Empowering editorial teams with product methods
Four ways to bring an iterative, audience-centered approach into your next project—and make sure it meets people’s needs
When I made the leap from editorial to the product world, I discovered that the iterative, user-centered methods we use to develop and test products makes a lot of sense for content, too. These methods go almost entirely against the way many of us orient ourselves as content creators. Instead of pressing publish and hoping audiences like what we’ve produced, it asks us to have deep, ongoing conversations with those readers, viewers, or listeners from the outset, de-risking our work by grounding it in an understanding of people’s needs. Instead of obsessing alone over getting it “right,” it asks us to work collaboratively and build off one another’s ideas. Long before we’re ready to publish, it asks us to show prototypes, or drafts of what we’re working on, to the people we’re making it for. And it requires that once we release something into the world, we step back and reflect before moving on to the next thing that needs to get done.
At this year’s SRCCON, I, along with my former colleague Stephanie Kuo, a radio producer turned design thinker like myself, facilitated a session based on real experiences we’ve had adapting product methods for editorial teams (podcasters, mostly, although these methods can be applied to any editorial project). The process they’ve followed is one you can try out in your own newsroom, too.
Here are four methods you can use with your next project to make sure you root it in people’s needs, let your team’s creativity run wild, and treat everything as an opportunity for learning:
A design thinking approach to content creation asks that we start not with a great idea, but with a need. For example, a news consumer might need access to nuanced news in a way that makes them feel “a shift in consciousness” that they don’t get from headlines or surface-level reporting. That’s an example we used in our session, adapted from our own research. Needs aren’t invented; they’re uncovered when teams take the time to talk to their intended audiences and build empathy for their lives, behaviors, and beliefs.
Why reach out to real people? For one thing, newsrooms have a long way to go toward being representative of the communities they report on and for. If we want to reach new audiences, make journalism more accessible, and, let’s face it, just cut through the noise, we need to create content that’s useful and meaningful for our “end users,” not just for ourselves.
Two questions always come up when I challenge editorial teams to talk to their audiences:
“Does this mean I have to do whatever my audience tells me to do?” Not at all. A design thinking approach to content creation, done right, empowers editorial teams to do what they do best: present strong reporting in exciting, relevant, and empathetic formats. Audience needs are a starting point, but it’s the editorial team’s job to interpret those needs and come up with the best possible “solution.”
"Does this mean my audience will give me all the answers?” Again, no. Although it sure would be easier if it worked out that way. One of the least effective questions you can ask someone is, “What do you want?” A design thinking approach isn’t about validating ideas, but about using insights from conversations with audiences to make those ideas more likely to succeed.
Getting started talking to people is easier than it sounds. Journalists can think of target users as “sources” to track down. And in user research, it’s fine to pay people for their time. Newsrooms can start by creating a callout that invites readers/viewers/listeners to share their feedback, and offer gift cards in exchange for a one-on-one conversation. Once it’s safe to do so, hit the streets and try to have those chats in person. Focus on fewer, deeper conversations with people who truly represent who you’re trying to reach.
Another question I’ve been asked is, “Does this approach mean I can’t try something totally out there, because my audience hasn’t asked me for it?” On the contrary, design methods encourage us to think way outside of the box, so long as your ideas stay rooted in people’s needs.
In our SRCCON session, we broke participants into groups and gave each group an editorial assignment and a persona: an audience member with clear needs, motivations, and habits. We then asked them to use those personas as a starting point for brainstorming editorial approaches.
Anchoring their assignments in needs led groups to take different approaches to the same pitch. For example, two groups were assigned to develop a recurring series about climate change, one for our previously defined need (“access to nuanced news in a way that makes them feel ‘a shift in consciousness’ that they don’t get from headlines or surface-level reporting”), and one for a persona who needs “a digestible introduction to news in a way that allows them to form and maintain this new, ‘adult’ habit.”
