Kevin Michael Brooks, Technology Storyteller

A pioneer in the field of interactive storytelling has left the earthly stage. Kevin Michael Brooks — designer, author, researcher — lost his battle with pancreatic cancer March 28, 2014. He was 55. His death was announced by his wife, fellow storyteller Laura Packer, who also posted this online obituary.

I only interacted directly with Kevin a few times in person and online, and I would not presume to count myself among his intimates. He made friends easily, and had many admirers among the his colleagues at the various places where he studied and worked (degrees from Drexel, Stanford and MIT, and positions at Apple, Motorola and Hallmark.), and in the vast community of oral storytellers and audiences at events such as Massmouth. But I feel privileged to have been in his presence, to have experienced his enthusiasm and expansive intellect and to have been warmed by the light of his smile. And so, I did not want to let this moment pass without encouraging those who are interested in computational thinking, interactive journalism and user experience design to delve into his work.

Take the time to watch this 2012 eMedia chat in which Brooks explains his evolution as a storyteller, and how he came to understand the centrality of storytelling to effective user experience design, and the importance of understanding audience (or users) to effective storytelling.

For a deeper dive, Brooks’ 1999 doctoral dissertation for MIT Media Lab, Metalinear Cinematic Narrative: Theory, Process and Tool is worth reading. In this work, Brooks proposed the term metalinear narrative to describe the underlying structure needed to make multithreaded user-defined stories work effectively. He was grappling with the central problem of how to translate the building blocks of a story into structured data that a reader can assemble in multiple ways without losing its coherence. He created a software tool, Agent Stories, that was intended to assist storytellers in creating metalinear narratives. While software has move on since then, most notably in game design, the questions raised in Brooks’ work are still relevant.

Brooks’ post-MIT work applied these insights to user-experience design. I recall sitting in the audience as he explained how he created an interactive film to help Motorola’s engineers think through the design of its OnStar(TM) navigation service. He also coauthored a book with Whitney Quesenbery, Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting Stories for Better Design.

Kevin’s personal journey is also inspiring to those of us who are concerned with broadening participation in computing. He was an African American male who matriculated through Philadelphia’s public schools in the 1960s and 70s. He had aspirations to work in two fields – film and computer science – where few people looked like him. Not only that, but he had those aspirations at a time when students where told that these interests were mutually exclusive. Now, computer science educators strain to find ways to help students understand the creative potential of computing, and the use of media as a pedagogical platform and strategy is far more common.

It is my profound hope that people in the field of computational journalism, organizational communications, news design and user experience design will study Kevin’s work and build upon it. Rest in peace, Kevin, and thank you.

I’ll leave you with something fun:

When two or three are gathered in the name of journalism and user experience design….

I was pleased to see that my post on user experience design in journalism education attracted the attention of a blogger who is pursuing graduate studies in Interactive Media with a focus in precisely this area. (Can’t find the blogger’s name, I’m afraid, but the blog is called UX+JX, which is catchy and cute in a geeky way.) I’ll be looking forward to the progress of this new colleague’s dissertation research. I’m also grateful for the pointer to Cindy Royal’s fascinating 2010 ethnography  (.pdf) of the New York Times Interactive desk. Perusing her site, I also came across this May, 2009 Online Journalism Review article on News as User Experience, which serves as a decent general introduction to the concept for news organizations.

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.