Presenting results of design thinking exercise to

By Aaron Simon @AaronMSimon

Guided by the principles of Design Thinking, our community engagement class project led us to listen to the experiences of the NJ Transit commuters waiting for their trains at Penn Station. The goal was to prototype tools that can use to serve this community.

Professor Jeff Jarvis’s social journalism book, “Geeks Bearing Gifts,” challenges us new-age journalists to measure success by outcomes and to forgo chasing clicks.. To immerse ourselves in communities, not just to report on a catchy breaking story, but to build meaningful relationships and build tools for connectedness.   This exercise was one example of how this can work.

It’s these approaches that put a journalist and the community they serve on the same level. As service-based journalists, Doreen Marchionni explains, it’s key for our communities to gain a sense of our “humanness.” We no longer report from above, but from on the ground, at eye-level. And we report not just to create content, but also to affect change and deliver outcomes.

I think of Brandon Stranton’s Humans of New York blog as an example. Stanton connected a community of millions of people worldwide who are interested in the everyday experiences of regular people. The interest in the compelling stories of the ‘humans’ often generates crowd-funding campaigns to alleviate the struggles of the interviewee. For example, a cash-strapped middle school in East New York, Brooklyn raised over one million dollars to start a yearly program that sends students  from low-income families to visit Harvard’s campus. How can we serve NJ Transit commuters? First, we must find what their troubles are.

The current commuter experience is one riddled with last-minute track notifications and delays, extending already long travel times. To interact with commuters, we visited them where they wait, and we drank the morning-equivalent of margaritas, coffee. The mood may not have been festive at Penn Station during the morning rush, but we had valuable conversations with commuters.

After talking with the commuters, our class exchanged experiences and reflected separately this week on how to further develop relationships with our own communities. My community I originally sought to engage for the social journalism program was defined by the geography of Greenpoint, a neighborhood that’s home to the polluted Newtown Creek and a host of environmental health problems. As I continued to develop relationships and dig deeper, I found a more-focused community of entrepreneurs, scientists, and students working on technologies to report on air quality using sensors in San Diego and Brooklyn. I’ve found that refocusing one a smaller subset of a greater community makes engagement more feasible.

Professor Jarvis said to find forums where people are communicating, and  most importantly, “listen first.” Listening is often easier said than done; to approach a community with a preconceived notion can be detrimental.

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Lamar Graham of came to class to hear student ideas


An approach to to creating products and services the community needs  is “to continually source feedback and then reevaluate,” Professor Carrie Brown said. Immersion, listening, and re-evaluation are central tenants of service journalism and design experience alike.

Lamar Graham is the vice president of audience development for He visited class this week to receive our  insights on the commuter experience and give feedback on the tools we developed.

To develop effective tools, as Professor Jarvis said, is to “serve the community and the individual.”

Students presenting their ideas on improving the commute
Students presenting their ideas on improving the commute

We explained to Graham that after fielding many opinions, we learned that commuters want WiFi, power outlets, cleaner and more-spacious seats, and better train notifications, with alternative routes. Some of these structural accouterments are clearly out of reach for to provide on trains, so our proposed solutions instead hinged upon social tools and mobile phones.

The prototyped tool each group came up with centered on the use of a hypothetical smartphone app. The idealized NJ.Com app would provide train notifications and news updates for trains, generated in significant part by users. The notion of a community reporting on itself fits within the social journalism approach, and frees us journalists to curate the content and make the exchange of community knowledge efficient. There was a consensus that the app should have a certain social aspect that connects riders, if not in-person, then on message boards and comment sections within the app.

According to Graham and Jarvis, who are both NJ Transit commuters, interaction with other riders is rare, much like on the NYC Subway. Many times it seems improper and uncomfortable for two strangers to start talking on public transit, and there has to be a prior commonality to ease social apprehension. Where better place to start than from a place of shared disdain for the daily commute? Commuters are in close proximity on the NJ Transit and remain disconnected from one another, at least for now.

Looking forward, I want to ask: how are we developing relationships with our respective communities? What are our challenges and successes so far? How can we use the insights from the NJ Transit research in building our own communities? Did you buy a margarita-maker yet, or practice making them?


