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December 03 2010


Why Design is So Important for Journalism Projects

As this year's batch of News Challenge applicants hurriedly slid those last-minute applications under Knight's door, the SeedSpeak team and its technology partner Gate6 were busy prepping a very limited sneak peek of the SeedSpeak website.

Please stop by and show us love by giving us your contact information; we'll use it solely for the nefarious purpose of letting you know when the fully functional version is running, which should be very soon! After that, why not follow us and give us a quick Like on Facebook?

We are excitedly bracing ourselves for all of you to explore, evaluate and explode SeedSpeak. As past News Challenge winners know (and a new batch will very soon discover), getting to this point takes lots of daydreaming, plenty of phone calls, and loads of... design.

Importance of Design

In particular, the process has exposed questions and uncovered opportunities about design thinking and its role in journalism instruction, practice, and innovation. I was a student working on several projects at Arizona State University's New Media Innovation Lab when the first thought struck: "I'm getting a journalism degree. But I'm working on design projects. And I love it! Whoa. What am I? Who am I?"

It's exactly this kind of serendipitous identity crisis that the world of journalism innovation should more regularly -- and explicitly -- inspire among beginning practitioners. If you find yourself in a similar position, consider this post a call to action to better understand the role of design and its implications for the non-fiction storytelling ecosystem.

My little hypothesis is this: Once the vocabulary of the design thinker becomes the vocabulary of every journalist, the journalism community will be better positioned to innovate and even compete with media innovations that arise from, for example, places like this, and dare I say even places like this.

The rising standard for design thinking in the business world -- and the success of tech companies that design amazing media products -- hints at the amazing implications for grassroots activists, civic geeks, community journalists and social entrepreneurs of various stripes. You can see evidence of this in advice to last year's News Challenge applicants from Dan Schultz, who hints at a design-minded approach to a winning application.

In another post from last year, Chris O'Brien touches on the great journalism product ideas that can emerge from the design process. And I suspect the two esteemed members of the Knight family who make up the bulk of the Google hits for the search terms "human-centered journalism" (Andrew Haeg) and "design thinking in journalism," (John Keefe) would be thrilled at a more widespread discussion.

To the folks with product development and technology backgrounds, the importance of design is old news; it's among the building blocks of effective products. But to an incredibly large swath of students, practicing journalists and educators, this is an underexplored or completely unexplored concept.

So, to those News Challenge applicants not rewarding themselves by taking an extra-long nap this afternoon, I propose a much less exciting and substantially less monetarily-rewarding challenge: Get to know some of the design concepts and tools below, and stretch for an understanding of how you can leverage these for your projects (and for life in general!).

Considering some of the philosophical parallels between design and journalism, the journalists out there may be surprised by what they discover. And don't shy away if your project isn't tech-heavy: Design consultancies like IDEO use design thinking to help identify and solve all sorts of problems.

Learning About Design Concepts

So, here we go! This is by no means an exhaustive list. Just a jumping off point for some design discovery.

Some big picture stuff. Yes, these concepts totally overlap, but it's worthwhile to know where they overlap. Check out the Austin Center for Design's definition of interaction design and these principles of interface design. Be aware of the existence of terms like human-centered design and goal-directed design, and check out these thoughts from Whitney Hess about user experience design. Also, learn a little about design validation and usability testing.

Some concepts, tools and techniques that you'll come across as you delve into design include mental models, personas, use cases, task analysis, and more abstract stuff like heuristics and affordances.

You should know what ethnographic research is compared to the kind of research you may be used to. Check out some of these prototyping programs, and understand some benefits of paper prototyping and card sorting. Why not check out more fun stuff like Arduino, and make yourself aware of the existence of other professional design tools like Unity and Maya. Happen to have Adobe Creative Suite on your computer? Figure out what those programs do, and make something with each one of them. Or, get to know some of the open-source alternatives.

Design Thinkers

Now for some ways to connect with design thinkers. For starters, check out the Interaction Design Association, AIGA, the Information Architecture institute, and the Design Thinking Network. Also, don't hesitate to throw in some fun blogs like UX Booth, Johnny Holland, Core77, Designmind, Design Observer, Experience Matters, Dexigner, Putting People First, LukeW, Designboom, etc.

Hope that has you overwhelmed and excited. Happy designing!

October 28 2010


SeedSpeak Seeks Government Feedback on Pushing Open Data

One of the ways SeedSpeak will measure success is by the number of "seeds" that become successful projects or solutions in a community. Neighbors might suggest improvements to their community ("let's turn a community lot into a neighborhood park" or "let's paint a mural on a brick wall that faces a thoroughfare"), but unless the people who can make it happen buy into it and help make it a reality, those great suggestions might die on the vine.

