How Designers Can Imagine Innovative Technologies for News

    by J. Nathan Matias
    March 9, 2012

    A version of this post first appeared on the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

    How can designers imagine innovative technologies for news and journalism? I think I know one answer. In this post, I propose the Journalism Innovation Spiral and demonstrate it by picking apart the “profile article” for innovative ideas. The resulting design is a browser plugin which can attach writers’ tools to any text form on the web.

    I’m currently taking Ethan Zuckerman’s MIT class on News in the Age of Participatory Media, a compressed intro to journalism for engineers. In principle we’re a group of engineers trying to learn enough about journalism to imagine and build new technologies. In practice, that’s a really hard thing to do. People might genuinely argue that we’re only half-learning journalism in a fraction of the time students take in journalism school. Furthermore, we also need to think about technology. How can we do that?


    i-bce392a7f42ef0c3db5718e7395caa55-Resnick and Verplank Design Spirals.png

    Mitch Resnick’s Creative Learning Spiral (left), & Bill Verplank’s Hunch/Hack Cycle (right). 

    At the Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten and Tangible Media groups, they articulate their design approach as spirals. Mitch Resnick’s creative learning spiral (pdf) is deeply reflective and never-ending. The goal of his spiral is to experience joy and learning through creativity and to cultivate even more creativity among others. In contrast, Hiroshi Ishii wants to change the world through design paradigms. Hiroshi uses Bill Verplank’s “Hunch and Hack” approach (pdf) to cultivate a vision and develop technologies that shape how everyone else thinks and works. Both of these models have iteration baked in, with the expectation that each iteration can transform and improve the creative idea.


    These spirals start with the designer. It’s an approach that has led to beautiful and world-changing innovations from both research groups. The Center for Civic Media is slightly different. We start with the realization that we don’t always have a hunch, and that we need to gain that hunch through direct contact with the people and issues we try to address. Where possible, we do cooperative design with communities. But we’re not consultants. We work in fields that need broad world-changing creativity as well as empowered local solutions.

    The Journalism Innovation Spiral

    Here’s a draft proposal for journalism innovation design:

    1. Learn about a particular issue in journalism
    2. Commit an act of journalism
    3. Reflect on that act as a designer
    4. Imagine what you might do to make it better
    5. Prototype something
    6. Play with it
    7. Share it with an audience
    8. GOTO 2

    Learning about the broader issues in journalism is incredibly important. It’s poor planning to try to hack on an issue like fact checking without some genuine understanding of what people think facts are, why they matter, and what’s already happening in the space. I agree with Ethan that actually committing acts of journalism is tremendously helpful. By asking us to write articles, Ethan is asking us to do what amounts to full-contact body-storming. But we can’t assume that committing acts of journalism will automatically grant us epiphanies. We need to reflect on that act as designers. Reflection gives us a great starting point to imagine new designs, at which point I think we can bring in Mitch and Hiroshi’s models to hack, prototype, and develop our ideas further.

    Enough Talk. Let’s Do This

    I’m now going to put this model into practice. This week, Ethan asked us to write a profile article about one of our classmates. The class did some really wonderful pieces, which you can see at partnews.mit.edu. I haven’t yet finished mine, but I did learn enough to start designing.

    I set out to write a profile of Eric French, co-editor of the leftist Costa Rican online opinion magazine Revista Amauta. As we talked on Skype, I recorded the interview with Audio Hijack Pro and transcribed it. This was easy for me, since I have pretty good typing skills and know how to slow down audio playback. Transcription was a new area for other students, but it’s easy to learn. There are already several online audio transcription services, so I reckon that to be a mostly solved problem. Background research was also a challenge, but services like PiPL can get the interviewer a long way.

    We all agreed that it would be nice to have a tool to filter through someone’s Twitter and RSS history. An alternative would be to interview a very specific kind of Twitter user: someone who a) posts regularly, who b) follows a smaller number of people, and c) who has followed your person of interest for a long time. But it wasn’t my problem, so I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

    Challenge One: Background Research: In my interview, I focused on Eric’s difficult position of trying to amplify indigenous Costa Rican voices while living thousands of miles away in Rhode Island. There was no way I could get enough background on the Costa Rican media within a couple hours. I wanted to ask good questions and take our interview in interesting places. The only way to do that was to pretend I knew what I was talking about. Before the interview, I spent two hours reading about Costa Rican media, reading Eric’s articles, and thinking about his situation. In the age of participatory media, we need to lessen the friction for ordinary bloggers to do great background research.

