The design process is open-ended, and full of uncertainty and the promise of the unexpected.”
-Jamer Hunt, associate professor, Transdisciplinary Design, Parsons School of Design
Design is “a reflective conversation with the situation.”
-Donald Schon, philosopher and professor of urban planning, MIT
If we step away from IDEO’s five-step design thinking process, then the question emerges: What kind of process are we talking about when we refer to a design practice? While there are many schools of thought, and different branches of design, there are certain core processes that are likely to appear in any design practice.
Some designers are strict about the order in which they adhere to their processes. Most of the people with whom I spoke, however, are not. Indeed, since design-based approaches tend to emphasize a constant reassessment of both the problem and the solution, contemporary practice emphasizes moving through various processes as each particular problem demands and returning to earlier stages as necessary. Therefore, the elements listed below are often used in the order that makes sense in the context, and can be repeated as often as necessary. This list focuses on aspects that might be particularly worthwhile for journalists to consider—whether they are participating in the design of a new product, reinventing newsroom culture, or determining how to cover an important topic.
A system is a set of interconnected parts that together form a whole. Systems thinking is the study of wholes and the interrelationships between parts, rather than just the parts in isolation. It also emphasizes a recognition of the dynamic nature of those relationships. Increasingly, I’ve come to see every news story as a system: It is made up of the original piece of text or images produced by the reporter, but also has multiple social media components, generates feedback and conversation, gets quoted, is used as a jumping-off point for a segment on a podcast, goes out as part of an email newsletter, and so on. To get the most out of your story, it might be worthwhile to understand not just that these different components exist but to identify the ways they relate to one another to form something larger. Then, you might pull back and see the system of your story embedded in the larger system of your news organization. You might keep pulling back until you see your story situated not simply in journalism but in the larger media ecosystem, or the system of all the information available to people through their phones. Thinking this way might change what you produce and how you publish. Good designers from any discipline will tell you that nothing is created or consumed in isolation—and that it is important to respect the relationship between the new creation and the environment in which it arrives.
Human-centered design stands in opposition to technology-driven design and is predicated on the idea that good design emerges from satisfying people’s needs, rather than just taking advantage of a new technological breakthrough. (Technology-driven design risks making the assumption that because an innovation is possible, implementing it must therefore be desirable.) The notion of human-centered design grew in part out of work by Bob McKim in the 1960s and Rolf Faste in the 1970s at Stanford’s Design Program. (David Kelley, who founded IDEO, worked alongside them for some of this time.) McKim and Faste were inspired by the human potential movement, which argued that every person contains a resource of untapped potential; followers of the movement worked toward “self-actualization,” at the pinnacle of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of human needs.16 McKimm and Faste were interested in bringing the end-user—humans—into the design process, and also in acknowledging their own roles as individual humans in the process. According to Jamer Hunt, associate professor at the Transdisciplinary Design Program at Parsons, human-centered design starts with the premise that you as the designer don’t have all the answers—this was a big paradigm shift at the time—and that the best thing you can do is to bring other people into the process in an effort to design for their psychologies and contexts. This could be seen as echoing the journalistic notion that considering many perspectives may take you closer to the truth. The idea of designing along with stakeholders takes this idea to the next level and resonates strongly with the work being done in journalism today under the label of audience engagement.
Identifying and naming the problem and the objective and not letting assumptions get in the way
To return to the notion of wicked problems versus tame problems, sometimes knowing what problem you’re trying to solve is extremely difficult. You may know the symptoms, but the symptoms may not lead in a straight line to the diagnoses. To take this metaphor further, misdiagnosis might even kill the patient. In other words, not knowing what problem you’re trying to solve can lead to wasted time and resources, and sometimes much worse. Recently, in the news organization class I teach, I asked students what they hoped to achieve over the semester. “Get more people to our website,” was the immediate answer. After further investigation, however, they determined that what they actually wanted was more eyeballs on their work. This shift in objective vastly opened up the space of possibilities, and the class is now considering many ways—analog and digital—of getting their work in front of their community, rather than just throwing resources at a nicer website.
