A User-Centered Conversation at SRCCON

Design principles help newsrooms make choices, set priorities

Viewing data from Audiosear.ch. (Erik Westra for OpenNews)

In our last SRCCON post, we applauded the obvious but often-uncelebrated fact that cross-disciplinary, on-the-job learning fuels our community. That’s just how programming works, and it’s how journalism works, too, right? Learn what you need, often right before you need it. But time, skills, and cash are always in short supply, to build everything on the list.

This might be (wild!) speculation, but let’s go to the SRCCON transcripts, Bob:

  • “My team has a running joke, we’re often asked to do Snow Fall…and we can do Snow Flake.”
  • I’ve always been a team of one, so I’m always paranoid or terrified that I actually have no idea what I’m doing, or my process is completely poor.”

More and more, as designers, journalists and programmers make choices about what/how to build with scarce time and resources, user-centered design is bringing new perspective, processes and tools.

Of course, new processes and tools also take time and resources. At SRCCON, discussions of user-centered design threaded through the conference and focused on doing it right, for the right reasons.

What the Approach Means for Journalists

User-centered design is a wave of thought initially defined by Don Norman and made popular by agencies like IDEO, an iconic design firm that created Apple’s first mouse. The approach relies deeply on empathy–gaining empathy through research and showing empathy in the final product.

For journalism, this is in some ways a significant shift. Livia Labate and Joe Germuska asked, “Historically there was a sense that [journalists] could extract objective truth. If you’re focusing on users, what happens?”

It depends what you’re looking for. The NPR team might wonder, for example, what happens in users’ minds when they see a story with sequential visuals, such as a slides. Does the form itself tint users’ impressions or expectations about the content? Based on responses, they’ll consider adjusting the design.

User-centricity may also be more broad than that, Labate said: “Most of you are in a newsroom that’s asking ‘how do we talk to snake people?’ … It’s identifying a target audience, [asking] how do we reach them?”

Or—it’s both design and content. Ryan Murphy of the Texas Tribune said that “separating product design from story is a line that we are trying to define.” Early efforts at user testing are yielding good stuff, though. For example, the Tribune team was using the abbreviation “leg” instead of “legislator” and, in user testing, no one knew what that meant. A small, easy fix.

Shifting editorial practices isn’t always easy, though, and a user-centered approach might both create and ease frictions. For example, one participant described a split between an editorial team and a design team. In a mobile app, editors wanted to use the original, text-heavy story, while designers argued for a more chronological approach. User testing helped editors change their minds.

A user-centric mindset can help clarify the bigger picture, too.

Maura Youngman, a UX researcher at the New York Times, said:

There’s a fascinating space that’s a marriage between quantitative user testing (A/B testing that can help us understanding what people are doing) and qualitative user research— the why and what you are valuing in our content.

The Audiosear.ch team describes grappling with this divide in a later session. They ran a battery of A/B tests but also had to question their overall mission:

We’re running all these tests. A lot of them are really UI focused. Are we trying to build a destination site for podcasts? Is that actually a thing that we want to do?”

Small edits, big-picture mission choices. Where do you start?

Drinking from the Firehose

It’s on the white board, therefore it is real. (Lindsay Muscato for OpenNews)

Research is the bedrock of a user-centered approach–and although it’s similar to a journalistic approach, it’s also quite different. User-centered research isn’t about getting a story, it’s about getting the experience of being inside another’s mind or body.

Emily Goligoski and Maura Youngman shared important tools and methods for design research at news organizations, based on their experience at the New York Times. They discussed, for example:

  • Interviews—structured, not off the cuff
  • Observational study—watching the user try something, in person or remotely
  • Concept testing—putting an early-stage prototype in someone’s hands
  • Surveys—good for getting mass responses, but not depth
  • User conversations—a dialogue between different types of users
  • Generative exercises—where users do tasks or make stuff that sheds light on how they think and feel about the product.
  • Usability testing— not asking for preferences, but instead seeing whether your product is working as the user expects it to.
  • User diaries—testing more intensively: for example, learning about users’ interactions with breaking news throughout the day.

Goligoski and Youngman also recommended basic resources to limit your Google wormhole on design research methods, including Erika Hall’s Just Enough Research.

Pick Your Path

Choosing an approach that works for your goals, is what matters. Audiosear.ch made intentional choices about which tests to run, early in its founding, to make data-driven decisions about users’ needs.

