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?


More design thinking and the people formerly known as “the audience”

by Emily Goldblum @emilygoldblum

At one point during Clay Shirky’s TED talk he mentions, “What matters here isn’t technical capital, it’s social capital.”

Shirky then goes into a larger explanation about how more diverse voices can be heard, regarded and even answered today, thanks to the explosion of interactive digital media. He adds: “Now that media is increasingly social, innovation can happen anywhere that people can take for granted the idea that we’re all in this together.”

This is what what we’re all here for. This is our movement (dramatic or semi-truth?). Instead of a one-way connection between the media and the public, people are able to talk back. The internet hasn’t stunted the growth of journalism, but extended it and given the opportunity for multiple touchpoints with our readers instead of one to many.

The article by Jay Rosen complemented Clay Shirky’s TED Talk extremely well. Rosen mentions that there is no longer a passive “audience. ”Instead of just being spoken to, people can speak back and to each other. This doesn’t mean they’ll always get a response in return, but if a large amount of people want a response, journalists often feel pressure to respond. Think about all of our communities and how we’re attempting to (if we haven’t already) boil down one issue/something worth protecting. We could be the trigger in setting off more of these “horizontal” conversations.

During class, we regrouped after going out and approaching New Jersey commuters in Penn Station. We had left last week’s class with a mission in mind: what could make commutes easier from or to New Jersey? When it came down to it , we uncovered some concerns any commuter in NYC can relate to. We observed people. They may have had headphones in or they were sprinting to the subways in order to get to work or go home. Most of those who stood waiting were engrossed in their phones. In general, people seemed flustered, frustrated and sometimes even defeated. We approached them anyway. This deserves some kudos.

We learned through the commuters that they were anxious about getting on the train. They just wanted to be wherever they needed to be.

Professor Jarvis spoke about Clever Commute, which has both free and paid services to make commutes easier. One free service within Clever Commute allows the user to find the track their train would be on. Although it’s in beta, this helps eliminate anxiety for those waiting for their track number to appear on the screen in Penn Station.

Erica told us about the NJTLight App, has a four star rating in the iPhone app store, with over 50 ratings. This app gives you the train schedule in a PDF format so you’ll be able to download it on your phone in case you don’t have service.  If you’re creating an app for the pitch next week, you can read some of the comments on the app’s reviews. This gives a good idea of what else communters might want to see, i.e. Jake Rockwel mentioned that he’d like to see a better alert system when delays occur;  “Renpek84” mentioned that he/she would really love to see buses and trains included.

After further discussion, we brought all of these ideas onto the whiteboard and switched into design thinking mode. What do these commuters need? How will whatever we create for them affect them and help them?Will it last? We spoke about reoccuring themes. Breaking into our groups with design thinking/innovation in mind, everyone chose one issue that they’d wanted to solve for commuters.

Working together, we worked to focus on that one specific problem, and once we got into the ideation phase, we brainstormed useful solutions. What could we do with all of these great ideas? What’s realistic?

We were able to then share our new ideas and get feedback in order to hone in on what it is we want to accomplish for Luis’ group was animated in their presentation, presenting a potential app that knew a lot about its potential users. It gave commuters the option to chat/complain/question what was happening with their train line. For example, the group presented a situation in which a train was delayed, and Julia opened up a chat feature so that she could ask others what was happening.

My group talked about possibly creating an add-on for’s website in which a stream would live on the right side of the screen. You’d be able to search for potential train delays by typing in your area, and also toggle back and forth between info you need going home vs. traveling to work.

I’m looking forward to hearing every group’s pitch next week, whether it be expanding on their original ideas or presenting something new.


Can you share a few tips on getting interviewees to open up, if any? I enjoyed hearing about this in class, whether it was opening up the conversation with compliments or getting straight to the point.

Eureka! Principles of Design Thinking

by Luis Miguel Echegaray @lmechegaray

Question:  When was the last time you came up with a great idea?  Before you answer, let me propose another: When was the last time you came up with a great idea that was not only unique but also necessary AND appealing to your audience?  Did you help them?  Did you meet their needs?

For the majority of us, innovation can often seem like a difficult challenge, and we wrestle with a lack of motivation or writer’s block.  Our efforts are frequently interrupted by doubt and insecurity because we think that our ideas are not good enough. Or perhaps, our idea gets chosen, gets finished, but in the end, when we look at the final product, it doesn’t cause the desired effect we thought it would.