This design process emphasizes the point made above that nothing is made or consumed in isolation. If you haven’t put yourself in your future user’s shoes—if you haven’t understood the context in which what you’re making is going to be used—then how can you design something that will actually meet people’s needs? IDEO calls it the empathy stage. John Seely Brown calls it “deep listening” and “listening to context”—he recalled commissioning six-month ethnography studies to help figure out interface problems with a new copier when he was chief scientist at Xerox PARC in the 1980s. Others call it ethnography, or simply research. It also embodies a deep skepticism toward one’s own assumptions. I talk to my students about listening with humility: a kind of listening that puts aside what you’re expecting to hear, hoping to hear, or fearing to hear. Some feel that empathy and deep listening sound touchy-feely, with no place in the hard-bitten world of journalism. But I suggest that this approach is in fact a powerful way of going beyond one’s subjective experience, closer to reality as it actually is. It is a tool for overcoming confirmation bias, at least partially, and it helps us hear both what is said and what is not said. The implications not only for news product design, but also for the reporting process itself, are profound.
Brainstorming/open ideation/blue-sky thinking
At Stanford in the 1970s, designers like Rolf Faste were taking improv classes. The cardinal rule of improv is to build on what your partner does. You don’t contradict; you don’t stop the proceedings by refusing to play along. The ethos is “yes, and . . . ” instead of “no, but . . . ” In other words, this phase of the design process is one where judgment is suspended. Any idea, no matter how seemingly outlandish, can be floated. “If you’re working on redesigning a car and someone suggests a fifth wheel, you don’t say, ‘That’s stupid,’” Jamer Hunt said. “You say, ‘How would that work?’ It might lead somewhere. You don’t want to close out potential.” It is essential to remember here that brainstorming is not the end of the practice; Hunt’s criticism of IDEO’s five-step design thinking is that it often stops at this stage. He said the process has been widely adopted and too often fails to move from idea generation to actual materialization. It is easy to be excited about a board full of new ideas, but, as Hunt said, “New ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s the materialization of them that’s hard.” Moreover, in recent years, some have concluded that group brainstorming may not even be the best way to generate good ideas. Jake Knapp, a design partner at Google Ventures, for example, said that in his experience the best ideas come from individuals initially generating them alone. He always gives “head-down time” for people to develop their own ideas.17
If generating new ideas is easy, at least according to some, then this next phase is where it gets harder. “You have to interrogate your ideas,” Seely Brown said. Different designers have different strategies for this—from giving everyone a number of stickers to vote on different ideas, to intense verbal debate and argument. To synthesize, according to Webster’s Dictionary, means to combine a number of things into a coherent whole. This is the phase where judgment comes back in.
Prototyping and iterating/learning in action/materialization
“The hard part is when you try to boil down a problem space into a single solution,” Hunt said. IDEO calls this the prototyping phase, but relegating it to a single phase seems to miss the larger point. Every designer I spoke with talked about the learning that happens through doing. Haakon Faste, son of Rolf Faste, and a professor of interaction design at California College of the Arts, said that even the term design thinking is an oxymoron, because design is not thinking. Rather, it’s what happens through the process of making. This is an idea familiar to every writer: Often, you don’t know what you’re trying to write until you sit down to write it. Then it emerges. So too with design. As Seely Brown said, it’s the “pushback” from the materials, and learning to “listen to what the pushback is telling you,” from which solutions arise. Hunt calls it the materialization process—moving from idea to actual solution. Liz Danzico, creative director of NPR, said: “Iteration is the air we breathe, the water, and our shelter.” The idea is to avoid spending years researching and documenting why something should work, then spending a large amount of money building it only to discover its flaws. It’s better to start low-resolution and then cycle through testing and feedback while building to higher-resolution.
Designers of all sorts test and get feedback on prototypes before moving from low-resolution to high-resolution. It goes back to the idea that designers do not actually have all the answers. They need to see how other people engage with their work before knowing if it’s successful—to learn not what they assumed the experience would be but what it actually is. Testing and feedback usually goes along with the prototyping-iterating phase, and sometimes continues even once something has been made public. Online, feedback from users can be implemented continually. In Don’t Follow These Rules!, A Primer for Playtesting, game designer Eric Zimmerman and architect Nathalie Pozzi suggest playtesting as early as you can. “It is much better to playtest your ugly prototype than wait and playtest a more polished project. A playtest is not a presentation. If you feel ready and comfortable to playtest your design, you have waited too long.”18 They also suggest going into playtesting knowing what you want to learn, preparing variations for people to try out, knowing your testers so you can put feedback into context, and letting testers interact with the work with “the least possible explanation.”