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).
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.