Putting Users First

Livebloggers: Rahul Bhargava, Heather Craig, Alexis Hope

Putting Users First

The civic sector has struggled to adjust to the digital age. How do we better prioritize the user in civics and journalism over our own assumptions?

What cultural, fiscal, and technological changes do we need to make to build organizations equipped to best serve users in the digital age? How can legacy organizations shift from doing “the lord’s work” to focusing on the users’ needs?


Live Notes

Ethan introduces this session as both a conversation and a “design exercise.” He notes that a major question that may have popped up in our minds during the previous sessions is “Who are the users? How do we build tools that they will want to use?” and this session will help us think about those question.

The plan for the session is to spend 15 minutes talking about technology and innovation in civics and journalism, and then Emi will run a design exercise.

Kristen describes the process of going through the over 700 applications for the latest Knight News Challenge, and of trying to find the right resources for all of the different projects.

She describes the scenario of a small, nameless non-profit organization tasked with coming up with a technology project. They created an app that took pictures of credit cards to process donations. Not surprisingly, it didn’t have many downloads – it was a relative failure. The key problem, Kristen describes, is that “failure is not necessarily welcome” in this field.

She describes the major question coming out of the process of reviewing projects from the News Challenge: How do we provide these organizations with the resources to build and iterate on products that can scale? She invites John to tell us how Knight thinks about solving this problem.

John explains that product thinking has been a tough shift for folks in the social good and journalism space. The main value Knight wants to return to the world from the ten prototype winners from yesterday are lessons and insights from the projects that they might not have gotten otherwise. If the world learns three things from a project but it ultimately fails, that may be the most valuable outcome. Something the foundation wrestles with is encouraging projects to be honest about their failures and share them, even though that may not be in the best interests of the project as it may hinder their ability to get funding in the future.

Kristen explains that she wants to find ways to help organizations leverage other similar projects that already exist.

One thing that all of the Knight winners have in common is putting their users first. Emi explains that all of the projects that received grants are projects that prioritize openness, that take into account people who do not have access to the open Internet. She believes that providing access is an essential first to trying to provide any of the larger benefits of the Internet.

Kirsten asks John what this means to him; how can foundations and funders do this work “bigger, better, and in a way that helps us succeed?” John says “wow, that’s a really good question.” Honesty is really helpful, he says, Knight emphasizes constantly that they really want to know what doesn’t work – it is really important to know that early. The grantee and foundation relationship hasn’t necessarily taken honesty into account previously, and that’s really a shame, because the lessons and failures are what Knight can help provide back to the world.

Kristen mentions that funding models are still outdated, even though there are some emerging innovations like the prototype fund, and seed funding for early-stage ideas. She asks Emi to describe some of the learnings she’s seen from the projects they’ve decided to fund. Emi mentions that the NY public library came up with their idea to provide free access to the internet because they noticed people sitting outside of the public library leaching off the internet. Investigating this can provide hints at solutions (eg handing out free wifi spots).

John says that adaptation is a tough one for those in the social sector to make  they are doing the work because they are passionate about giving back to their communities, and they don’t necessarily want to be challenged with the realities of where people are. Sometimes we focus on our little ideas which we huddle around and protect, instead of being more open.

Emi highlights starting cheap  both in terms of financial and emotional investment. The feedback is the most important part, and making quick iterations before you get too invested.

Kristen asks one last question: when you do find that really great idea, the one that could scale and impact many lives  but it will take resources, marketing, talent, funding  how can we help people get over those hurdles?

John responds that ideas are cheap, and it’s important to get through lots of ideas quickly and get to the core of good ideas easily. The human churn and conversations that ensue from conferences like these and the relationships that are built  that human interaction is really important to push these projects forward.

Now Kristen says we will shift to the second part of the session: Emi will take us through an empathy exercise.

Emi asks everyone to get up on their feet and shake their hands. They call these energizers “stokes”. Lots of laughter ensues as everyone shakes their hands in the air.

“So let’s talk about empathy work  why do we do it?” Emi begins.

People use things that fulfill a need in their lives and fit into their lives, Emi says. So, you have to understand people’s lives, behaviors, and beliefs if you want to build something they will use.

She introduces this quote: “Designers are the worst design thinkers I have ever encountered because they fall in love with their own solutions” – Michael Barry

Empathy work may be hard, but it is insanely rewarding. It is also time-consuming.

She asks us to find a partner and ask “how are you feeling about this conference?” She reminds us to shut up and listen. Emi then asks us to switch roles  the person who was asking the question will now answer it.

She brings everyone back together and tells them the next question, it is really simple: “Why?” Ask them, “Why did they have the experience they did?” You may want to start taking notes, she says.

Now, Emi asks us to get back into pairs and ask “why?” again. Why? Because now we have more information so we can drill deeper. She tells us that people say if you ask why 5 times you can make people cry  but we’re not going to do that today because she likes all of us.

Emi brings everyone back together. What if you had to ask why this many times before you ever started building something? What would you learn?

She asks us to tweet or write down surprising things we learned. If we were to redesign the conference, what would be groundbreaking to change based on the deep insights of our partners? This was super short, Emi says, and not the extent of empathy work by any means, but here are the two big points:

  1. Remember to ask open ended questions to ascertain feelings and glean stories. Asking directly gets them to ideate for you, which isn’t what you want.
  2. Ask “why” often, and follow where it leads. If you ask enough times, you will probably end up getting to something very deep and very emotional.

Now the group pauses to write down their thoughts after the exercise, and tweet them out using the #civicmedia hashtag. Emi brings up the twitter insights onto the main screen and shares a few.

“So, we tricked you,” Kristen says, “we took you through a design exercise so we can get feedback from you, and this conference is actually the product that we want to iterate on and improve.”