Professor Jennifer Pybus, a senior lecturer at the London College of Communication, studies the political economy and architecture of third party applications. In her view, one of media’s main challenges can be found in the algorithmic literacy of its users:

“People don’t necessarily want to be challenged. If they see something that confirms their ideological position, they feel more comfortable.”

Producers of media services face a double challenge: first, their users should be aware of the flaws inherent in algorithms which are made by humans, may include their biases and, in the words of Vint Cerf, co-inventor of the internet protocol, “may not work exactly the way they were intended or the way we expect them to.” Secondly, how do we develop the critical thinking to understand the innards of our algorithmic digital life?

Maybe Spotify highlighting music that conforms our general tastes is harmless: Discover Weekly, Related Artists and Recommended Songs all fill this user need–but in the news ecosystem, the same algorithm might enhance our confirmation bias and work against core creeds of media literacy.

What do Leave.EU, #MAGA and conversion rate have common? 

In the “transition from mass to micro media”, as Pybus describes the digitisation journey of advertising, consumers benefit from micro-targeting and “appreciate being served only ads that are just for them”. However, the mechanics of micro-targeting are contrary to the information needs of informed citizens, who need to see all the views – not just the ones they like. “There’s a missing link back to the society we live in–a tension that need exist to provide context”, Pybus observes. The example helps illustrate the titanic ethical challenges in media service design.

In a sense, both the “Leave.EU” and “Make America Great Again!” campaigns were service experiences. Both campaigns made innovative use of data-driven psychometric micro-targeting to find “hot-button topics that got people mad enough to get out the door and vote”, in the words of professor and award-winning data-journalist Jonathan Albright. He calls this “the new data-industrial complex” and points to how a deft combination of available technologies, platforms and strategic data mining were deployed to galvanise users (in this case, passive voters). 

Video Killed the Radio Star – by awesome service design

Of late, a trove of experience-guided digital services have been deployed inside and outside media organisations to address some of the industry’s specific risks. AllSides curates centre, right and left perspectives in a visually compelling way to expose bias and provide multiple angles on the same story. BuzzFeed’s “Outside Your Bubble” allows users to see what people outside their social networks are saying about a news item–although not everyone’s on board; the app ReadAcrossTheAisle presents a colour-coded newsfeed that goes from moderate to partisan. At the bottom of the app you see a dial indicating in which part of the spectrum your daily news diet falls. Then, much like a sports app, as the days goes by, it suggests you “escape your bubble”, offering news that will give you a more balanced view.

Syria Deeply–part of new media company News Deeply–explores new models of storytelling around a global crisis. The media service founded by journalist Lara Setrakian, is underpinned by three deeply service-oriented insights: citizens need news built on deep domain knowledge; media needs a Hippocratic Oath, a pledge to do no harm, so it can continue to fulfil its role as a public service; and it needs to “embrace complexity”, as this is the truest representation of the world.

As Setrakian explains in this TEDNYC talk, “simple isn’t accurate and news is adult education.” Other user-centric initiatives include Archant’s print newspaper The New European, launched two weeks after Brexit and focused on the 48 percent of voters who did not support it. It was intended as a pop-up with a four week life. However, it has performed well, leading to indefinite continuation and a digital edition. 

What can media take from the service designer’s toolkit?

Service design offers an ambidextrous approach to improve or innovate service experiences. It has become more relevant as more of the products we consume exist across channels in ways that are invisible to consumers. Digitisation and an omni-channel presence have accelerated this process–by allowing users to communicate through their preferred medium, crossing from one touch point to the next while expecting seamless experiences everywhere. 

Service design “combines customer experience, operational model design and design thinking methodologies as tools. It considers the end to end service journey across all channels and touchpoints not only from a customer, but also from an organisational perspective”, as described by Jani Modig of Deloitte.

Delivering consistently good experiences on every channel is key–as this consistency aligns the customer experience to their perception of the brand. Service design does this by taking a multidisciplinary approach that enables organisations to enhance strategies and operations. By building back-office activities focused on service experience excellence, it prepares organisations to prioritise on this above all other issues. 

The above selection shows how a focus on service design may help bring about innovative media experiences. Their common virtues rest on the focus on implicit and explicit needs of news consumers. Media organisations can explore how aligning their strategies and operations to embrace service design principles will help them deliver innovative and sustainable services.

In later posts we will explore core competences and methodologies of service design focused organisations.

Further reading and resources