying responsive to user needs. Most recently, I’ve been wrapping my mind around the literature on user experience design, especially, Whitney Quesenberry and Kevin Brook’s book, Storytelling for User Experience. Stray’s post is helping me think more concretely about how user experience design applies to journalism practice, and by extension, journalism education.

Smashing magazine has a concise introduction to user experience design that includes this definition of user experience:

User experience (abbreviated as UX) is how a person feels when interfacing with a system. The system could be a website, a web application or desktop software and, in modern contexts, is generally denoted by some form of human-computer interaction (HCI).

Fields of User Experience (from the blog A Nod to Nothing)
From the blog A Nod to Nothing:

For journalists, the challenge is to think about how our readers, viewers and users feel when interacting with our news products. According to our civic mission, we want them to feel invested in their communities, engaged in civic life, and empowered to act on the issues that matter to them.

Ethnography is one of the interesting techniques that the AP is using to understand user needs. In 2008, the Associated Press commissioned an ethnographic study of young news consumers. Nathanael Boehm neatly summarizes the role of ethnographic research in improving user experience:

Where usability is about how people directly interact with a technology in the more traditional sense, ethnography is about how people interact with each other. As UX designers, we’re primarily concerned with how we can use such research to solve a problem through the introduction or revision of technology.

What AP learned from its study of upscale “digital natives” in the US, UK and India is that the news consumers they’d most like to attract are often so overwhelmed by facts that they don’t seek the depth and context. Yet Stray notes that Wikipedia draws millions of users who invest significant time and energy on the site, suggesting that news organizations take a lesson.

From principle to practice

There is a great deal more that can be explored here, even as we think about journalism’s mission. For example, one of Stray’s pet projects is the development of an infographic tool that maps pundits’ sources of information. The ability to visually represent this kind of information can be helpful in assessing the credibility of claims. For my part, I’ve been thinking about tools that make complex data more intelligible to the people who need it. For example, this semester, my students and I are thinking about social media tools that will make it easier to make sense of environmental data that affects their lives. We want to improve the accessibility of such tools as the Environmental Protection Agency’s EJView and the state of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protechon’s Data Miner sites. More about this work in a future post.

Live blog, NABJ blogging panel

I took these notes at the NABJ convention in Philadelphia in early August. Although I never got a chance to refine them, the notes will be useful for the Social Media class I will be teaching next semester.

Topic: What makes a multimedia blog successful?
Dan Farber -Great content. – the same things that make for great journalism

Neal Scarborough -Before you worry about multimedia as a blogger, decide who you are as a blogger, where your audience is or what they want.

Clay Cane – Find your style, your tone, and what you are passionate writing about. He started with a personal blog and was discovered by BET because he built a strong following. “It really is being your own brand, and selling yourself.”

Sarah Bernard, Deputy Director of Digital Strategy, the White House: Use your blog to cover undeserved stories. Be consistent.

Question: How do you drive traffic?

Clay Cane collects email subscriptions, sends out blasts when he has big news. Example: he posted an interview with Janet Jackson to his site and sent out masse emails. Some major news sites picked it up and linked to him.

Farber: learn about SEO

Moderator Markette Smith: Shows She is collecting questions via twitter at #nabjbloggingandbeyond. Question: can we attract advertising?

Cane: He got started with Notes that advertising market has changed.

Scarborough: “Blogging has really opened up.” Bites that Richard Branson has a blog.

Question: Publisher of a niche blog for lawyers wants to know how to make more money.

Moderator Smith tries to go back to how to make money.

More later: running out of power and this room is short on outlets.

How should journalism educators teach and study social media?

recent blog post by Vadim Lavrusik called upon journalism educators to make social media and online community engagement a stronger part of their curricula:

“[T]here are three components I think that are still largely missing from most journalism curricula today that could help in user engagement: learning the social media tools available for journalists to engage the audience, an understanding of what it means to cultivate community, and lastly a negative stigma to the use of data and analytics.”

The post elicited several favorable comments from journalism students, instructors and practitioners associated with institutions around the country, including a link to this thoughtful advice about how journalism education needs to change. Amen to all of it, I say. Journalists need to know how, when and whether to blog, twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, tag, make and use widgets, link strategically, build and use wikis, craft SEO-friendly content and understand analytics. (Just to be clear, references to Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook have more to do with the need for facility with sites that function in this way, not with fealty to those particular brands.)

However, we need to be more systematic in thinking about how we approach this subject as a matter of teaching, research and practice.  One can learn the basics of using particular blogging and social media tools in a workshop. A college-level exploration of the design, disseminating and evaluation of social media content should not only be about practices, but also about principles. Journalism curricula need to reflect upon and synthesize emerging insights from a range of disciplines that can inform social media practices and standards for communications professionals.

[Read more…]

Jay Rosen’s Would Have Journalists Answer Users’ Questions has a good writeup of an idea that NYU journalism prof Jay Rosen has been batting around for a while, “Explain this.”  The basic idea is that news consumers would pose a question to a twitter-like interface and journalists would provide a credibly researched answer. (A typical question would be “why do we subsidize corn production?” ) It’s an interesting idea that could boost interest in explanatory journalism.

It could, that is, if journalists are regarded as reliable truthbearers.  There’s ample evidence that news consumers in the US and elsewhere don’t trust journalists. A March, 2009 survey found that only 3% of British respondents found journalists trustworthy. A September, 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press Found that Americans’ trust in the accuracy and fairness of the news media is at a 20-year low.

Read more:  Jay Rosen’s Would Have Journalists Answer Users’ Questions.