20 thoughts on “Presenting results of design thinking exercise to”

  1. I think one of the important things we learned from the exercise was that even within the commuter community, there are subgroups of people with different needs and desires, such as drivers vs. train commuters vs. bus commuters. Plus, we had to not only listen to what they had to say, but also to read between the lines through listening and observation. I think that’s vital to the process, because people aren’t always able or willing to articulate everything they need or want.

    I’ve certainly found that to be true of my community, which I’m looking at from a very wide angle as I begin. People’s needs depend on a whole host of factors: precisely what kind of visa situation they’re in, the visa situations of their families, their criminal history, their education level, their English skills, their income, and sometimes, even luck.

    One of the things I’ve tried to do in the listening process is to really get at what people’s concerns are, because they aren’t always what I expect. I’ve been lucky that people have been willing to talk to me openly about things that make them nervous, and I’m working on curating a network of contacts so that I can establish sources who know and trust me, and are willing to recommend other people to speak to me. Trust is huge when dealing with my community, one that often lives in the shadows, but I think it’s important to all of our communities.

    Another things we learned during the exercise is to go physically to where our community is. This is a bit more challenging for those of us who don’t have geographic communities, but I am working on finding possible “third places” where I can not only find people in my community, but people willing to talk.

    In Dan Kennedy’s Nieman Lab piece that we read this week, he says this about local reporters:

    “The challenge all of them face is that serving the public is no longer enough. Rather, the public they serve must first be assembled — and given a voice.”

    So for me, this is my big challenge at the moment: identifying members of the community and teasing out their needs and concerns before I can figure out how to give them a voice.

    1. Excellent, Rachel, and so true…in your community in particular, trust is such a big thing. Nice quote to pull from the Kennedy piece.

  2. I really found interesting that we all worked on a mobile-based solution to improve the experience of NJ commuters. Considering that smartphones and tablets are the most common tools, serving this community means reach commuters to their closest points of contact.

    It’s also interesting to notice how important it is to deliver a personalized message to each commuter. Julia, Luis, Adriele, and Aaron focused on the interaction between individuals facing the same –bad- commuting experience. Besty, Emily, Sean, Cristina, and Jay mainly considered for their app project to set up a list of commodities for each subscriber according to their location. Rachel, Pedro, Deron, Erica and I tried to alert each commuter about any modification in his or her transit depending on their contact preferences.

    The exercise also shows us the interaction between community gathering and project management makes so much sense. As professor Jarvis and V.P. audience development at Lamar Graham said if we provide tools to commuters so they alert any incident or traffic, will be able to send a journalist to the specific location, cover, and report the event. Here again the notion of time optimization can lead to a win-win situation for both media and audience. For that, it is very clever to understand an audience not by defining it as a static group but as a community in movement.

  3. The results of a three week study of design thinking were put to the test last Tuesday, as students from Jeff Jarvis and Carrie Brown’s Community Engagement class presented research and suggestions to Lamar Graham, vice president of audience development at

    Three teams, who had all studied the same materials and researched at the same locations, came up with very distinct suggestions for how could better serve the New jersey commuting audience they cater to. Design thinking is a concept of new journalism and marketing that uses audience participation and a series of deep digs into existing issues in order to come up with solutions or innovations that will suit the target audience. Most famously known as the process to ‘build a better mousetrap’ it has become an essential tool of audience engagement from the business sector, to academics to journalism. For, not only do journalists need to report the news that is timely and compelling, social journalists need to know how to engage an audience and provide a service or resource for their community. It is based on the reader’s sense of trust in the journalist, and also on accepting that the journalist has a level of authenticity in which they can truly advocate and document the experience of the reader. Many students in the class reported that key take a ways from the project were that they were able to better refine their sense of community, as well as gaining a more firm understanding of how to communicate better questions in order to capture the true sense of an issue that is to be reported on.

    In her article, “So long ‘Wizard of Oz’ Journalism”, the writer, Joy Mayer suggests,

    “I’m here to shed a light on a new breed of journalists who see themselves as participants and work to build authenticity by opening up about who they are and where they come from. By standing for something, even if it’s just their community. By meeting people where they are, and participating in conversations they didn’t start.