    Challenge Two: Mining Source Material: My second problem happened as I wrote my article; I kept forgetting which parts of the interview I had already quoted. Solving that one was easy for me. The low-fi option was to change the text color when I cited it (example here). The high-fidelity option involves using a professional writing tool such as Tinderbox to tag sections of the interview which I had already used.


    Challenge Three: Editing Transcripts: What’s an acceptable degree of editing? To write a good piece, I needed to let go of my inhibitions around editing Eric’s grammar and cut down his language. But I’m not a journalist and don’t know what’s acceptable. Even worse, experienced journalists disagree. Unfortunately, great journalism doesn’t come with the source code. It’s not possible to look at the edit history of an article you admire. Like thousands of other bloggers, I’m never going to have an editor, mentor, or journalism school prof help me develop tacit knowledge in this area.

    Imagining Improvements

    Having reflected, what can I do about these pain points?

    • Get someone else to help me do the interview. I don’t think I could outsource the interview entirely, since someone needs to represent the interests of the audience. Instead, I might talk to an expert in advance, inviting that expert to listen in on the conversation and text questions to my mobile. Maybe some journalists already do this, but how can we make this work for bloggers? Maybe in some cases, the expert could ask questions directly. Or maybe we combine Spot.us with conference blogging and have someone from the readership conduct the interview, with the blogger just writing the piece.
    • Design a simple two-paned transcript mashup editor, a “firebug“ for blog posts: It should mark material that I include in my article, automatically add elipses where I need them, be sensible about grammatical fixes, and complain if I do violence to my source’s words. It could be a browser plugin, so I can combine it with any web-based text entry system. Subsequent versions could remind me of things which make a successful blog post: Do I have a photo? Are my paragraphs too long? Have I referred to the Kardashians at least twice?
    • Link to source material from profile pieces. Of course the transcript is messy and impressionistic. Hiding the transcripts shields me from a lot of risk. But if more journalists are transparent online about their work practices, they are more likely to gain the positive advantages of reflective practice, and members of the public can become more familiar with journalistic norms. So I think an especially awesome transcript mashup editor would make it easy to publish source material.


    I don’t have time to make it today, since it was 11pm at the time of this writing and I still need to edit the music video from my recent cover of Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” So here’s a drawing.


    Reflecting on this design, I really like it. The browser seems like a much better place to put these tools than individual web platforms. Writers will love it if I genuinely make their lives better. A browser plugin can scale to many users rapidly without needing the sales team required for a new web platform. Imagined broadly, a browser plugin for bloggers could also meet many other needs:

    • Saving backups of material in browser text boxes
    • Liveblogging macros
    • Word counts
    • Flesch-Kinkaid readability checker
    • Fact-checks
    • Collaboratively edit any form with friends I choose
    • Automatically insert HTML links back to a server which holds transcripts

    Continuing the Journalism Innovation Spiral

    In this example, I committed an act of journalism, reflected on the process, and imagined some solutions. One of those proposals is a software design, so I developed it further with a sketch and some feature ideas.

    That’s not enough. To complete the Journalism Innovation Spiral, I need to make some kind of prototype of this software, no matter how low-fi. I need to play with it and share my work with an audience. And then I need to collect feedback from the experience of others to continue a cycle which could lead to a completely different design.

    I think this is a viable process for journalism innovation. In total, it took me around five and a half hours, from the moment I started to research my story on Eric, through our interview, to the end of this blog post. While I certainly can’t call myself a journalist — I didn’t even finish writing my article — I did produce a disruptive process, a media format proposal, and a credible software design within that time.

    I’m planning to refine this design process during Ethan’s class. Next time we are given a writing assignment, I’m going to leave time to run through this process entirely. In future assignments, I may try to conduct more than one iteration.

    This blog post itself has been an opportunity to imagine, create, play, reflect, and share my ideas about journalism innovation. I would love your comments on how I can improve the Journalism Innovation Spiral.

    Tagged: browser plugin designers journalism media news spirals technologies

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