This post is part of the Carnival of Journalism monthly blog conversation. Big thanks to University of Reno journalism professor Donica Mensing for posing a great question this round: Have you applied design thinking in your work? Has it been useful? Why or why not?
I learned about design thinking only recently at the Memphis Innovation Bootcamp last fall, but it has had a major impact on both my research and teaching, dovetailing well with my interest in journalism innovation, organizational change, and media entrepreneurship.
Like any other process or tool, design thinking is not an end-all, be-all, but it’s valuable for journalism innovators for the following reasons: 1)For a long time, journalism was dominated by the ethos “the editor knows best, and will tell you what is important for you to know,” which often extended beyond standard news judgment to the way news organizations were run and new products decided on. Personally, I value the judgment of many of the excellent editors I’ve worked with, but in the digital age, the most important thing we can do to build news products that people will actually use is to learn what our audience really needs and wants. And to do this with empathy and care as design thinking suggests, not just through the use of metrics we may not fully understand. 2)Design thinking can be taught and practiced, making innovation more practical than relying on a sudden brilliant insight that may never come. 3)The newsroom of the future is nimble and capable of constant learning, and that’s a big part of the overall philosophy of design thinking.
In the classroom, design thinking engages journalism students. It helps them unleash their creativity, reinforces the need to start building a new product only after talking to users, and to iterate constantly rather than waiting until you’ve invested many hours in your ideas to test it, a strategy also common to agile development. This semester, I took my entrepreneurial students over to our brand new campus Crews Center for Entrepreneurship to do a design thinking exercise I learned about at the bootcamp. Instead of just telling them what design thinking is in a lecture, an exercise allows students to experience it.
The design thinking exercise, designed by Stanford’s d school, puts students in teams of two to solve a common problem, taking them through all of the crucial steps: Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. At the Crews Center, we were lucky to have access to lots of great prototyping materials – everything from pipe cleaners to modeling clay. It was fun. Then, throughout the semester, we use design thinking as part of our process of developing media startups. Students talk to real potential customers for their products they are building, engage in lots of brainstorming, and do some basic prototyping using wireframes and other things. I’ve also started to incorporate this kind of thinking into my other classes as well, getting students talking to users before starting a new blog, social media strategy, etc.
Design thinking has also informed my research on organizational change in newsrooms. The ability of organizations to LEARN is a key element of the theory of organizational change, as described by scholars Chris Argyris and Donald Schon. My research buddy Jonathan Groves and I are seeing many parallels between this body of theory and design thinking as well as the lean startup methodologies advocated by Eric Ries and others that we think could be useful for newsrooms, based on our extensive ethnographic fieldwork. We are going to be writing more on this topic soon.