News Organization: NPR
Person: Liz Danzico, creative director. She is also chair and co-founder of the MFA in Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts.
Setting: Danzico’s position is cross-divisional. She heads a design team that sits in a sixty-person group called Digital Media, which is a standalone entity separate from the newsroom and marketing. Danzico reports to the chief digital officer, who in turn reports to NPR’s chief executive officer. She has eight people on her team. Outside of Digital Media, Danzico is also involved in organization-wide user-research projects, designing workshops, and collaborating with other design groups in marketing, multimedia, and visuals, among others. “When you hear an NPR program, you recognize its sound,” Danzico said. “My job is to tease out how unified—or how different—should the visual and interactive experience be. We’re always thinking about our listeners, and increasingly those listeners are not only listening but touching and feeling and seeing.”
The Process: Danzico’s team works mostly in Agile, the work methodology mentioned earlier in this report that focuses on quick adaption to changing requirements and insights. It arose in opposition to the waterfall design method, a more highly structured approach that demanded strict adherence to stages and did not allow room for circling back or adjusting for new information and insights. One way of implementing Agile is through scrum teams. (The term derives from a rugby analogy.) Digital Media has five scrum teams working at any one time. These teams always include a product owner; a scrum master who facilitates the project process to deliver better, faster, and at a higher quality; designers; developers; a quality assurance expert; and (in many cases) content experts. The teams are all focusing on different product areas—one might focus on user experience, another on “audience journey” (a way of thinking about a person’s steps through the experience of your product), someone on membership, and another on revenue. Digital Media’s scrum teams work in two-week cycles that always start with a collaborative planning session, during which everyone agrees on what the team is looking to achieve during that cycle. This could be anything from an audience research goal, to putting together a prototype, to building a finished product feature. Everyone agrees how much work will be necessary to achieve the goal, and at the end of the cycle there’s a stakeholder review. It’s here that the team showcases the outcomes from that cycle’s work, including demonstrations of prototypes and/or completed features. The point of taking the time to meet and agree on upcoming work doesn’t mean that nothing will change during the process, but it helps everyone to understand what each member is doing and stave of confusion later. Transparent communication is key to successful teamwork. It’s worth noting that while designers talk a lot about how messy their work is, and how it’s often not until fairly late in the project that they have a clear direction, the work process itself is highly structured. Scrum-cycle days start with stand-ups, or short meetings so named because participants don’t usually even sit down. Every team member reports on what they did the day before, what they plan to do that day, and anything that’s blocking their progress. Danzico describes this process as one of “radical cooperation and transparency.” Ongoing, Danzico and her team experiment with patterns and behaviors across NPR’s digital products. On a day-to-day basis, the team might look, as they did late in the past year, at a single experience such as a play button: In this case, they examined how menus unfurled or expanded, debated language, and experimented with the pros and cons of autoplay. Now that many people access public radio stories and shows through multiple platforms—and on their own time rather than a broadcast station’s schedule—NPR no longer has the option of a simple on-off switch. Danizco’s objective is to understand how the different details affect one another to create a holistic user experience. Ultimately, the question is not whether that whole is pretty or not, but what it is communicating as a system. In other words: “How do we make a play button feel, look, and behave like an NPR play button?” Danzico said.
As news organizations become more complex in structure—existing on the radio, through podcasts, on mobile apps, and social media—every piece of journalism itself contains increasing numbers of moving parts. Designers like Danzico find themselves creating not just the thing in front of them—such as a play button—but that thing as it relates to every other part of the user experience. On one hand, it’s a play button; on the other, it’s part of the design of a coherent and flexible system of experience. Danzico explained:
We don’t have the ability anymore to say, “Here’s this singular thing. Here’s how someone will experience my story.” Design is no longer about “here’s this website or this app.” Now it’s about: What does a person’s life look like, and how can we be all the places they need us to be? Thinking about design this way requires people who aren’t designing a singular thing but are thinking about how all the experiences hang together.
Even meetings have become less linear. When Danzico and her team are meeting with people across different divisions, she asks participants to do more than merely run through an agenda. People sketch and then trade sketches. Or they talk about assumptions. The idea of bringing out assumptions runs throughout Danzico’s work. Last year, her team worked with NPR Music to reexamine its identity and how it fits into the larger sphere of NPR. To get the group started, Danzico and her team had everyone write down one assumption about the project on a Post-it note, then add it to a board.v Participants listed ideas ranging from who they thought the audience was, to how their own workflow might change.
Majeed at BuzzFeed also talked about the importance of noting and then moving beyond assumptions, as did Goligoski at The Times. This is crucial to any successful design process, and it has long struck me as an area of natural affinity between journalism and design. Journalists are interested in facts; designers are interested in real needs; in both cases, mistaking one’s own assumptions for the truth can lead you astray. But unlike any journalists I know, designers routinely build assumption-generating work into their process. According to Danzico, this assumption work is not only a critical part of identifying potential fault lines, but also serves as a great way to get people talking in a meaningful way at the start of a project. This second point echoes what Jamer Hunt called the “democratization” of design work. “Design is a great tool for leveling hierarchies in organization structures,” he said. With the advent of human-centered design and its acknowledgement of the need to work collaboratively, design revolves around, as Hunt put it, “co-generating ideas” and “working horizontally.” During the NPR Music project, everyone from the head of news to product managers participated in all aspects of the work. After writing down their assumptions, they clustered the Post-its, moving them around into groups according to themes that emerged. Clustering is part of the synthesis process and is a key part of almost any design work. Then they sketched in three-minute rounds, interspersed with conversation. Sketches included ideas about how communication should work and what a competitor’s strategy was, forcing people to express even complicated ideas in quick visualizations. Thinking visually has long been integral to design work and was first made popular by Robert McKim’s groundbreaking book Experiences in Visual Thinking, published in 1972. “It’s all a way to get people’s ideas onto paper,” Danzico said. “And this is often the trickiest part of any kind of project.” I asked Danzico to define her design methods. She told me she had been baking a lot of bread lately. “If you Google ‘bread recipes,’ you’ll see every single one of them has the same ingredients, but the recipes always are slightly different.” According to Danzico, the ingredients of design include visual assets—the photos, illustrations, drawn concepts, charts, and colors schemes you have on a project—the people on the team, your objectives and strategies, and the impact you want to have. The flour and the eggs? “You always start with who it’s for and what you’re hoping to achieve,” she said. “And collaboration is essential.” The methods are the recipes. Danzico doesn’t worry too much about what kind of design her team is practicing. She said:
For us, it really doesn’t matter what we’re calling it. What’s important is that we’re getting people to collaborate and to feel that the process is transparent enough that they have a voice. Design methods, for whatever reason, do a great job of making contributions feel democratic. It provides a great framework for people to get their ideas out there.
Practice radical communication and collaboration. Highly effective communication is necessary for successful collaboration, and collaboration is central to the design process, especially when you’re designing for complexity.
Design isn’t about creating a single item. Focus instead on how all the parts work together.
Do assumption-generating exercises. Realizing what’s an assumption and what’s reality can entirely change what you do.
Think visually. Having people sketch “makes the invisible visible.”