Platform does not equal content, and other design lessons from SND

Taken from the 23rd floor of the Galt House Hotel.
Taken from the 23rd floor of the Galt House Hotel.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of reports from two Digital First Media journalists who attended SND through the Digital First Represents program. 

I returned to the Daily News newsroom from SND earlier this month with a renewed vigor for my job as a designer and storyteller, and for doing it well. The experience was inspiring and challenging and it taught me that wherever I thought my design was before, there are countless levels still ahead of me.

SND reminded me how crucial design is to storytelling, especially in the digital age. It’s important for newsrooms to collaborate and involve designers from the earliest planning stages of any project. Using what I learned at SND earlier this month, I will be an advocate in my newsroom for improving the storytelling design across all platforms.

To that end, one of my favorite sessions at the conference was led by Twitter’s David Wright (@dwjr). The subject covered the relationship between platform and content. Among other things, he explained why “designers are uniquely qualified to solve some of the toughest problems facing newsrooms today.” Here are a few key takeaways:

Know the differences between platforms
Understanding the difference between platforms is essential to creating good work. Content design and platform design are very different animals. Here’s a quick compare and contrast:

Content is exploratory, specific, custom and involves storytelling and pacing. It all adds up to the perfect page.

Platform is rigid, general, template-driven and involves distribution and wayfinding. It all adds up to the perfect system.

Content thinks, “How am I going to tell the story?
Platform thinks, “How am I going to distribute it?

Content asks, “What is the best way to tell this story?
Platform asks, “What problem am I helping this reader solve?

Identify the problems
Design has an important roll in fixing broken platforms. Digital news design, for the most part, is still broken with many story pages feeling the same.

Pages are often filled with unnecessary junk, and things don’t work on mobile as intended.

A common problem is overclutter on news sites. How does the user know what’s important if everything’s important?

Display advertising is a completely failing business model. We have not been good stewards in our relationship with readers and display advertising.

A lot of things we currently produce don’t work on all platforms, so we run in to, “Sorry, you can’t watch this or play that on your iPad.”

Identifying the problems is the first step to solving them. If we ask ourselves what problems we can solve, the result is a better model than reacting to drops in readership.

Who is your competition?
Pop quiz: Who do you think your competitive set is?

It’s easy to sit in our cubicles with headphones on, and avoid our neighbors. A healthy workplace and environment is one that includes talking and challenging each other. Don’t limit your views of who your competition is or what your standards could be. We need to change our perception of competitive sets.

Why is Gmail so competitive? It is ubiquitous. Anyplace we go we have our Gmail.
That’s also how our news should be.

Anything that we do should match the experience of what Gmail can do.

Make connections
Our goal is to connect with visitors, and create relationships with them. Our goal is to have site visitors stay and hang around for more. Design plays a crucial role in helping news organizations make digital products that are inviting and engaging.

The battle for audience retention will be fought on platform. Platform design plays a crucial role in helping news organizations make effective digital products that will keep readers coming back, again and again.

Find context
Design thinking can help by using context, research, empathy (user-centered) and synthesis.
We get context by doing research. We research by observing people. The people we want to help are the ones we need to watch. Reaching them means going to where they are. We have to talk to these people. The research helps create empathy as we connect with the people. Watching helps you understand their friction points. The end result is finding context through the analysis of all of these observations.

Sound bites
A few other key takeaways I got from this session: 
• Good experiences thrive in organizations where design is respected.
• Visual journalists are ready-made problem solvers.
• Observation helps challenge the status-quo.
• User tastes change and it’s effected by technology.
• It’s critical to pay attention, because we may be spending too much time in the wrong spots.
• Google is free
• Show, don’t tell
• Users don’t hit the “back to top” button.
• Design has to be a relentless advocate for good user experience.

One last thing: How cool are these hand-drawn session notes from Pablo Mercado?

Session notes as taken by Pablo Mercado (@odacrem), VP of Technology at Vox Media.

Session notes as taken by Pablo Mercado (@odacrem), VP of Technology at Vox Media.

Brian Harr

By Brian Harr

Executive News Editor at the Los Angeles Daily News. Lead designer for the Los Angeles News Group. Husband, father of three. One-time golfer but am no longer. Foodie to a fault.

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