From their session:

It’s been impressed upon us as an industry… for the last ten plus years or so, that we should collect lots of data, whether it’s Google Analytics, or your tool du jour. There’s a certain art, though. There’s so much data that you could collect from a website—how much time are people spending there, what do they click on when they’re there, where do they enter, where do they leave—that you could spend a lot of time trying to drink from the fire hose. It’s helpful to think about, ‘what are the data points that would help me answer my question?’ And so that led us down the path of saying, we’re going to collect as much data as we can, but we’re only going to pay attention to a few key metrics.

Having good tools along the way helped: "Optimizely lets you test things without building them out. We have dummy things on the site, that say ‘feature coming soon,’ just to see what people will click on.”

Audiosear.ch spent far less time on surveys than on testing, but presenters did have this to say about why surveys were helpful:

[Survey data] will give us a sense for general trends that we might not be able to pick up on without building out a lot of tests on the website. For example, everybody said they look for podcasts on Twitter. Nobody said Facebook…. On an even more qualitative level… if there’s a big podcasting network or audio distributor saying—“I saw that latest beta testing email and the stuff you’re doing is really interesting. We should talk about it.” Okay. That’s significant. That’s one person, but speaking on behalf of arguably a larger organization that could do meaningful work with us.

Read the session transcript for more about how they formed hypothesis that shaped their user-testing process, especially in a newer genre like podcasting where lifelong habits and expectations haven’t become entrenched.

Attention to Accessibility

Good user-centered design involves talking with, learning from, and designing for the people who will most likely need your work. But people with disabilities, visual impairments, or hearing impairments are often missing from these design calculations. In journalism, that kind of oversight undermines an organization’s inclusive mission and leaves out swaths of users.

From the accessibility session:

We installed a color-blind Chrome extension… I’ve never in my time actually gone out and tested that, went to actual people who have possible impairments and say, hey… look at my work and tell me, do you understand what you’re looking at? … And that’s the hard thing. Especially in a lot of newsrooms we have deadlines and other things that we’re trying to keep up with.

Later, from the same session:

I was at a conference last week and one person said ‘you will never prioritize your backlog the same once you meet your user…’ And once you talk with someone and experience them trying to use your website and navigate with a screen reader or something like that, that will change you.

Designing for the Inside

In a session on hiring, thinking about what matters most. (Lindsay Muscato for OpenNews)

Sometimes, instead of going out into the world to interact with users, your internal team is the focus. As the resident news nerd, you’re making tools for colleagues, and that means thinking about where their digital skills lie so that you can create appropriate tools and trainings.

From the small-teams session:

[Find] common ground through analogies… I have some open source tools that are really easy to use and they became less scary when I told people that they were just as easy as uploading pictures to Facebook, and they’re like, ‘OK, I know how to do that.’ …”

Hiring can be user-centered, too, “a clear, concise, jargon-less, empathetic process.” (See the hiring session for more.)

Speaking of going internal, SRCCON sessions also doubled as user testing. The Dat and Flatsheet session closed like this:

I just want to thank you so much for your time and being guinea pigs. I learned a lot about the user experience of our tools in this very brief session.

Beyond Testing

The SRCCON discussion on messaging apps took a user-centered approach well past the design phase and into the social sphere, communicating with users and generating new stories, together.

SRCCON took place as the Supreme Court’s landmark gay marriage decision neared culmination, so ideas for using messaging apps to communicate with users included:

  • Sign up people planning to get married if the Supreme Court rules that gay marriage is legal.
  • Tell people in what areas do people want to get married that the law does not allow.
  • Find out who’s not officiating weddings.
  • Crowdsource stories from people struggling to get married.


User-Centered Everything

Make what the people need. (Lindsay Muscato for OpenNews)

Applying user-centered principles to the journalistic web is helping news organizations think through essential questions, make better choices, and–if it’s working–reach more of their goals, more intentionally. We so appreciated hearing these user-centered conversations weave throughout SRCCON, delineating empathy from objectivity, sharing practical tools, and making room for new ways of working.

And hey, a user-centered approach can manifest in so many different ways, big and small, to create custom, interactive things of merit. Like, a bot for your very own colleagues, who can’t remember to break for snacks:

Our audience development team has a reminder bot every day at 3:00 p.m. that it’s time for a break. It’s just a series of fruit emojis.

How about you? Tell us how user-centered research, design, and testing are (or aren’t) shifting your work process.



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