    Time was that the journalist started the conversation. More and more these days, we are seeing news directed solely by an audience that is in the drivers seat, and that audience can be so narrow that the past sense of one size fits all, just doesn’t anymore.
    Clay Shirkey addresses this in Here Comes Everybody. (p.59)

    In any profession, particularly one that has existed long enough to not remember a time it didn’t exist, members have a tendency to equate provisional solutions to particular problems with deep truths about the world…This is true of newspapers today and of the media generally. The media industries have suffered first and most from the recent collapse in communications cost

    There is a high demand for refinement and individuality. There are easy fixes and conveniences that previously didn’t exist when the communication costs were high. The costs aren’t high anymore, but the stakes for media companies are. That is why is so eager to find solutions for commuters who have myriad different options at their disposal for getting and processing information.

    Much of the class research went in to finding better ways to disseminate information to commuters. Aps were developed and compared to existing ones such as Waze and My Commute. needs to develop a way to compete with existing transit apps and keep the audience on their pages, while using tools and data to find out more about them. To be innovate and internalized to a commuter, they called on Social Media guru, Jeff Jarvis. That says a lot about what is expected from publishing these days.

    As for the students, many of whom are new to reporting, the consensus seemed to be that ‘meeting the community where they are’ had greater benefits than any had expected. Overall, students were surprised to discover the issues stated by commuters, and most agreed that the design thinking exercise gave them valuable insights into solution based community journalism.

    1. Good, Cristina. Only thing I would slightly clarify is that design thinking doesn’t originate with journalism or marketing, though it can be applied to both, as we saw. I think the idea of meeting communities where they are is an important one.

  4. As a former New Jersey resident, I was really interested by the dynamics in our proposals to improve commutes on NJ Transit in conjunction with I know that I bring a unique perspective to the issue as someone who takes those trains all the time, but each group’s ideas identified different needs within their communities. Each time, the main issue at hand was the desire to stay connected to their surroundings.

    In terms of my community, I’ve found that immersion is really the best tactic. I’ve tried my best to surround myself with Irish people (my community) at every potential turn, and I’ve not only learned more about the culture, I’ve also managed to discover how it transforms and adapts to life in New York City. In my estimation, it’s akin to learning a new language; you’re never going to learn it unless you’re around it all the time.

    Going forward, I think that the most valuable asset I’ll possess in order to reach my community is my own work through our reporting class. I’ve been spending time around people in my community to learn their individual stories and draw connections between them and a larger narrative. My first piece for reporting is about a soccer fan club on the Upper West Side that will be complete soon, and I got some fantastic interviews by just being “there”. If you’re willing to listen, people will open up.

    1. “If you’re willing to listen, people will open up.” Good insight. I think that process of immersion is really important.

  5. Speaking of the commuters presentation, I’ll give a recap of my group’s pitch. I was super nervous to present to Lamar Graham, which I didn’t know I would be doing until an hour before class. Initially, Rachel was going to speak. Then, we decided to break it up in parts (which is fair). But I’m not a huge fan of presentations. Although, I need to be in order to be the ruler of all media someday (just kidding… sort of).

    Anyways, I memorized my part, which I did pretty well. Nevertheless, I summed up how NJ commuters should go to to sign up for alerts about any commuting issues and updates. It’s a simple process.

    Here’s the breakdown:
    – Simple form on allows users to sign up for updates on delays, emergencies, traffic, and track numbers
    – Users can get them by text, email, or Twitter
    – Information can come from Clever Commute, NJ Transit, and
    – The information is out there, but we need to get the info to people in a simpler, faster manner.
    – is getting important information from its users, specifically where they live and work.

    Form on

    Ultimately like the other groups, Rachel Glickhouse, Pedro Burgos, Sihem Fekih, Erica Soto and I did well on the pitch. Also, Jeff Jarvis gave positive feedback and some pointers about how this could work as a relationship builder between and NJ commuters. Also, it was an awesome project and hands-on introduction to design thinking.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the project. Presentations are a fact of modern life, even though of course the audiences may differ substanitally – but the more you do them, the better it gets.