To that end, one of our biggest concerns in designing SeedSpeak is to make sure we get feedback and buy-in from local leaders, including neighborhood associations, political leaders and city and county government types. The good news is SeedSpeak is coming along at a time when many cities and states are getting more comfortable with the idea of open government. In cities large and small, officials are starting to share data with local programmers and experimenting with ways to harness the wisdom of its employees and citizens when it comes to improving those communities.

The bad news is there is still a lot of hesitancy in doing so. Aside from cities such as Washington, D.C., San Diego and Boston, which are throwing open the vault to city data, many more localities are taking baby steps toward integrating openness as part of their daily operations. Even with social media, many cities are reluctant to interact with residents online beyond official web pages.

Haphazard Approach

Sure, many cities and counties have mastered Facebook and Twitter; they know how useful Twitter is during an emergency and they sort of get the efficacy of Facebook (though too many are still simply using it to drive traffic to their websites). But many will admit that their approach is haphazard. As one government official told me recently, some departments in his county are using Twitter quite often, but only because those departments happen to have a public information officer or other employee who is into it and has integrated it entirely on his or her own.

Enter SeedSpeak. We hope that local officials will use the application to hear what residents are buzzing about in their communities, discover what they want to see changed in their neighborhoods, and actually respond to them within the application. We want the head of the city parks and recreation to respond to neighbors suggesting an abandoned lot be turned into a community garden, or that a mural be painted on a local community center wall. Beyond responding, we hope local officials will use the application to report on what is being done to make those suggestions realities, so that a "seed" of a suggestion is "harvested" into an actual project.

So a part of what my partner and I need to do is both teach them the beauty of an application such as SeedSpeak to get citizens involved, and to really listen and learn about the concerns of public officials as they tip into this world of social citizenship. We need to listen to elected officials' concerns about public records: Is a city council member's post supporting the idea of a local park a public record? How can we build safeguards into the application to make sure those records are preserved in the same way a comment at a city council meeting is preserved? In listening to government officials, we hope we will be building something that works for them as well as for the citizens we hope to help empower.

September 20 2010


SeedSpeak To Sprout Community Improvement Projects in Phoenix

The excitement continues to build in the Phoenix community over a new mobile and web platform that will help people sow positive change in the community. Since the June Knight News Challenge funding announcement, my development partner Cody Shotwell and I have fielded dozens of calls and emails from local people. They can't wait to help us put together the project that will allow users to plant the seed of an idea for a community improvement project, allow others to add on or grow that idea toward maturity and, finally, join neighbors and local officials together to harvest the idea into a reality. Phoenix, our test city, desperately needs this.

But first we needed a name.

The project was originally called CitySeed. However, as has happened to many an entrepreneur before us, the domain was not ours to have.

So SeedSpeak was born. You can watch this video from the Knight Foundation to learn more about the project:

Knight News Challenge: CitySeed from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

Here's a concise explanation on our website:

SeedSpeak is an application with mobile, web and widget components that allows users to plant suggestions, ideas and thoughts (seeds) in Phoenix communities at the exact location where you get an idea or see an unmet need. SeedSpeak then empowers other community members to discover those seeds, add to them, and help execute those ideas.

User Feedback

Now that we had a name, and buoyed by that excitement, we spent most of the summer getting development bids, talking to lawyers and business types, and getting ready to move into full-scale ideation and development.

We selected the Phoenix-based interactive agency Gate6 to design, develop and build SeedSpeak. Gate6 has been named the best development company in Phoenix by the Phoenix Business Journal a number of times. In addition to working within our budget, the company has been a wonderful partner by getting started on the work even as we hammer out a contract.

In addition to making that critical choice, Cody and I kept busy with research. As huge believers in user-centered design, we spent a portion of the summer on that. Our design began with the simple question: What does our community want in a mobile, idea-sharing social network? In order to answer that question so we can push pixels and code with confidence, we conducted in-depth user interviews to understand the needs and goals of likely users, potential users, and any other stakeholders.

We interviewed avid social networkers, mobile mavens, city officials, leaders of community organizations, and news-gatherers. As new kinds of users emerge, we'll talk to them, too. This research has already helped us make choices about SeedSpeak's feature set, layout, and other crucial aspects of the project.

From that research, we were able to hammer out a prototype website design. We will continue to reach out to the community again and again until we've created an application that Phoenix can truly use.

In addition to our future Phoenix users, we'd love to get your feedback. Please share your thoughts with us as we share the development of SeedSpeak with you.

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