Both groups came up with ideas for a newsletter, but their concepts diverged from there. For the persona with a need for access to nuanced news, the group decided the right approach would deliver a digestible amount of information with the option to explore deeper. Brainstorming further, they proposed CNN’s John Sutter as a host with enough expertise to earn their persona’s trust and gave him the mandate to report on “the lesser-known storylines of climate change”–something that could engage and delight the reader who feels like they’ve seen it all.
The group assigned to the persona who needs an introduction to news, on the other hand, understood that this person wouldn’t have time to be seeking out their climate series, and would need the ability to multitask. Based on this, they explored the idea of a hybrid audio/text newsletter that would conveniently fit into a busy morning routine. Instead of going in-depth, they would feature a broad survey of different sources, and because this persona is wary of bias, they imagined the voice of the audio version as having “just enough personality to help them through technical language.”
Once you start ideating, there are countless creative ways you might address someone’s needs. Exercises like Crazy 8s, where individuals rapidly cycle through eight variations on an idea in just eight minutes, a “yes and” approach to building on ideas, and dot voting to align on how to move forward are all common in the product world, and similarly can allow editorial teams to expand the possibilities of what they might create. Grounding such exercises in needs turns a wild idea into a “so wild it just might work” innovation.
In the product world, there’s nothing more exciting than watching via screenshare and furiously taking notes as a user interacts with something we’ve built. It turns out, the same is true for editorial teams. If we were to continue our projects from SRCCON, the next step would be for the groups to prototype their concepts and test them with real people that represent their personas.
Long before a pilot episode has been produced or a final draft of a newsletter has been written, editorial teams can prototype their ideas in quick and easy ways. A rough trailer can stand in place of a full episode of a podcast or video series–and before that, a title, description, and some sample episode descriptions can do the trick.
Prototypes are intended to help teams understand the concepts they’re developing and get early feedback before they’ve dedicated significant time and resources to any one idea. Just as a user tester will understand how a pen-and-paper wireframe represents a product, content testers are forgiving of ideas that are not yet ready for primetime, not to mention less likely to tell us they like it just to avoid hurting our feelings. It’s better to hear the negative feedback early on, than on social media later.
What might prototypes look like? In design sprints, we’ve encouraged teams to try out variations on taglines, to Frankenstein clips together to create a mood board of what they’re going for, and to share storyboards with their target audiences. You can return to people you identified in your original user interviews, or seek out people with similar behaviors to share feedback.
Product teams operating under scrum or agile methods will organize their work into short sprints, at the end of which they’ll hold “retros” to help them evaluate whether they’re on track. There are key points where stepping back to reflect can be a big help, especially for teams that are in near-constant production mode.
The editorial design sprints we run always end with a retro, during which each member of the team shares what went well, what could have gone better, and ideas and opportunities they’ve identified for moving forward (or, if a project has ended, for the next time around). These are also helpful to run after a big launch, once a project wraps up, or just when the team feels a need to reassess what they’re doing.
A good retrospective sets up a space for members of a team to be vulnerable, to review the different components of what they did, and how it felt. Its goal is to surface things–both good and bad–that haven’t been brought up yet because people haven’t felt comfortable sharing them, haven’t had the chance to do so, or just assumed them to be understood. (It’s worth acknowledging that vulnerability doesn’t just happen, especially when it’s not the norm in a newsroom. It takes careful cultivation, and practice.)
During a retro, we spend time listening to one another, instead of jumping right away into “solutioning.” But we do identify things that can be discussed, addressed and maybe even solved, perhaps even by using more product methods.
It doesn’t take a lot to start introducing product methods to your editorial team: just open minds, a lot of enthusiasm, and a willingness to try, fail, and then keep trying. For more resources and ideas, check out another take on How journalists can improve their storytelling by embracing design thinking, study The Design Thinking Bootleg, and read the books Just Enough Research and Talking to Humans.
Lindsay Abrams is the design strategist for CNN Audio. She previously led training at PRX, where she used design thinking as a framework for helping podcasters around the world identify and reach new audiences. She was also a Google News Lab fellow and associate producer at Matter Ventures, a design-thinking accelerator for media startups. She received her master’s degree in digital-first journalism from New York University and is based in Brooklyn.