Last January, I was interviewed on my path to User Experience design by way of journalism. A few months later, I talked about the same journey at a Toronto Designers and Coffee event!
I decided to ditch the slides this time and give it as a prepared speech (complete with my emotive voice and animated hand gestures). It was an event meant to be an informal one, one where career stories can be shared from one colleague to another.
From Journalism to UX Design
Toronto Designers and Coffee
I’m Jem Rosario, freelance User Experience specialist here in Toronto.
I wanted to thank Dori for organizing this meetup and for carving out a space to tell stories.
You see, design careers are rarely ever linear. And having this event to hash out who started where and where they are today means a lot to those who’s starting, transitioning, or simply looking to make a change (like me, by the way).
So thank you, Dori.
I wanted to talk to you today about my life as a designer. I was a former journalist who wrangled words and stories on a day-to-day basis until life brought me here, to this country, to do something new.
It’s been an emotional journey spanning two continents; and I hope that what I’ll share with you today gives you hope or, at the very least, something to think about.
My story begins in Journalism School, circa 2007-2008. I was this wide-eyed teenager who wanted to become the next Anderson Cooper and I made this promise to myself that I will become this famous journalist when I grow up.
(Here was the interview that started it all)
So I studied to become one, and soon I was learning about print, the inverted pyramid, putting the lead on top of the article, the role of pictures in a news story, and many other nice reporter things. I wrote news articles and short features. But the thing that captured my imagination the most was investigative and explanatory journalism.
Investigative journalism was special because it was longform. It allowed you to pour in a lot of detail and context while guiding readers along a real narrative and a real story. It was anchored on a problem – like, irregularities at City Hall or whether Farmer’s Markets are really staffed by farmers – and it was our job to get to the bottom of it.
I took that job very seriously and it led me to do investigative journalism for my school’s newspaper for 3 solid years.
But sh*t started hitting the fan.
By third year of Journalism School, I was starting to feel some whispers about my dreams. I started to wonder whether journalism was right for me and if I wanted the journalistic life through and through. It also didn’t help that conditions in the newsroom were becoming testy. My section editor and I were butting heads a little bit more often, and my journalistic work just wasn’t having that same spark as when I started.
My dreams of becoming the next Anderson Cooper were slowly slipping from my hands; and eventually, a crisis in my confidence emerged.
I was like, “Sh*t. What do I do now? Is journalism still the right one for me?”
The Digital Turn
While all of this happened, I signed up for a class in Investigative Journalism hoping to save whatever was left of my journalistic dreams.
I was counting on that class to convince me that I still have it, that I was just going through a phase, that it’s just the stress of “press”, and that I’ll emerge stronger from this episode in the long run.
My professor started to do something interesting. Instead of teaching us Investigative Journalism for print, she started teaching us Investigative Journalism for the web.
There, she showed us websites of Al Jazeera covering the Iraq War, ABC News at the height of the Catholic sex abuse scandal, and many other websites that went beyond “the news of the day”. She showed us websites that curated stories, videos, analysis, and visual treatments of the issue over a visual medium.
“This was storytelling at a new level,” I figured, so I went all in.
In that class, we were told to come up with a tiny website containing our investigative articles and many other “multimedia” things such as videos and photos, pretty much any kind of visual method to enhance the investigative story we were trying to tell.
By semester’s end, my team submitted a news website with 3 short pieces, 1 main article, 3 news videos, a photo gallery, and a couple of infographics. This happened at a time when cellphone videos were just too grainy to be watched and the the term “buffering” appeared on Winamp every nanosecond.
On dial-up, no less. 😉
As the guy who sorta knew how to work a WordPress blog, I became the resident web designer/investigative journalist/dashing reporter/stressed tech guy. And I’m still freaking proud of this design project because it still exists all the way until today.
I should know. I own the hosting account!
Moving to New Media
So that class taught me “web design” – a thing I wasn’t planning to get into, but loved its creative and artistic sides, anyway. It taught me new technical skills while strengthening the practices that made a good, strong journalist such as interviewing, story writing, research, etc.
But I wasn’t out of the woods yet. My doubts about journalism were still there and the class I just finished really just delayed the inevitable outcome.
I broke up with journalism.
I was sad when I realized this. I honestly felt I threw my life away and that I have to claw my way back to some other profession if I ever wanted to earn some money.
And then something happened that triggered a very, very huge change. After six years of being an immigration file, Canada approved my application for Permanent Residency.
So, 18 hours and tons of bags later, I arrived at this place called Canada to start my life all over again.
I was freaking out when I landed. But you know what? It was also pretty exciting to start all over again.
I was able to transfer my studies to the University of Toronto. That was a relief because at least I don’t have to completely start from scratch and that I can graduate with a U of T degree under my belt.
It was also a chance to follow through on my decision to move out of journalism and try something else. This led me to the New Media Studies program at the University of Toronto Scarborough where I would learn a whole slew of things, one of which was User Experience design.
This UX Life
You know what they say about marriage: If you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it.
