How journalists can improve their storytelling by embracing design thinking

Design thinking is a process that many professionals, including journalists, have discovered and adopted in the last few years to create products focused on users.

WYNC Radio’s John Keefe has been using design thinking to experiment with storytelling. The Sunlight Foundation used it with design firm IDEO’s help to create Sitegeist, an effort supported by the Knight Foundation, which is a strong proponent of design thinking.

Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, called the d.school for short, is home to design thinking. The d.school brings together journalists, engineers, historians, educators and scientists who want to embrace design thinking to create innovative projects.

This post takes you through the five pillars of design thinking — empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test — with examples from the d.school and ideas on how to apply them to a news story or a project.

1. Empathize

“Journalists naturally need to be empathetic,” Leticia Britos Cavagnaro told Poynter via Skype. Britos Cavagnaro, adjunct faculty at Stanford School of Engineering’s Technology Ventures Program and associate director of National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation (Epicenter), co-teaches the d.school’s creativity and innovation class with Tina Seelig. Most people come to a “story with an idea, a perspective or a hypothesis,” she said; being empathetic means having the “ability to talk to someone and really let go of those preconceptions.”

The goal of empathy is to gain insight or “put myself in the shoes of the other person or the many different stakeholders,” Britos Cavagnaro said. Use empathy by asking open-ended questions and actively listening to uncover people’s needs and motivations. Asking “Why?” often is effective.

Northwestern University Knight Lab’s Miranda Mulligan said in an in-person interview that it’s important to challenge your assumptions and test whether they’re valid.

Ask yourself: What would my audience like to know?

The space at the d.school is unconventional. Classrooms have moveable furniture to tailor to lessons. Open spaces are useful for creative thinking, according to Britos Cavagnaro. (Photo: Anna Li)

Once you think you understand, dig deeper. Go back and interview your sources or audience again and test the conclusions you’re making.

“That first stage of empathy is very much a journalistic exercise where you’re also just asking people questions,” Andrew Donohue, senior editor at Center for Investigative Reporting, said by phone. “There’s something even more empowering about using the design thinking method where you’re not actually going out to interview them about a specific story” that “you have in your head.”

2. Define

Once you understand the needs of sources or users, narrow your focus. d.school workshops ask participants to fill in the following blanks:

____________ (name) needs a way to _____________. Unexpectedly, in his/her world ____________.

This framework doesn’t work for all stories, but it can help you identify conflicts that arise in your source’s world. If you can’t fill in the blanks, more reporting helps.

Defining your focus allows you to figure out “what actually needs to be done that could really impact people, then move to the story idea,” Donohue said.

3. Ideate

This step involves brainstorming and getting feedback on your ideas. Some prefer brainstorming around a conference table; others prefer a more fun and lively environment. At the d.school, colorful sticky notes in many different sizes are scattered throughout the building to capture ideas from brainstorming sessions.

The second floor of the d.school is filled with big whiteboards for brainstorming. Students use colored markers and sticky notes to brainstorm ideas. (Photo: Anna Li)

These guidelines help make brainstorming productive and enjoyable:

  • Find an interdisciplinary team to give different perspectives.
  • Use colored sticky notes and pens to organize ideas.
  • Stand or sit upright to help keep ideas flowing and increase engagement.
  • Build on each other’s ideas.
  • Realize that quantity is better than quality at this stage.
  • To use a term from Jeff Bezos, aim for a “two-pizza team,” as in five to seven people.
  • Dive into unexpected areas.

Share your ideas with the rest of the newsroom for feedback, and ask users for feedback on social-media sites to gauge their interest in a story.

“Separate idea generation from judgment,” CIR’s Donohue said.

“Zoom out and eliminate the obvious solutions,” Britos Cavagnaro said. “Really think about … the core assumptions you’re making. Try to test that assumption” instead of “assuming that this is a topic of interest.” She suggests writing down all your assumptions and asking yourself: What if the opposite were true?

4. Prototype

Try to build a physical representation of your solution to see if it’s possible to execute. This step can also make it easier for you to receive feedback. Even if you can’t build a smartphone app, draw out each page on paper and walk someone through what happens when you touch a button.