      Good evaluation of you and your group’s work, but I’d also like to hear more about how you might connect what you learned here with learning about your community. Also, what about your group’s work do you think made it particularly effective? I don’t disagree that it *was* good, but analyze that a little more for us.

  6. To Aaron’s question of how I’m building relationships with my community:
    Very slowly. And one-by one.

    I’m aiming to talk in-depth to one new person in my community every week, at least for a while. The last two people I’ve talked with were about to start at a new job, so I’m excited to talk with them again in a few months (and in between) to see how everything is going.

    I’m excited to talk to lots of new people, but I want to really be able to develop relationships and remember people as individuals, not as “one of those first 5 interviews,” so I’m going slowly. I’m looking forward to building an awesome chart for reporting class about how all my sources connect (or don’t) and cluster and such. I think starting to build that out now will help my visualize who else I should talk to next.

    I guess I’m not yet at the margarita machine phase, still in the “Let’s get coffee, one-on-one” mode.

    The lesson that stuck with me most from the experience was: How can convince people to give us data about themselves in exchange for something? For NJ, it was home and work location data. For Facebook, it’s everything. What do I want to know about my community members, and what can I offer them in exchange for sharing that information with me?

    1. Good insights, Julia. I think that whenever you can, taking it slowly as you are devleoping rapport with the community makes a lot of sense. And yes…I think that at the end of the day, news organizations that want to sustain themselves need to think about exactly that question about data.

  7. While the elevator pitch was daunting (as we had to present an idea that could potentially be used) it was a great way to gain clarity on ideas each group was thinking of for

    With design thinking to expand our thought process, every group came up with numerous ideas in only a few weeks. The results of working together to pitch our ideas in a few minutes were pretty amazing. Everyone presented a concise and direct idea that branched off into meaningful facets per each “product.”

    Jeff Jarvis states in Geeks Bearing Gifts, “Mobile means context: where I am and what I’m doing.” I feel this is overlooked by a lot of publishers who only tap into mobile as another form of distributing content. Normally they’d distribute that content in the same way but just in a more responsive setting. Then you see those who are taking advantage of the features mobile offers i.e. even the Washington Post with their app allows users to choose what sections of the paper they want to see on their homepage. This simple feature allows the paper to be more customized to the readers liking.

    We read an article for Reporting class in which Mike Fourcher had a pretty good point throughout his article “ 21 Things I Learned Running Hyperlocal News Sites :”

    “For instance, can you imagine someone from the 1940’s using Facebook? It would be a big adjustment, and one of the reasons why many people in their 70’s and 80’s are having a hard time adjusting to the media environment today.

    Pure innovation, something radially world changing, like the steam engine and AC power, is not possible when it comes to news and advertising, I think. Things will have to move slowly.”

    This reminded me of the efforts newspapers are making online. They’re buying apps, partnering with data publishers to discover the best way to reach their audience but also earning ad space at the same time. They’re letting consumers rate the apps and they’re asking what’s needed to make it better. Maybe it really is just one step at a time until there is a breakthrough. We’re just beginning to see news adapt to mobile, who knows where it might be in six months from now?

    I’d say the challenges I’m mainly facing in getting in touch with my community is understanding what they might want as a whole. I have heard many different issues as queer women are still looked at as second-class citizens in many parts of the country. It makes it difficult to decide where my focus should reside. The uplifting part about this is that I’m learning so much more about the community than anticipated and this is just the beginning.

    1. Good, Emily. I think it is fine to still be exploring and trying to focus.

      I think you are exactly right about mobile, and that’s an area we really need to be watching closely. See the article I posted on FB today by Melody Kramer about push notifications and community – how can we use mobile to advance our relationships and connections to the community rather than just pushing stuff on them?

  8. Aaron I’m drinking a margarita right now in honor of you and Joy Mayer. I have to admit Mayer does have some great points in her article –

    Obviously one is that “margaritas make people happy, loosen tongues and encourage bonding.” (We all really should bond together sometime.) The second point is that we need to “figure out where conversation is happening in our communities, and go there.” Then, she says we can “enrich those conversations with information and context, making ourselves and the other participants smarter along the way.”

