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.

iPhone Popular News Applications

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.

Wii: Wooden Prototype, a block of wood

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.

The New York Times: Digital Medical Records and Usability

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.

Author: JeremyGilbert

As Deputy Editor, Digital for the National Geographic Society, Jeremy oversees editorial, missions-based and advertising storytelling on National Geographic's digital platforms. Before coming to the Society he was an associate professor teaching media product design, interactive storytelling, web and print design tools and techniques for Medill and the Segal Institute of Design at Northwestern University. He also served in the Medill administration as the Director of Technology and Space Design. Previously Jeremy led The Poynter Institute in rethinking and redesigning its industry leading website and served as an art director at a couple of newspapers.

4 Replies to “The Un-Usability of Media Products”

  1. Phillip Smith says:

    Good thinking happening here… now, start connecting it back to the idea(s) that you’ll be working on for your final project. 🙂

  2. JeremyGilbert says:

    Agreed, I have some ideas about how to tie this back to my final project, but that will take a little doing. Perhaps this week’s post will show some progress.

  3. Matt Terenzio says:

    Yeah, I’ve been working for newspaper companies for years and have presented several simplified designs and never was able to get them accepted.

    By the time all the stakeholders were satisfied it looked like every other newspaper site.

    And they liked that. It made them feel comfortable. And the cluttered look made then feel they as much depth as their competitors.

    I used to ask a question for which I’ve never gotten a decent answer. Rarely an answer at all.

    “Why,” I asked, “are we copying the sites that we all know are struggling to get it right? Why aren’t we copying the guys we all know are getting it right?”

  4. JeremyGilbert says:

    I’m not surprised that you never received a satisfactory answer. Even in my most success projects I’ve often heard a verbal push for innovation… followed by list requirements that mandate a mediocre already existing path. I think Jesse James Garrett was correct that it is critical for all the stake holders — producers and users — to understand the story a product is trying to tell.

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