Creative environments can help you do this.

The second floor of the d.school looks like a kindergarten playhouse crossed with a hipster art gallery. Large mobile whiteboards in several sizes stand next to stacks of cubbyholes stuffed with unfinished projects. Cube storage blocks on wheels hold an assortment of supplies such as colored markers, party hats, knotted ribbons, vinyl twine and sponges.

“It felt a bit awkward in the beginning,” Adriana Garcia, business editor of Thomson Reuters in Sao Paulo, said via Skype. “It’s like going back to kindergarten, but I was open to it.”

Students use these supplies to create quick, and often nonfunctional, prototypes. Make it low-cost and under pressure — 15 minutes or less. It’s not supposed to be polished.

Get feedback on the prototype and make it again and again if you have to. Google Glass took several iterations before it reached its final product. The first prototype was just a few wires placed on someone’s head so engineers could visualize what the product might look like.

The goal here is to fail quickly and frequently because failing often and earlier in the process tends to lead to more success in the long run.

Here’s an example from IDEO about how quick and low-tech your prototypes can be.

5. Test

Create it. If it’s a story, send it around the newsroom to get feedback from other reporters and editors. If it’s a project, launch an early release and get users’ comments. Continue testing your assumptions. Evaluate objectively the viability of your idea. Use what you learn early on to change direction — or, in the worst case, pull the plug.

Discussing ideas with others for feedback is just as crucial as the idea generation process. (Photo: Anna Li)

Feedback frightens some people. The goal of design thinking isn’t relinquishing your common sense and intuition to the masses or pandering to your readers. It’s a method to increase collaboration and gauge the impact your story will have. Journalists like to use their own judgment to decide what to write and publish. Sometimes that works. Other times, there are better ways to tell the same story that could engage your audience more.

Why try design thinking?

Some journalists told me design thinking is very close to what good journalists already do. Donohue said while he was the editor at Voice of San Diego, “I was always trying to figure out … the different ways we could institutionalize creativity.”

Design thinking offers “clear methods and frameworks for doing it. That’s one thing I wish I had known when we were starting Voice,” he said.

Knight Foundation and OpenIDEO, a division of the design firm IDEO, teamed up this year to create a new platform aimed at improving the application process for the annual Knight News Challenge. The new structure — inspiration, submission, feedback, refinement and evaluation — closely mirrors the design thinking process in hopes of generating more fruitful ideas.

To get started, try free design thinking workshops, boot camps, online classes, hackathons or crash courses. Share your experiences with other journalists, and tell us if it worked for you.

Related: Journalism case studies that apply design thinking (Poynter.org)

Disclosure: I’m a catalyst for the Design Thinking Action Lab online course at Venture Lab.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • Anna Li

    Hi Stanley, Thanks for your very thoughtful comment. I’d like to know more about why you think design thinking would product more entertainment for the public instead of education. Do you think they’re mutually exclusive – learning and entertainment can’t go together? And what would you suggest the news media do to “reform itself by communicating like a teacher”? I didn’t consider design thinking would have a pedagogical potential so definitely didn’t focus on that. But if through empathy work, the public asked for more education than say, sensationalism, I’d imagine journalists would try to focus more on education. Please let me know your thoughts. Thanks again for the feedback.

  • Anna Li

    Hi Paul, I didn’t even consider that print producers have these concepts ingrained into them while I wrote the piece — but I agree with you. They definitely have skills that are transferrable to the digital medium as long as they can transfer them. Thanks for the comment.

  • paulwiggins

    This all goes to show why papers shouldn’t overlook the talents of print producers as they make digital transitions. There concepts are second nature.

  • King-Stanley-Krauter

    Because reporters are always writing about today’s most important facts, they are distracting voters from remembering yesterday’s most important facts. This is one of the reasons why surveys by the news media,,, and interviews by comedians with people standing in line to vote, have repeatedly shown that most voters are too ignorant to vote. But no one in the news media or at Poynter is interested in communicating more effectively. All of Ms Li’s suggestions will only produce better entertainment for the public instead of a better education for voters. If she would really try to empathize with her customers, she would realize that the news media needs to reform itself by communicating like a teacher instead of an entertainer.