    I walked away from the NJ Transit research thinking how important it was that we actually went to where the conversation was happening. I have been very surprised in this exercise, and with the outreach I’ve been doing for my community project, to find out how often the needs are very different then what I assume they are. I began thinking about what it would have been like if Jeff and Carrie asked us to come up with some ideas before we had actually gone out to speak with NJ Transit commuters. Our presentations would have been completely different, and I’m sure we would have had some great ideas, but we likely would have missed the mark since we hadn’t engaged in conversation with the community first. Just spending a few hours at Penn Station made a huge difference when it came to pitching ideas that Lamar Graham and the staff could use. We were able to bring added value to their site with creative ideas that would also meet the commuters needs.

    This brings me back to thinking about my own community, which began as independent artists, then became music fans, and now it’s a hybrid of both. I have been trying to discover what this community’s needs are on and off line. Each week I’ve gained insight as I’ve talked to people in person, sent out surveys and initiated conversations on social media. What I can already tell you is that many musicians know the importance of social media, but struggle with knowing how to effectively reach fans. They also stress that they need supporters to continue purchasing music, whether it’s online or at venues after live shows. Fans say they are still very much willing to pay for music, but also crave more interactive performances or chats that are curated by professionals. They are looking for better platforms to find new music and a way to stay better informed without having to seek out multiple websites. I know there’s a lot more to discover here, but I can already see some big problems that can be fixed. I’m excited to meet more people from this group and eventually take the next step in helping this community that I am so passionate about.

    1. “Cheers” to your margarita! Excellent, Erica. I’m so glad you found the exercise valuable and that you are making strides in learning about your community.

  9. Aaron’s questions are excellent. They really made me think long and hard about the roles we play and how we should continue to play them. So here I go:

    How are we developing relationships with our respective communities?
    Just like Julia mentioned, this is not a quick process, it’s a slow, careful relationship that has to be nurtured to the point where everyone involved relies on trust. To me, trust is crucial, the mother of necessities. Once we have built this trust we can then help our communities by really knowing more about them. In Design Thinking, one of the tasks was to really go deep, to dig and find out more about the consumer – this is crucial because understanding the layers of a person/community can help us empathize and not alienate or offend, or patronize.

    What are our challenges and successes so far? How can we use the insights from the NJ Transit research in building our own communities?

    The task was helpful for a few reasons: First, whatever you thought of the commuter and their needs, you need to know there is someone else who takes the same ride, but has totally different problems. If we are to talk about individual vs community: one cannot be without the other. So the challenge was not necessarily discovering the need, but rather how we can improve on it. Our app idea was a way to find out about your routine schedule (train times) and then be able to share it, let it out to create some type of catharsis (leave a comment etc) – this way we can not only help a community, but also give the voice to the individual.

    Did you buy a margarita-maker yet, or practice making them?
    I’m Latino. I used to be a bartender. next question.
    (By the way, I recommend a pisco sour. Peruvian cocktail – way better than a margarita, lol)

  10. By now we should all agree on the importance of journalism as a public good, or the journalistic duty to serve what the community needs. But what about the community that doesn’t know what it needs, and is not engaged in its issues? That is, for me, the interesting question posed by “Wired City” author Dan Kennedy, in his Nieman Lab article.

    “serving the public is no longer enough. Rather, the public they serve must first be assembled — and given a voice.”

    So, getting back to our problem of developing tools for most of us didn’t know beforehand what were the problems – and going in to the field without assuming was an interesting first step. The problem is: many of our interviewees weren’t any good in elaborating their complaints or needs either. Because framing problems, or getting vocal about one issue is not exactly the way most of us are used to act in regards to civic life. So, the larger challenge in is not only to promote the engagement, and to give tools as to make the population speak, but the two steps back needed to contemplate issues and possible solutions. Kennedy says:

    It is up to news organizations not merely to serve the public, but to nurture and educate the public so that it is engaged with civic life, and thus with the fundamental purpose of journalism.

