How might journalists spark more creative innovation in their work? Is design thinking a useful igniter for journalistic innovation?
This was the focus of the latest Carnival of Journalism conversation, which attracted low numbers but high quality responses from dedicated carnivalists. Defining design thinking, understanding audiences and working iteratively were three themes that emerged from the discussion, along with some overall thoughts on innovation.
What is design thinking?
David Cohn (Carnival leader and Director of News at Circa) started the conversation off by providing one view of design thinking: “the TED-talk of market research.”
Adam Westbrook (a web video maker in London and Paris) followed up with a detailed analysis of how design thinking can be much more, applying it to story design. He provided this elegant definition:
Design Thinking is about taking a disciplined, objective and methodical approach to solving a design problem: clearly defining the challenge, creating multiple solutions, picking the best and executing.
Carrie Brown-Smith, a journalism educator at the University of Memphis, praised design thinking because it “can be taught and practiced, making innovation more practical than relying on a sudden brilliant insight that may never come.” And Jonathan Groves, a journalism educator at Drury University, connected design thinking to Clayton Christensen’s “jobs to be done.”
As David noted, design thinking has a faddish tinge that, like all TED-ified ideas, can be overly simplistic. However plenty of people and organizations have found the process valuable for leading to innovative solutions, as Adam and Carrie noted. Steve Outing (journalist, analyst, educator, and media futurist) described five useful tips for innovative thinking unconnected to design thinking, demonstrating there are many paths to innovative destinations.
Where does the audience fit in?
Everyone agreed that innovation requires considering the needs of users. How to do this can be tricky for journalists who value independence and avoid “pandering” to audiences as a point of pride. Negotiating audience needs, desires and behaviors is clearly part of the post-industrial journalistic process; how to do this in a way that is insightful and intellectually honest is something we’re struggling to develop.
David identified the emphasis on audience as an integral part of design thinking:
I think as D-Thinking’s spread to other disciplines, what translates the most is the idea of sympathy for users and trying to identify their problems.
Carrie sees the emphasis on audience as a key focus:
The most important thing we can do to build news products that people will actually use is to learn what our audience really needs and wants. [Design thinking] reinforces the need to start building a new product only after talking to users…
The idea of starting with users — and with a need that needs to be filled or a workflow/habit that needs to be respected — is so, so important.
Jonathan Groves picked up the theme, concluding:
As we develop the next generation of news content, we must embrace the audience and its needs. Such a focus doesn’t mean we should shamelessly cater to all audience wants and desires. It just means we must consider the audience and the contexts of media consumption more completely as we develop our content, whatever form it may take.
Adam, who did a brilliant job applying design thinking to the creation of a narrative story, wrote about the importance of user experience (UX) when creating any kind of journalism displayed on any type of device:
…the design problem is identifying and delivering the meaning of your story in the mind of your audience in the most memorable way.
He showed an example storyboard, plotting not just the content, but his understanding of “the audience’s frame of mind at each stage. What do they know? What don’t they know? What do they want to know?”
Finally, Steve Outing wove in elements of audience considerations in his first tip to sparking innovation in your own thinking. In Tip #1 (Clear the past from your mind) he used as an example innovation at the Washington Post:
For purposes of innovation proposals for the Bezos team, you should focus solely on what new products consumers want or are likely to respond to in a big way.
My take away from all this is that attention to audience is permeating journalistic thinking far more explicitly than in the past. But figuring out best methods for understanding the needs of the audience could use much more analysis. Who do we imagine we are working for, and to what ends?
Model early and often
A second theme that emerged in the posts is that of rapid prototyping, agile development, of mapping ideas and building on them using simple materials, rather than investing serious resources in a product that hasn’t been well tested.
Carrie emphasized this idea as an educator, explaining how design thinking helps journalism students learn to “iterate constantly rather than waiting until you’ve invested many hours in your ideas to test it.”
Jonathan focused on the value of iteration for news organizations:
To survive in this environment, news organizations must become as experimental and nimble as the upstarts. They no longer have the luxury of lengthy content testing; they must push nascent products into the marketplace and iterate while learning from the audience.
Adam illustrated his process of mapping narrative, using [the ultimate design thinking tool] post-it notes. He writes:
Great storytellers in fiction and non-fiction from John McPhee to Rebecca Skloot to Vince Gilligan have praised the simple Index Card as crucial to their Story Design and I feel the same.
Then again, David points out:
…perhaps Design Thinking has a method of clearly exploring potential solutions through sketches, prototypes and mind-mapping, etc. But I don’t think these are specific to Design Thinking. If they are – then who isn’t a design thinker?
Design thinking isn’t the only way to come up with innovative ideas though, as both Steve and David pointed out.
For David, innovation has important moments:
- The aha moment (It’s the most adrenaline filled. The initial idea is a spark and the goal during this period is just to take that spark as far as you can.)
- The spidey-sense (In almost every project I’ve worked on, at some point, I get a “spidey-sense” that something is wrong about a specific aspect.)
- The pivot (It’s how projects iterate and push forward. And it is wholly creative both in that you are re-inventing the project and in the sense that creating anything is also about what you choose NOT to do.)
Steve provided five tips for sparking innovation, all worth attending to, ending with this final tip useful for faculty, journalists and designers:
Set aside time in your schedule for innovation work. Being more innovative requires more than good intentions; it requires committing at least part of your regular work schedule to regular “innovation time.” A weekly team meeting on Innovation Initiatives and Ideas for your news organization would be a good start.
And, of course, you’ll want to get everyone in your team involved. Innovation in the news industry is not a luxury, and it can cover a lot of ground.
Here are the posts, worth reading in full:
- Design Thinking and where creation happens, David Cohn
- Design Thinking and Journalism: A Vital Match in Changing Times, Carrie Brown-Smith
- Storytelling + Design Thinking, Adam Westbrook
- How to spark innovation in your own thinking (journalism edition), Steve Outing
- #jcarn: Finding the communication ‘jobs to be done’, Jonathan Groves