Change by Design to Encourage Crowdsourcing

Drawing crowdsouring concept to screen. Shutterstock.

“… how can we tap that collective intelligence to unleash the full power of design thinking [journalism]? The designer [journalist] must not be imagined as an intrepid anthropologist, venturing into an alien culture to observe the natives with the utmost objectivity. Instead we need to invent a new and radical form of collaboration that blurs the boundaries between creators and consumers. It’s not about ‘us versus them’ or even ‘us on behalf of them.’ For the design thinker [journalist], it has to be ‘us with them.’” – Tim Brown in Change by Design [with my strikethroughs]

This particular paragraph stuck out to me in Tim Brown’s Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. As you might have noticed, though, I’ve modified Brown’s original words to address not just the human-centered design process, but the ‘design’ of science news.

Brown writes about a new wave of design approaches inspired and underpinned by user-generated and open-source content – both of which, I would argue, have been facilitated by mobile and social technologies such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter and more.

But how might we inspire a new approach to science journalism underpinned by user-generated and open-source content, taking advantage of social media to bring contextualized and in-depth science reporting back to mainstream media?

Brown talks about the power of brainstorming to generate ideas, ideally within environments that are conducive to creativity and design thinking, and with people that build off each other’s thoughts as opposed to trying to talk above everyone else.

I realized while reading Change by Design that many of our online environments, especially for science communication, may not have been designed around the active user – more around the passive reader. Sure, we put share buttons near the top of the page, to promote sharing of our content through the reader’s actions, but how else do we design our news web sites, blog sites, and other platforms that hold science-related content to promote collaboration and feedback? Yes, we (sometimes) have comments at the bottom of the blog post (this blog post being an example), and we (sometimes) encourage our readers to “comment below.” But sometimes I feel as if these chronological, top to bottom comment feeds – especially when they show only the most recent page of comments – encourage the loudest voices over careful response and collaboration. In response to this problem, many science news sites have shut down their comment sections completely, instead of putting some design thinking into a comment structure that might better promote responses that both build off one another and the text itself.

Many scientists and science communicators continue to complain of strained relationships and mistrust between scientists and mainstream media. But what if a scientist knew that once a story was online, he or she could annotate the story, colleagues could contribute their input and questions, and the story production process was not final, but just begun? How can we design platforms for science journalism that would promote this type of adaptation to the story over time?

“Organizations, by the same token, must become more comfortable with the erosion of the boundary between the proprietary and the public, between themselves and the people whose happiness, comfort, and welfare allow them to succeed.” – Change by Design

Efforts have been made before to crowd-source science reporting, and to include citizens and scientists in the news reporting process. However, these efforts have been few and far between compared to conventional models of how we produce science news. Also, as Brown says, a good idea is no longer enough – a good idea must be paired with excellent execution and design. I’d argue that previous models for promoting collaboration in the production of science news – including Scientific American’s short-lived “Edit This” initiative that I referenced in an earlier blog post – have been poorly executed, even if they are good ideas. These often rely on old structures – like the comment stream at the bottom of a news site or blog post or even – you’ll never believe this – e-mails to the journalist. Even I have a hard time, most of the time, tracking down science journalists’ e-mail addresses – I usually resort to contacting them on Twitter, but that’s only become easier as I develop a solid following in the science community on Twitter. The average citizen wanting to contribute to a developing science story? Not so much.

But who’s going to following a developing story, you ask? Wouldn't the average audience member rather read the complete and final story at the New York Times?

In the 24-hour news cycle of the present day, audiences are quite used to stories that continuously evolve and are updated in real-time. Indeed, I myself would be more likely to follow a breaking story in the science community via Twitter, piecing together the individual Tweets to understand the story, than wait for an AP story, Scientific American web story, or other “static” page to be updated once vetted facts come in. Sure, I’ll read that story when it comes through, but you can bet that I’ll also be following the story, especially if it’s important, in real-time. Why? Because I trust my science community sphere on Twitter – I want their opinions and views on the story as it unfolds. And perhaps I want to add my own opinions and observations to the story, as I respond to the story in real-time.

Well, I’m different from the average audience member for science-related content, you’d say. But am I really? Aren’t the growing numbers of people who get their news on their mobile devices and via social media indicative of an audience who wants context, wants to see how the people they know are responding to the story, wants to personally contribute to the story in some way?

No, I think that some serious design thinking and innovative changes to digital formats could revolutionize the way we read science news, the relationships scientists have with the news media, and the quality of on-going, interconnected stories on science.

Now, of course, we just need some good ideas, followed by excellent execution! Ideas anyone? (You guessed it – please comment below. Until we have a better commenting structure, this is what we have!)