Redesigning the News Ecosystem: A guide to class #2

February 6, 2015


The class undertakes the first exercise of the class -- drawing their own and a generic news ecosystem. (Laura McClellan Pickel)

The class undertakes the first exercise of the class — drawing their own and a generic news ecosystem. (Laura McClellan Pickel)

The classroom will be packed, and all of the students are, in some way, interested in or passionate about what I and my teaching team members are passionate about: finding a radically new and better way to deliver news and information to people. Our class is appropriately called Redesigning the News Ecosystem, and this blog post serves two functions:

  • It is an attempt to capture process and outcomes from the first class meeting.
  • It is meant to tee-up an all-day class session tomorrow.

This class is about using design thinking to explore users’ hidden needs via analogous experiences. The desired outcome: students who see the news ecosystem in a new, user-centered way rather than a market-driven one.

One of our teams in class looking awesome (like all of our teams look). (Laura McClellan Pickel)

One of our teams in class looking awesome (like all of our teams look). (Laura McClellan Pickel)

I am teaching the class with two experts in the field: Tyson Evans of The New York Times and Dave Wright of Twitter. If you want two people at the bleeding edge of innovation in news, you can’t do better than Dave and Tyson. Our Experience Assistant (think teaching assistant, but with a specialization in designing great student experiences), Laura McClellan Pickel, is the glue of our team.

The first day of class

We had our first day of class on Wednesday. Here’s a taste of how it went.

When students arrived they came into a room with a series of tables in the shape of a U. The tables were covered in butcher paper. The students’ charge: draw your news ecosystem. There were no wrong answers. Then, after about 15 minutes, they were called on to draw a generic ecosystem.

Okay, why did we do this? We wanted to know how they envisioned not only their own news ecosystem (the publications they read, the platforms they used, the devices and the roles involved, etc.) or someone else’s, but one in relation to the other. We wanted to see what their perceptions, assumptions and vantage points were. What was important to them? What was irrelevant?

The exercise also gave them a chance to speak with their neighbor, get to know them. It also gave us time to hand out notebooks with their team assignments. We transitioned from there to introductions, and then on to team building. There was a lecture on the history and the envisioned future of news given by Tyson and Dave. It included this classic:

And this:

Then there was a lecture on empathy.

Empathy: It’s about you knowing them

Here was my challenge: How do you teach empathy to people who are well-seasoned journalists in some cases and strong professionals and intellectuals overall? This is, after all, Stanford — a fact I try not to dwell on when I get up in front of a room full of students, fellows and professionals.

From left to right, Tyson, me and Dave looking way too serious. (Laura McClellan Pickel)

From left to right, Tyson, me and Dave looking way too serious. (Laura McClellan Pickel)

I created a short lecture and attempted to illustrate open questions, questions of exploration and need-finding, moving away from leading questions that buffered interviewer from subject.

I’m not quite sure how it went, to be honest. I think some things worked and others didn’t. It was difficult without being a real user on which my students could test or having users in the class in interviews off of which students could build.

To our students: What to expect & some guidance

That changes on Saturday. Class will be all day, going from 10a-5p. We’ll meet at the and begin with a warm-up to help further build teams’ cohesion and class cohesion overall.

My guidance to students reading this is two-fold:

  • Rather than consider what Tyson and Dave know that you may be able to mine from their very full heads, consider, instead, what you may want to discover about users’ actual interactions to turn the tables and enlighten them instead. That’s what empathy interviewing is supposed to offer you: the opportunity to realize unforeseen needs — that means, needs and insights that Tyson and Dave most likely don’t have.
  • Take every opportunity to learn from each other and from us in non-transactional ways. That’s difficult, but I have found that my richest exchanges as a student have been exploring not what my instructors know, but what they feel. Not what they assume or predict, but why they do what they do, and then when they answer, following up with “why” again.

As you consider this, here are some notes regarding tomorrow:

  • Please bring your lunch or be prepared to purchase lunch on campus during the lunch break with your team. We recommend that each team agree on a single dining location to convene.
  • Please bring comfortable gear for being outside. It looks as if it may rain during the afternoon, when we will be sending you out to do empathy interviews. We will not keep you outside long, but you will likely have to walk through the rain a bit.
  • Think about the following things: What aspect of the news ecosystem do you feel you know the most about? What aspect would you most like to explore changing?

We received quite a bit of feedback from our students, one piece of which stood out: I wish I knew how I will be spending my day — all day — on Saturday. Here’s our reply: Part of the’s process is to give students an opportunity to rest in discomfort. It’s not comfortable to relinquish an entire day without knowing what will happen. But we encourage you to sit with that, and rather than worry about how your time will be spent, change your mindset and envision the potential of the day.

That said, here are some hints: Saturday will be dedicated to empathy work. You will speak with people out in the field and drill into your own assumptions. You will be charged with determining a point of view around which you will articulate a prototype.

Now, how, specifically, you will go about that, is our secret … for now.

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