Human-centered Storytelling: How Design Thinking Improves Public-powered Journalism
Design Thinking has become a major buzzword in the last few years. It is clear that Design Thinking is not the solution for everything. However, as a human-centered framework that “integrates the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success” (Tim Brown), Design Thinking may provide a useful process for public-powered journalism.
In a research paper for my master’s degree in Digital Management at Hyper Island, I explored the ways Design Thinking could be applied in journalism. This article is a comprehensive summary of said paper as well as a start for further discussions and improvements.
Let’s take a look at the Design Thinking process as described by the British Design Council.
It starts with a problem statement. After that, there are four phases visualized by a double diamond:
- Discover: Gaining insights into the problem
- Define: Synthesizing research findings
- Develop: Ideating potential solutions
- Deliver: Implementing a solution that works
Sometimes a fifth phase is added to show that the delivered solution is iterated over and over. Dan Nessler, a Hyper Island alumni and Head of UX at Hinderling Volkart, wrote a comprehensive guide to the Design Thinking process if you want to dig deeper into that topic.
Why should Design Thinking be applied in journalism?
The general definition of journalism may be summarized in three services to society: Information, explanation, and classification. But: “The bulk of news stories get created without the customers (the audience) meaningfully involved in the decisions that shape the product (the story),” writes Jennifer Brandel, CEO of Hearken. Interaction with the “people formerly known as the audience” usually happens after the publication.
However, many studies indicate a positive effect on business success in media companies that engage with their users early on. So it’s quite a paradox that most journalists believe that their work is vital to serving the public interest but are wary of allowing readers to dictate what’s newsworthy. There’s an excellent paper by James G. Robinson about the journalist’s perception of their readers.
Today, journalism is competing in the rambling attention economy of the internet. The competitors are not only other publishers but social media platforms as well. It is, therefore, essential to attracting attention by focusing on people’s needs. Also, the world is getting more interconnected, and humanity tackles complex problems. A focus on the readers’ questions helps journalism to fulfill its purpose in society.
Design Thinking can help to achieve a higher engaged community and erase the gut feeling about interests and relevance by actively include the readers in the process. However, this does not conclude that the readers will make every decision. In terms of journalism, the newsroom still can decide but always with the reader in mind. The success stories also show the economic viability of a human-centered storytelling approach. The publishers are struggling with financial sustainability. Therefore, it is crucial to focus the resources at hand on the people’s needs. Moreover, a loyal audience is vital for business success, whether the publisher bets on ad revenue, memberships, contributions, or subscriptions.
Introducing the Human-centered Storytelling framework
Keeping the readers in mind has already become a habit in many newsrooms. However, the idea of including them in the editorial process feels worrisome and abstract to the reporters I interviewed for the research paper.
There is a need to provide a Design Thinking framework that speaks the language of journalists. Therefore, I translated the “Double Diamond” by the British Design Council into the human-centered storytelling (HCS).
After some iterations of the translation, I came up with the following framework. I will further explain the phases of the HCS and provide some tools to facilitate the process.
Phase 1: Discover interests
Asking the readers
The start of the HCS process is a general and complex topic (e.g., climate change) where many different stories could be told. Here the newsroom uses an open text form in an article and asks the readers to submit their questions about the topic.
Editorial expertise & data
With editorial expertise and data, the newsroom can expand on the proposals of the users and find additional exciting topic areas that might perform strongly. Data also erases the social desirability bias.
Phase 2: Define interests
Editorial expertise & data
These two factors are also crucial to grasp the potential of the submitted question. Maybe the question was already answered before, and the newsroom can recycle the story.
Some questions might circle the same topic area. They have to be clustered and, if possible, combined.
Deciding on questions
The newsroom has to determine which questions should be passed on to the next stage of de HCS process. These decisions are informed by the number of questions about the topic area, news values, existing data, and available resources.
The newsroom writes pitches for the questions that outline the desired outcome.
The users get to vote, which question the newsroom should tackle. A simple poll tool can be used here. The community allocates the newsroom’s resources.
Phase 3: Develop the story
Primary and secondary research
After the users have decided which question the newsroom should answer, primary and secondary research begins simultaneously. In secondary research, the reporters are looking through formerly published articles and other existing sources. In the primary research, the reporters talk to sources, producing new information. Some of the users that submitted the final question may have information too that can be used.
The newsroom has to ideate how to tell the story and which information of the primary and secondary research to use. Also, different types of storytelling (e.g., report, interview) can be discussed.
Furthermore, the newsroom has to develop different ideas on the format. Should the story be told with text, video, infographics, or a combination?
Phase 4: Deliver the story
Storytelling and production decisions
Then, the newsroom has to decide how to deliver the story by choosing the best options from the storytelling and format ideation.
Then the story gets published and is now accessible for the users.
Traditionally, a journalistic piece is a finished product. In digital publishing, the newsroom can measure if the story answers the readers’ question by looking at analytics data like time spent or scroll depth. The article can then be adapted and re-published. A/B-testing helps the newsroom to get the full potential out of the story. User feedback via comments or emails may contribute to the insights.
Though this framework might still seem a bit abstract, I tried to translate the Design Thinking process into a journalistic language. I hope this might spark some inspiration on how to include the users more and more into editorial decisions. Let me know what you think of this, or how the model can be improved. I’m looking forward to a constructive discussion.