Design Bites: Where Can We Talk?

To speak correctly into the microphone below, where do you aim your voice?

Many of our guests clearly believe the answer is "toward it." Which, unfortunately, is only partially true.

You must speak into the blue foam at a point indicated by the small arrow taped on the metal cylinder. Here, it's below the "Y" in WNYC. This a) you must be told and b) is easy to forget in the stress of being on the air. (The manufacturer's logo is another landmark, but it is blocked by the mount.)

Speak toward any other point around the cylinder and you'll sound hollow and distant.

This week, in our main studio, we switched to microphones such as the one in the photograph below, which have a different sweet spot.

Suddenly, our guests stay "on mic" during entire interviews!

The shape tells them how to use it. No signs required.

Nobody Move!

Our newsroom works. Which is news.

For three years, we tried to design, from scratch, the best radio and online news facility possible. We moved in this summer, and the recent debates and breaking financial news suggest we got pretty darn close.

The key, I believe, was our central point of view:
In a breaking news situation, nobody should need to move.
A simple concept, with several implications:

-- During the most confused, stressful, and destabilizing moments, everyone is grounded in the familiar -- logins, phone lists, audio systems, etc. This allows the staff to sort out the fast-moving story, not rarely-used protocols

-- Routine, hourly news is produced with the benefit of communications and production systems robust enough for breaking news

-- Training people in daily news production automatically prepares them to handle the unexpected

-- On-air producers work amid the reporters and editors, not in a separate control room, so they are closer to the facts

-- On-air hosts can look look left to see the producer (and the rest of the newsroom), and right to see the audio engineer

-- Those sightlines allow for peripheral visual cues, such as concern on a reporter's face, or people intensely watching TV monitors

-- The News Hub is a technical extension of the studio complex, and has the intercom system used to talk directly with hosts and engineers; conversely, the hosts can address the entire newsroom through the News Hub monitor speakers to request facts, pronouncers, even water.

-- A web producer seated at the News Hub is integrated into the editorial system and instantly privy to all plans and decisions

It's not perfect. We produce two news shows on two different frequencies in the morning, and have trouble monitoring both at the News Hub. And our beautiful sightlines become tough brightlines as the sun sets beyond our western windows.

But those panes do provide an unexpected feature for hosts and the entire newsroom: ambient warning of approaching storms.

Design Bites: Buttons Behaving Badly

Rented a Honda CR-V yesterday, and when I went to the left side of the steering wheel to adjust the mirror I was startled by:

The dreaded "VSA OFF" button!

Which does what, exactly?* Must be important, since it's the largest button on the dashboard.

And while we're at it, does the icon in the circular switch say "mirror" to you? How about when you're doing 60?


* Turns out it shuts down the Vehicle Stability Assist system. Sounds like something you don't wanna press by accident.

Prototyping Debate Companionship

Back when a dozen people were vying for the presidency, I watched one of the debates at home alone, wishing I was in the company of people I respect to hear their thoughts.

Quick searches found the live blogging to be either slower or noisier than I wanted.

So as the presidential debates approached, I asked a tiger team at the station to come up a "live debate companion" fed by our top thinkers.

For the first McCain/Obama debate, we had John Hockenberry, Brooke Gladstone, Brian Lehrer and Andrea Bernstein tweet into their own accounts, which were presented in a self-updating Twitter/Web solution called Monittor. In a separate window, we fed a steady update of any tweet worldwide that included the word "debate" or the candidates' names -- offering a living, breathing experience, with a nice feel. It was also easy to share across our websites and other stations.

It turns out that the Twitterverse gets reeeeeallly slow during the debates, and that made the end result less interesting than we had hoped. Also -- hard to provide the trademark public-radio context in 140 characters.

For the Palen/Biden debate, we switched to CoverItLive, which provided a rockin', real-time experience. We hit some (yet unknown) room capacity, but for those able to join, it really flowed well. We copy-pasted some analysis into tweets, too.

Two strong signs we're on the right track:

1) The next day, the critiques at the station, including a chunk of a Takeaway planning meeting, centered on the content of the event, not the technology.

2) This:
[Comment From Chris, NYC]
This was a great experience. Thanks for your company.
"Company." Bingo.

We'll do it again Tuesday.

UPDATED OCTOBER 14: We learned today that there 1026 people participated in the Live Debate Companion for the 2nd presidential candidates' debate. That's exciting.

Currency of Collaboration

If we're collaborating on an art project, would you rather have access to my great paintings or my awesome set of paints?

In public radio, the currency of collaboration is often the painting. Or the "piece," really. It's the 3- to 5-minute story that's carefully crafted, rich with texture and color, and takes the listener somewhere compelling.

Trading in these paintings, though, is frought with problems. First, they have a high emotional investment. And very often, the painting looks (sounds) great on the walls (airwaves) of the local station, but doesn't quite fit the style of the station down the road. Or the national show.

To solve this, there are many local, regional and national workshops geared toward getting everyone to paint more like each other ... or at least make sure they match the walls of one particular house.

But maybe the answer is in collaborations centered around the tools of our trade, not the end result.

Time to experiment with collaborating around:
  • sources
  • expertise
  • technologies
  • reporter knowledge
  • shared experiences
  • experts we trust
  • techniques we use
  • tools we buy
  • investigations we undertake
  • widgets we make
Then, separately or together, the we can craft great works of journalism.

[photo 3rd foundation]

Crowdsourcing Hillary's Schedules

How do you read 11,000+ pages of a First Lady's schedules? Ask 11,000 friends to help! Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, that's exactly what we're going to do.

Hillary Clinton just released her schedules from her First Lady days, and we're going to ask listeners to pick the week of their birthday in any year of the schedules and look for things that are interesting or surprising ... and post the findings on a Brian Lehrer web page.

As WNYC reporter Andrea Bernstein pores through the pages, she'll also keep an eye on the web postings for gems listeners find. Let's see what this "professional-public" collaborative journalism project (or "pro-am" in journo jargon) can discover.

Designing the Next Newsroom

Really interesting conference shaping up about how to reimagine newsrooms in the digital age. What works? What doesn't?

Everything from how to shape a newsroom, how to reconsider management of news folks, and even whether a physical newsroom is necessary.

The second half of the conference is being shaped by a make-your-own workshop wiki page. Should be cool to see what emerges.

Back in Action

I hereby end the Silent Phase of design agitation.

Lots of interesting things have happened since last fall, not the least of which has been the development of WNYC's new morning show, The Takeaway with John Hockenberry & Adaora Udoji.

Watch for it to hit the airwaves in the coming weeks.

Design thinking has been a big part of the development, including areas such as:
  • Listener Participation
  • Hiring Staff
  • Super Tuesday Coverage
  • Workspace and Environment
  • The Launch Video
And lots, lots more.

In addition, WNYC's entire election coverage has been supported by design thinking principles.

And as we move into our brand new facility, other design elements are coming into play.

Details to come ...
John

Silent Agitation

While things have been quiet on this blog, lots has been going on under the surface. Once it becomes public, I hope to have a LOT to post here.

The skinny is that folks here at WNYC are working closely with the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (aka the d.school) to redesign public radio mornings. The show is a collaboration of WNYC and Public Radio International, with the BBC, the New York Times and WGBH. You can read more about it here.

So more to come on that. If you're interested, subscribe to the atom feed and you'll get more when it becomes available.

In the interim, I'll drop in occasionally to point out interesting things we and others are doing with design and human-centered processes.