Carebot Design Principles

Attempting to address such a large problem space as assessing success for journalism and analytics for newsrooms can be overwhelming. This is one of the reasons why a user-centered design approach can be really helpful.

Grounding your exploration of a problem by talking to real humans in the setting these problems take place forces you to discuss specifics and identify issues and opportunities at a much greater level of detail.

After interviewing journalists, editors, producers, developers and designers at NPR, I felt I had a much better understanding of who they were (the roles they played and the distinct needs and challenges they each faced), as well as being able to see what were common problems for everyone and what were the most poorly served needs overall.

When the problems are well identified and framed, coming up with ways to solve them is an unstoppable force: This is where ideas come from. However, when you shift your focus towards refining those ideas and creating a solution, it is possible to lose sight of the problems you sought to address.

Design principles

Designers employ a variety methods to retain the focus on the problems users’ need addressed during the life of a project: personas, need matrices, user stories, journey maps, etc.

Each approach has stengths and weaknesses depending on its use and circumstances of use; I am a fan of design principles for projects where the problem space is abstract and I know little about it at first, and also when people may be coming in and out of the project and need to quickly get up to speed on what’s really important to users.

Design principles serve as guardrails for decision-making. They are expressed as a set of statements that offer a distinct perspective on how things should be done. They help you two ways:

  1. On the onset of a project, they set a direction by summarizing the essence of how the solution needs to meet users’ needs, based on how users expressed their expectations during research, and

  2. Through the course of doing work, they aid you in keeping moving in that direction and give you language and arguments to rein in efforts when start to stray away.

This is what I put together for Carebot:

Carebot’s Design Principles

Carebot will be successful if it satisfies its users in the following ways:

Measure what matters, not what’s easy

  • Identify measures and indicators that more meaningfully answer journalists’ questions.
  • Only compare things that are like each other.
  • Don’t obscure meaningful detail in favor of simplicity. Distinguish raw measures from indicators combining measures.

Make me smarter

  • Help me celebrate my and the team’s contributions and learn what works.
  • Help me learn about new measures and indicators, and how they help me understand my stories’ impact.

Speak my language

  • Use plain language. No jargon and marketese; story performance can be expressed numericaly but does not need to be mathematical.
  • Make complexity welcoming by pacing how information is revealed to me.

Don’t bother me, I’m on deadline!

  • I have a job to do, keep me in the loop on what’s key (good and bad).
  • Tell me what I must know and no more. No information for information sake, no fluff, no data regurgitation.

Meet me where I am

  • Alert me of important milestones reached, let me seek out details when I want or have the time.
  • No detailed breakdowns, analysis or benchmarks just to say a story has average performance.

One thing to note is design principles are commonly mistaken or misread as principles of design — overarching rules and fundamental ideas from the overall practice of design that are presumed to be best practices for those doing design work. Design principles for a product or project are supposed to be specific to the circumstances and needs of the product or project at hand.

This mistake is why there are so many (publicly available and easily findable) horrible design principles for products out in the world. “Make it easy/simple” is the single worst and most useless example — it’s everywhere and it means nothing. Can you think of a product (games excluded) intentionally setting out to make it harder on users? If the statement doesn’t help one make a specific decision or assess if their decision is directionaly appropriate, it’s not useful.

Another things design principles do is they collate the commonalities, not the uniquness of the audience. Your project may serve multiple audiences with distinct needs from each other, but the design principles only speak to what is common among them.

I framed Carebot’s design principles as statements said from the user’s perspective (first person statements) so we’re further reminded of who is telling us these things.

As any other design artifact that captures user needs, it’s not ever “done” and can always be iterated to be clearer and more complete. I expect this set will change the more I understand newsroom users and the more detail I learn about their needs.

Livia Labate

Written on March 21, 2016