Here are some more questions: What if we were to completely reinvent the philosophy of innovation?  What if we could believe, at least temporarily, that NOTHING IS A MISTAKE, THERE IS NO WIN AND THERE IS NO FAIL?


Design thinking, developed by Stanford d school, is a concept which helps us understand that “innovation is not an event, it is a process” and that this process is a series of steps we can  follow in order for us to help us solve problems, help our communities and match what people NEED with what they could also enjoy. Our class, led by Dr. Brown, did a one-hour exercise learning these steps.  In small groups, our task was to redesign the concept of gift-giving.

Design thinking involves empathy, defining a problem, ideating solutions, prototyping, and testing the prototype with users. These stages form a ladder of development, where first and foremost we think about the customer and LEARN TO UNDERSTAND HIM OR HER.  Once we understand the customer, we allow ourselves to really break down the ideas that we can use in order to create a product or service that meets their needs.  We keep digging, we keep redefining and in the end WE SHOW, WE DON’T TELL.  We demonstrate through visuals and communication.

To me, the most important stage in all of this was EMPATHY.  If we are to engage with our communities, then surely our most important tool is to understand them, to listen and therefore dig deeper in order to comprehend what their needs are and how we can build a network of social collaboration.  Aristotle once said, “To perceive is to suffer.”  How much does that resonate with today’s world and the need to better ourselves?

The deep trust and understanding that we can obtain from our customers (audience) is our biggest asset.

Prototypes from our design thinking exercise
Prototypes from our design thinking exercise


As we begin thinking about our next challenge (making the commute better for people who live in New Jersey but work in New York,) we can formulate ideas using this process.  The steps require for us to dig deeper, to empathize, to immerse ourselves, to observe and finally to engage.  The possibilities of what we can do with this project are endless.  The outcome?  Well, that could all depend on how well we know our audience.

Questions:   What do you think is the most important part of this process?  Does it make you think about your own needs and vision?

If understanding is really the key to helping our communities, what are the obstacles that get in our way?

ALSO: Here is a great article about some of the projects Stanford’s “” came up with.




Building Empathy: Using Design Thinking to Understand Communities

by Carrie Brown @brizzyc 

“Your first challenge, if you choose to accept it: Learn the techniques of design thinking to better understand your communities’ needs and how you can develop products and services that will help them solve problems.”

This was how we launched our Community Engagement course in the Social Journalism program at CUNY. Our goal is to explore a number of different strategies from outside traditional journalism for listening to communities.

Design thinking originates with the d School at Stanford and is now widely practiced in a variety of different industries. I was lucky enough to learn about it at the Memphis Innovation Bootcamp and practice it at the Online News Association’s dCamp: Mobile in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

design thinking slide

We began with an in-class exercise that runs students through the basic steps (shown above) quickly, working with each other.

Design thinking involves prototyping aka art projects
Design thinking involves prototyping aka art projects
See how much fun they are having?!? (Okay, they *may* have just been humoring us)
See how much fun they are having?!? (Okay, they *may* have just been humoring us)

So, after finishing the exercise and reflecting on the process, it was time to put design thinking in action in the “real world.” The students next task:

A Real Design Challenge: Improving the Daily Commute*

  • How do you improve the daily commute?
  • What would make the perfect commute? If you couldn’t change the time spent commuting, what would make the experience better?
  • We know that many commuters learn about the news  by listening/reading on their way to school or work. How could we boost that number? How can we improve that experience for them?

*Shout-out to my wonderful former student at the University of Memphis, Burton Bridges, who came up with this idea.

Design thinking gurus preach that learning design thinking should always involve tackling a challenge that is “real.” This one most definitely is. Commuting in New York is something nearly everyone experiences, and there is often no shortage of, er, emotion around it, regardless of the mode of transportation one may use.  Even better, my co-prof Jeff Jarvis is in the early stages of talking to folks at and Waze to think about ways to serve the commuter community, so the ideas students come up with in the process will be useful in a very concrete way.

Step one in the design thinking process is empathy: Using careful observation and interviews, developing a personal understanding of your audience/users’ experiences. So this week, students headed to Penn Station and other New Jersey commuter hubs to talk to people. Can’t wait to hear about what they found.