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How to apply 6 principles of journalism to UX research and consulting

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I’m Katie Sola, a senior UX researcher and consultant here at ExperienceLab. In this post, I’ll take you through six principles of journalism that I use as a researcher and consultant.

Before I made the transition into consulting, I started my career in journalism in 2014 and spent three years working as a reporter at Mashable, then the Huffington Post and finally Forbes. I wrote a huge range of pieces, from aggregated stories to original reporting. I also had the privilege of learning from some of the best editors and reporters in the business.

Now that I’m a researcher and consultant, I work for private clients rather than the general public, and my findings are confidential, rather than published and tweeted out to thousands of readers. But I still refer back to these six principles of journalism that I learned as a reporter.

Principle 1: Find the gold coin details

A professor of journalism I studied with at Brown taught me to look for little details that make a story hit home and bring the characters to life for the reader. It’s often a sensory detail, like the way someone ran their hands through their hair, or the sparkling clean surfaces of their home. Gold coin details are powerful because they make the story less abstract.

As a researcher, I now know to look for the little details and the big story at the same time.

I use gold coin details to spark clients’ empathy for participants. For example, a question like “how might we help Elizabeth after she’s shattered her iPhone screen while her child is screaming in the waiting room of A&E” is more powerful than “how might we make A&E more family friendly?”

Principle 2: Structure a narrative around reader questions

When I was drowning in information about urban farming, an editor suggested I structure it around reader questions. The headline sparks interest and makes readers read on. Each new piece of information should raise a new question and answer it.

As a consultant, I use this technique to storyline reports and evaluate when to use which data point.

When we’re drowning in information, I know to take a step back and start with the first question that the reader will have. In our case, it’s often something like “how can we give patients a better experience?” or “what should our new vision and strategy be?” It’s tempting to overload our reports with all the fascinating things we learned in research. For each data point, we can ask ourselves, what question is this data point answering for the client?

Principle 3: Maintain reportorial objectivity  

Traditional newsrooms aimed to strictly separate editorial choices from business decisions, and trained reporters to tell stories using only reported facts. In an ideal world, reporters would have no idea how a newspaper was doing financially, and readers would have no idea how a reporter felt about their story. The advent of digital media has changed these norms. But the principle is the same – reportorial objectivity creates trust with the reader, and makes stories more powerful.

As a researcher, I try to maintain reportorial objectivity, and remember that the purpose of research is to get to the bottom of the facts.

This helps me avoid ethnocentric description, and reduces the emotional wear and tear of challenging interviews. Our research may reveal participant behaviours that we think is unhealthy or counterproductive, or that’s simply different to what we would do. I always double check my reporting and my notes to make sure that the reader can’t tell how you feel about what they’re doing.

Principle 4: Pique readers’ interest with headlines that create a knowledge gap 

Have you ever seen a headline you just couldn’t resist clicking on? I spent a lot of time as a journalist trying to make my headlines as ‘clicky’ as possible. One way to do this is by creating a knowledge gap. For example, ‘7 Reasons This News Matters’ is much clickier than ‘This News Is Important’, because the reader can’t help wondering what those seven reasons are.

As a consultant, I engage my readers with ‘clicky’ slide headers and email subject lines.

I brainstorm with my team to coin great active headers in decks that pull the reader through the narrative, and evaluate what knowledge gap they create. I also boost my chances of getting an email reply by phrasing it as a question. E.g. “Dreaming of travel post-COVID?” or just “Jane & ExperienceLab?”

Principle 5: Fear your editor more than your interviewee

An editor told me this when I admitted to chickening out about asking a source something. Newsrooms are rowdy places and editors can be lacerating. You should always be more afraid of your editor asking why you didn’t ask a tough question than you should be of asking it.

As a researcher, I never want to have to tell a client “I don’t know”.

When an interview is difficult or awkward in any way, I remember the pain of having my manager or a client ask something I can’t answer, because I didn’t push hard enough in the session. Remembering this boosts my perseverance and stops me shying away from difficult questions. That said I never take it too far – our participants’ comfort and safety is more important than getting the killer quote.

Principle 6: Trust, but verify

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” is a journalistic bromide. Journalists need a healthy dose of scepticism to avoid embarrassing mistakes.

As a researcher, I take the same approach to structuring my research questions.

I always question my assumptions when I’m starting a project. It can be useful to interrogate the client’s assumptions at the beginning of the process, in a respectful and productive way. An assumptions matrix can help here too.

In summary

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my thoughts on how my journalistic experience makes me a better researcher and consultant. My colleagues at ExperienceLab have a diverse range of professional experiences. Everyone brings a different kind of expertise to the table, which strengthens our research approach and helps us solve our clients’ toughest problems.