It might seem unlikely that a block of wood could sum up many of the problems with media companies, but Mozilla’s Aza Razkin pushed that message during the first week of the Knight-Mozilla Learning Lab.
Media companies primarily focus on manufacturing. This is not about the reporting, writing, editing and art direction. Rather is about how that information is distributed: broadcast news reports, radio shows, newspapers, magazines, websites and apps. Media companies rarely pushing their mediums. Instead they find templates, made by competitors or outsiders, and fill them with their branding and content. Newspaper designers mimic the work of other papers. Television graphics look interchangeable. And news apps look nearly identical.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s newspaper companies ‘discovered’ the value of designers. It took years, but newsrooms became comfortable with content designers determining the consumer experience. Most of these designers were focused on adding visual content layers. A few explored designing a better product experience — ‘redesigning’ the existing templates and styles. This kind of design greatly improved existing media products but lacked the transformative power of a simple, wooden prototype.
Because “first designs always suck,” according to Razkin, low fidelity prototypes are critical to exploring radical, new ideas. Media companies rarely, publicly explore radical or new ideas because they have trained themselves for a long, slow and expensive design process.
When Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp wanted to design a new tablet news experience it took more than a year, cost millions and ended up with the wrong combination of familiar: “this is scarcely better than a free a paper” and unusable: “Is this the future of news? The app crashed the first time I ran it,” [iTunes App Store reviews]. Instead innovative companies like Nintendo use simple tools to prototype complex actions. A block of wood stood in for the complex Wii Controller. Even though it had no fancy gyroscopes or mechanics, it helped the designers replicate a new gaming experience.
Media companies need to take similar chances. Sunday’s New York Times explored the challenges of digital medical records. Stressing the importance of standards and widespread adoption, doctors argued for the role of design in medical records, “What scares me is design details mandated from on high,” said Mary Kate Foley, vice president of the user experience at Athenahealth. “That’s going to prevent me from making my electronic health records more usable. It will hurt innovation.” But more than that they fear that poorly designed standards would cripple the experience, “Usability is going to be the single greatest impediment to physician acceptance,” says Dr. Edward H. Shortliffe, a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.
Unfortunately the New York Times, one of the countries’s leading news organizations, has not done much better in its presentation of this story. On Sunday the article, prominently featured in the printed paper, could be found on the front page of the news site — but not easily.
Razkin, imagines his job as using ideas to transform organizations and change what people think through prototyping. His kind of prototyping creates new kinds of functionality or imagines new experiences. He uses design to inspire participation — something sorely needed by media companies.