    Kennedy makes his point arguing that people that are more engaged in civic life consume more journalistic products, and this makes a lot of sense. And, I would say that again, maybe we need to start being more to the point on this whole journalism-as-agent-of-change. Because it is also lucrative to the bottomline. There is a virtuous loop. Better journalism centered in community’s needs = more engaged community = more journalism consumption.

    But to get there, of course, we got to talk more with the community, bring the Margaritas and everything else, listen and participate in the conversation. To a point, that is what we’ve done with’s Lamar Graham and professor Jarvis. We discussed the issues, possible solutions and flaws of our approach with people that are not only veterans in dealing with the issues, but in talking about them. I’d imagine that the process of developing editorial products (in lack of better terms) would be something like that: we’d listen to the community, engage in the conversation, try some solutions, listen to the critique, engage more with the community, refine, iterate, and leave the space to the community’s voices to kind of auto-run the new discussion/solution channel. That resembles the startup culture (“Listen to your users!”), but here the conversation part is even more important – as it is also the end product. This is our craft, and we better reinforce the importance of the conversation.

    The other day I wrote a blog post saying that one of my resolutions in 2015 would be to comment more on discussions over social networks. The thing is: in my experience, I think we are more prone to be active in a discussion when we somehow disagree with the message. Otherwise the comment is not really a “conversation”, but more variations of “agreed”, “this” and stuff like that. And to do “better disagreements” is a challenge within my community now.

    I understand that I need to be embedded (alas, sans-Margarita) in the community, so I’m participating in some discussions over Facebook Groups and on Twitter. But there are many times that I disagree with parts of the group. And I wonder: to what point we are allowed to do that?

    If being an actor in a story is a contentious issue in old journalism (should the photographer save the person or capture the image?), what about being not only an actor, but an advocate, someone that can help to guide a certain discussion, changing its course?

    These are all new questions, and I think we have to try to find the answers outside the journalistic wisdom. I was reading the work of philosopher Daniel Dennet, and he has an interesting guide on how to compose a successful critical commentary. It goes like this:

    You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
    You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
    You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
    Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

    I’m trying to follow this recipe to great effect (when I’m able to really follow it). Since my community is full of journalists, activists and people that are used to talk, really participating in the conversation is very important. And I think I’m developing a better relationship with my community when I “succefully disagree” from time to time. As in: posing the disagreements as constructive critique, for the better sake of the community. That is an approach that I’m trying, and I think is an important use of our skills.

  11. Pedro…as usual this is really insightful.

    I think you’ve hit on a lot of key points here. One is: What is a community doesn’t KNOW what it wants, or at least can’t articulate it very clearly? That’s where I think time, trust, and ethnographic/qualitative techniques are going to be the most useful. I also think it’s very important to think about how we can have good discussions online that go beyond just disagreeing.

  12. I really enjoyed the experiment. It was a good reminder that individual people are behind these “communities” that we’re going after. Trying to engage my community, Black Americans suffering from mental illness, has proven challenging, but not impossible. With the experiment, it was rather easy to just walk up and ask people about their commuting experiences and collect data. With mental illness it’s not as easy, nor can it really be considered acceptable, to just walk up to someone and ask them about anything related to their mental health.

    Through the use of social media tools, primarily Twitter, I’ve been able to begin creating a virtual community. I still have a long way to go, but I’m finding that online many people are actually open to sharing their experiences with mental illness with others. I know this isn’t an easy feat – I myself have yet to tell my own story/experiences with mental illness. Also I think my own uneasiness with mental health is causing me to be a bit slower and cautious with my approach to others within the community.

    Of this week’s readings, I really enjoyed Joy Mayer’s “So long, “Wizard of Oz” Journalism. Let’s Make Margaritas!” What really stuck with me was:

    “What if we were to go to other peoples’ parties? Figure out where conversation is happening in our communities, and go there? Enrich those conversations with information and context, making ourselves and the other participants smarter along the way? That’s the margarita machine. It’s portable, so journalists can use it at their own party and take it around town on the other days. Margaritas make people happy, loosen tongues and encourage bonding.

    And who doesn’t talk to the person who brings the margaritas?”

    I’m definitely working on bringing the larger margarita machine to the party… currently, out of caution, I’ve been bringing the mini. It’s time to upgrade.

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