This was exactly the case with the New Media program in the sense that it was a nice, broad digital media education, but the onus is on you to actually pick a specialization. And by specialization, it’s not like choosing an academic stream such as “web development”, “digital design”, “project management”, etc. Rather, it’s your job to fall into the practice that’s interesting for you and actually put a ring on it.
So it was like my childhood days all over again – planning world domination through the career that I’d be doing – except that what’s at stake is my Canadian future with 1 more year before officially graduating.
Luckily, my program had opportunities to be involved in projects to practice some UX skills. My first UX project was the redesign of Owlkids.com – which got me building wireframes in Photoshop, then Illustrator, then Balsamiq, and then Omnigraffle – and then followed by more and more projects that molded me into the practitioner I am today.
I have grown a lot since I left journalism. I really enjoy doing the tough yet rewarding work called UX and Product Design and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And yet there is still this soft spot that gets triggered every time journalism is mentioned. Sure, it’s no longer what I do and dream of. But the reality is, you just never forget your first love.
Try as I might to “forget” journalism, it always seems to make its way back to me. And the more I get immersed in the research and strategy side of digital product design, those journalism days keep hitting me like the feels train.
Let me show you how.
How Journalism Meets UX
When you ask journalists, they will tell you that it’s all about the story – stories that matter to you and stories that make you care.
We’ve heard something like this: “The TTC has selected Bombardier to build its new line of streetcars”. Yay. Big deal. New streetcars. I’m affected.
But as soon as that story comes with, “A Toronto Star investigation has found that 67 of 89 new streetcars have welding defects that could make them fail prematurely,” you bet you paid attention.
#StarExclusive The Star has learned that after a lengthy investigation into long-standing welding problems with the vehicles, Bombardier has concluded 67 of 89 streetcars it has supplied need to be fixed, or they could fail prematurely. https://t.co/1DYgKLW5nK
— TorontoStar (@TorontoStar) July 4, 2018
We call it “conflict” in journalism. We call it “problem” in UX design.
And as UX designers, you and I solve design problems. We use design to make things better just as journalists write to inform the public.
The methods may differ from profession to profession. But at the end of the day, journalists and designers have a common goal to make things better for the people they are serving.
This makes journalists and designers so much the same. And I’m constantly amazed at how my old tricks such as interviews, tough questions, and asking “why?” are fundamentally baked into the design process, things I thought I would never do again when I gave up journalism.
Truly, you never forget your first love. Apparently, love is lovelier the second time around.
The expression “Why?” has got to be the journalist’s biggest superpower. It has the power to unearth reasons, the truth behind a statement, and the answer to a nagging question.
It’s probably the question politicians dread the most because now they have to explain the reasons behind the things they do.
“Why did Doug Ford cancel the Green Energy program?”
“Why is there a hiring freeze in the Ontario Public Service? Is the Ontario Digital Service going to be affected by it?”
Similarly, we designers ask “why?”
It’s really not enough to just be handed a Creative Brief and then do that design magic. Hell no! Rather, we take that Creative Brief and then analyze the nuts and bolts of it so we can understand the problem at hand.
“Why is this website important to you?”
“Why is this service frustrating?”
“Why do you buy a newspaper when all of this is online?”
It’s about filling the gaps in our knowledge of the situation so that we can develop products and solutions that people truly need – just as journalists ask “why?” to understand key decisions so that they could report on them more effectively.
There is a famous question my journalism profs repeatedly use to coax the meat out of a story: “So what?”
“So what if Doug Ford cancelled the Green Energy program? What’s in it for those who bought into it and now have a free thermostat (versus those waiting for a decision)?”
“So what if Donald Trump signed an Executive Order banning family separations at the US-Mexico border? Is it going to solve things? Why and how?”
“So what that this website has a hit counter? What is this? 1999?”
“So what?” forces meaning, purpose, and relevance in our designed work. It forces details that clarify a news article just as it forces designers to be deliberate in every design decision. It ensures that an article leaves no question unanswered, just as it ensures that the placement of that call-to-action button can be tied to some business outcome whatever it may be.
Taken this way, “so what?” connects our otherwise ‘creative’ decisions into something that affects the bottom line. And this makes so much sense when you consider that our work – our creative, User Experience design work – is something that clients and companies buy for.
They want to know, more than anything else, that everything that we do can be tied to a determinable business outcome, whether it is increased sales, more downloads, more follow-throughs in the purchase pipeline, among many others.
They want to know that they’re getting a good buy – a good purchase that is. They want to be convinced that the work that we do makes a difference in their lives as a business or organization.
“So what?”, then, acts like an accountability piece to our design decisions. It ensures that we’re using design for a deliberate reason (e.g. “We want to let customers change their concert seats even after paying for their ticket”) that leaves our clients and organizations better than we have met them.
So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, a story of how I got into UX through journalism and how my previous background wasn’t really a total waste.
I may not be doing pure journalism these days. But at least I know that when push comes to shove, my journalism background will be there to support UX research and targeted design decisions for the companies that I work with.
I hope the three journalism tenets, story, “why?”, and “so what?”, could be useful to you as you go about your UX research and design work, and I look forward to seeing what you make out of it.
Let’s build the possible together.