Why Journalism and UX Research are far from worlds apart.
When I told a friend’s husband, the COO of a new cryptocurrency startup, that I was training to be a UX designer, his response was that it was an “odd career choice” for a former TV news journalist. I looked at him askance (albeit through Facebook Messenger). Because, in my opinion, the two disciplines dovetail beautifully.
I’ve spent the last year raising my daughter, starting a small company, and studying UX Design on the side (mainly the user research aspect thus far). What I keep seeing is that although the tools and methodologies used by journalists and UX designers/researchers might be different, quite often their high level objectives are the same. UX Design, especially the research component, feels like a natural redeployment of many of the skills journalists* are taught in school and on the road.
*In this era of fake news and mass disinformation I am aware that the following points I make about journalism definitely don’t apply to all its practitioners.
Whether you’re sitting down to interview a bereaved family for a news story, or talking to a frustrated employee about why their accounting system is a productivity black hole, both journalists and UX researchers need to “walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins”, as my dad would say. To truly represent another person’s point of view, you have to strip away your ego and work hard to think and feel like they do. Empathy is the lubricant for that emotional leap, and all the best interviewers cultivate it.
How? By being deeply curious, by really watching and listening, and by entering into an interview with the genuine goal of better understanding the other person, their world view, and their needs and motivations. As UX consultant David Travis says: “I stopped thinking of interviewing as a Q&A and instead saw it as a kind of scaffolding to elicit and structure stories.” I feel that’s exactly how an interview should function for a journalist, too.
It’s the things left unsaid.
One of the reasons why it’s so important to conduct interviews in person is to pick up on the subtle cues you’ll never witness remotely. That goes for journalists and for UX researchers. The interviewee’s clammy handshake, how they shift weight nervously from foot to foot, how deftly or cautiously they take you through a demo of the interface they’re using, their environment — all of these point to what’s going on behind their words.
Interviewers must read these signs to capture a fuller picture of what they’re really thinking. They have to sniff out the true story. Sometimes a person’s words and body language don’t match. Quite often interviewees avow that they will follow certain behavioural patterns that they actually won’t. (UX researchers circumvent this by using ethnographic methods like immersing themselves in a user’s cultural environment in order to better predict how they’ll use a product.) Both journalists and UX researchers must approach their work with a spoonful of scepticism and ask, what’s really going on here?
Human-centered means real humans.
A persona is a tool that helps designers to visualize a user, someone with a name and goals and behaviours that they’re building a solution for. Referring to this persona helps to ground their designs in reality rather than in imagination. Just as fake news can’t (or shouldn’t) cut it, UX researchers can’t simply invent users, not if they hope to ultimately create a product that real people will want. That’s why personas have to be firmly rooted in actual research with actual prospective users, no matter how tempting it might be for a researcher to just to use their own experience (“I’m representative, right?”).
Principled journalists (not contributors to People magazine) will never dream up a fictional source. They go out and talk to real people, find the everyman or woman whose experience illuminates the issues at stake. The woman who crowdsourced a medical diagnosis after doctors dismissed her symptoms, the nurse whose employer is stealing her wages in tiny increments — these personalities speak for distinct demographics. And they’re relatable because they’re real.
UX researchers also have to tell stories — in their case, to bring the user to life for the rest of the design team. The goal is to get everyone on the same page by offering them a realistic depiction of the user whose problem they are working to solve, be it the cash-rich, time-poor CEO looking for the perfect gift for their spouse, or the pet-loving retiree who can’t keep track of their dog. User stories — pithy descriptions of a specific end user’s goal and motivation when using a product or feature — directly shape the solution a design team builds. Persona + user story = empathetic response = more effective products.
(Off topic, the pared back, vernacular prose of these mini-narratives rather reminds me of good TV news writing.)
I’m a dreadful artist, but like many journalists, I can paint pictures with words, photos and video. UX researchers, too, articulate themselves with a visually-based toolset. Capturing photo and video records of interviewees in their “natural habitat” help them to tell better stories about the people whose behaviours they’re documenting. UX researchers also have some fantastic visual frameworks for organising material, which I’m just starting to learn about, including lots of 2×2 grids.
(On a side note, I think many journalists could benefit from tapping into the kind of information organisation and architecture tools that are ubiquitous in UX research. Like UX researchers, journalists acquire a wealth of information about a topic that has to be structured clearly and distilled into its essential elements for communication an audience. Getting a handle on these tools is one of the many great things the media startup accelerator Matter. teaches the journalistic institutions it works with during its design thinking bootcamps.)
Have you ever tried to condense a complex geopolitical story into 90 seconds of air-time? That was often my job as a newsroom journalist. Under deadline, I sometimes thought of myself as an information processing machine. I took a vast amount of raw material and boiled it down to the bare essentials for an audience who needed to grasp the relevant facts in one go as they flashed by. This became even more pertinent covering tech stories for a mainstream TV audience. 15 seconds to explain how a hoverboard worked, in layman’s terms. A piece to camera with a VR headset that would capture the experience for someone who’d never worn one. It wasn’t dumbing down, it was translation (aided by empathy — an understanding of the audience and how to engage them).
UX is so much about translation, too. I thought of many kinds:
- translating a user’s needs into a meaningful product,
- translating a complex technological system into an intuitive workflow,
- translating technical jargon into words real people use, as concisely as possible,
- translating for business, marketing, engineering teams(which product design pro Jen Williams says is becoming more and more the domain of the designer) as well as for clients,
- translating a design across languages and cultures.
(And once again, it’s all about empathy.)
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