I recently discovered the educative project Journalism + Design, which combines the methodologies of design thinking with journalism and encourages journalism students to consider the design center in people when they produce stories for digital environments.
What a great idea! My training as a journalist, and my experience on an User Experience (UX) design team, led me some years ago to the same crossroads between journalism and human- centered design. But I never saw it as palpable as in the initiative of The New School of New York and its consultant Ideo.
In many ways, it’s hard for journalism to leave behind the top-down structure of the old broadcast model. This is why it’s still based on readers, listeners and viewers. However, the experience that digital interactive media offers demands us to consider a new audience and new ways to get to it. We no longer talk about passive consumers, but of users that have experience with information.
In that experience, the crossroads between design and journalism gains in value because we can define how we want it to be. We can and we must design it even if we decide to work only with text.
I’m not talking about the aesthetic and visual aspects; I’m talking about how the information will be used. This is the challenge. Although universities have trained us to tell stories properly, they never taught us to design them with multimedia resources in an interactive environment.
Don’t forget people
In 2012, I began to outline the concept of User-Centered Journalism (UCJ) — in Spanish, Periodismo Centrado en el Usuario (PCU) — in an ugly and empty blog. As it happens in User- Centered Design, the aim is to make people part of the news production process.
It’s not about journalists working in boxes anymore, but of co-creation with users. We must understand them. In fact, we must understand ourselves because we are all people before users. But what does “putting the focus on the user” mean? Let’s look at it through an example.
Contrasting with what happens on paper, readers behave in a different way when we are in front of a screen. Eye-tracking studies — performed with a device capable of following the movement of our eyes on a screen — have shown that we first scan the text and then read word by word. In other words, we take a quick glance at the content and only stop when we find something related to the reason that led us there in the first place.
The paradox is that although it’s been proven that reading on a screen is different, we keep on writing articles as if they’ll be consumed on paper. We don’t consider the characteristics nor the demands of a different context of use.
For instance, we usually don’t ‘break’ the information into meaning units that can be connected by links or offer a sort of navigation through the topic. We don’t use resources to knock down a wall of illegible paragraphs, in contexts where the only thing that matters is to digesting the key points of breaking news and going on with our lives.
Sometimes we don’t see beyond the box. So, let’s get out! What do people do with information? Where do they consume it? Are they doing another activity in the meanwhile? How do they feel? Why did they do it for? Inside the box there are no answers. And even though it’s true that we can’t know it all, or focus on knowing at least something about our audience, their relationship with the media and their environment, it’s better than being inside the box and having no answers at all.
Let’s introduce ourselves into this world and understand how it works. This is the simplest way to engage people; it also gives us a basis to assure that our content will come with efficiency and create a good user experience.
We can keep following publications, institutions and mentors of different disciplines. But the most powerful way to know and understand what happens with information is to observe people in context, in the situation. Only then will we see how the walls of the box collapse, as our eyes adjust to the light and things become different.
As in Journalism + Design, it would be great if these concepts were increasingly present in universities and journalism schools. Just imagine students trying to help people who want to keep up with the latest news and then validating probable solutions with user tests. The effect on the mind-set and in the prejudices that we’ve built would be devastating.
Design and not only write
“Reading tends to be ubiquitous, transmediatic and mostly experiential. The reading context, the kind of experience desired and the time that the consumer has to enjoy are the only things that count. The key is to personalize the user experience.” Roberto Igarza, Burbujas de ocio. 2009
If reading is transmediatic and experiential, we face a very deep change of context, which implies modifying the way we produce stories. We talk about many contexts and usage patterns in which just writing isn’t enough.
Do we want an article to be read in a single sitting? Or do we want to write a news report in a way that helps the user scan the key points? In which context is it going to be used: desktop, mobile, or perhaps smart TV? In all of these? Each of them has its own characteristics and creates a different experience.
Perhaps we have something to tell from raw data. How are we going to do it? What’s the most efficient way to do it? What if we want to encourage our users to explore and find out different stories by themselves? How will we facilitate that? How will the interaction be like?
There are thousand ways to design the user experience of a journalistic piece. But all of them have three things in common: the user, its objective or intention and the context in which it’ll take place.
We have to get out of the box and involve our users. Then we’ll see that only good things can come out of it.
Emiliano Cosenza (@ecosenza) is a journalist and works as a Senior Content Designer at MercadoLibre’s User Experience Team. He studied Communication Science at Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA) and Journalism at TEA. He also did a postgraduate degree in Digital Journalism organized by Universitat Pompeu Fabra of Barcelona, Google and TN.com.ar.
This post originally appeared on Medium.