I have a name for my RJI Fellowship project: Storytelling Tools. What I don't have is a decent description — one that's engaging, or even understandable.

For now, I spout phrases like "putting big media tools in the hands of smaller newsrooms," "plugins that aid and enhance the digital workflow" and "lean startup user-surveys."

See? My explanations stink.

So I consulted a company called Tadpull, run by Jake and Eulalie Cook, a husband-wife team of UI/UX (user interface/user experience) specialists. They're good at comprehending and communicating complicated ideas. I told them everything I thought the project was, then asked them how they would describe it.

Jake Cook, Tadpull Digital StrategyJake Cook: We're going to spend time with journalists, because we don't know what they really need and what their challenges are. So instead of building a bunch of technology we think is cool, but could be complicated or doesn't really solve their pain points, we're going to start the other way, with these journalists, understanding their workflows. Where do they get hung up? Because many aren't technical — they're not used to a CMS (content management system); they don't know HTML, or how to look at a code view.

So we're going to try to figure it out, from the initial story idea to pushing it up live on the Web. Then we'll build technology around where that friction is. This'll give us a much better chance of getting it adopted.

Eulalie Cook, Tadpull UX ResearchEulalie Cook: It's a journalist-driven project, to build technology to support journalists. Tagging onto what Jake said, the purpose of this project is to understand where journalists get hung-up translating a story onto an online platform. And then build technology that helps them in that process.

JC: People build technology because it's fun to build stuff, and ship it. The problem is often nobody wants to use it, because it works only for a tiny subset of users — like people who write code.

Start with the end-users: "Hey, how long have you been using WordPress? What do hate about it? What do you love about it?" Open-ended: "Do you mind if I just watch you publish a post?"

Maybe we need a plugin that's the beginner's guide to starting with WordPress [see Sidekick]. You're using this new interactive tool and you just want someone to be like they're on your shoulder saying, "Yup, you did that right. OK, go to the next part. Yup, that's right."

I watched this new user last week, and she was dropping f-bombs because she was so angry, saying, "I don't get it. What's a widget?" Just so frustrated. And this is somebody who has an MBA.

Tadpull's Hannah Jerome conducts a user-experience interview

EC: How do you help them incorporate all these tools? There's so much power in telling a story. Then you can complement it with video, audio, imagery — all those things. How do you simplify that process, so they can really tell their story to the best of their ability?

Because they're trying to convey something. Every story has a great purpose and meaning. They need everything they can get to tell that story. And just text, sometimes, it's not enough.

So how can we simplify the process so that they can take advantage of all those tools? That's what all these digital advancements should mean for journalists. But it's really hard to use everything, and make it all play together.

Just putting the technology and the tools in service of the content, that's the hierarchy.

JC: I think the challenge is: You may love journalism and storytelling, but it doesn't mean you love technology. You could hate it.

In fact, that's the big mission: Are we losing journalists? Are people shying away from becoming digital journalists because the technology experience sucks so much at the CMS level? That'd be interesting to investigate.

EC: I think one of the hardest things to explain in this project is that there are multiple layers of people. You have the journalists out there, but you don't know whether they're responsible for publishing or not. So who's involved in that process? I think just getting a better sense of that is going to help you figure out what are the right tools. Are they even targeted at journalists, or are they more for the producer and the developer?

Overall, the umbrella goal is about putting tools in the hands of journalists to make it easier to leverage media and put it on an online platform. Then underneath that there's stuff going on that's harder to explain. But if the big goal is to have thousands of downloads, it does have to really resonate with the journalists — not just with devs (developers). And we want this to go big.

Thanks to Jake and Eulalie Cook for donating their time to talk to me about this RJI project. I've begun interviewing others in our industry about Storytelling Tools’ potential, so stay tuned for future Q&As.

Barrett Golding  
Residential fellow


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