Mind the gap
I set out at the beginning of the FT-Nikkei fellowship asking how we can create a need for news: How journalism can encourage curiosity, empathy, and emotional understanding to lead people to look beyond their narcissistic instincts.
I start with the position that we needed to rebuild from the ground up. I felt that our current model — one-way broadcasting optimised and personalised to deliver the most relevant information — is broken. It is leading to increasing tribalism, facts losing their persuasive powers, and, as my friend Lisa Charlotte Rost noted, “in more and more cases, we don’t have a discussion of what we should do, but what is true in the first place.”
I looked far and wide for inspiration of alternative models. I spoke to Yvonne Leow and Cathy Deng, who have created projects that help people burst their filter bubbles and connect with others.
Beyond journalism, I spoke to Celia Hodent, a UX designer and psychologist; Nick Sousanis, a professor of comics, and Andre Piza, a theatre producer. I explored the Exploratorium. I drew inspiration from game designers whose work explored empathy and meaning-creation, such as Elizabeth Sampat, Brenda Romero and Nicky Case.
I was looking for ways to engender curiosity and create motivation. I believe that journalists should help people ask the right questions, rather than just feeding them what we think are the right answers. But how do we motivate people to be curious — to get them to want to ask questions in the first place?
As much as I learned from observing the design methods and patterns used in the Exploratorium, I felt that more than half their work in encouraging learning and exploration was done by the time a person handed over $29.95 for the ticket.
Similarly, journalism designed from the ground up for empathy and emotional understanding sounded like a great idea, but what would motivate people to want that, and be willing to pay for it, in the first place?
I couldn’t come up with any good answers, but that was partly because I was asking the wrong question. We are all driven by powerful intrinsic motivations, and we all already possess curiosity. Instead of asking how we as authors could create curiosity in others, maybe the right question is: Does our work leave room for audiences to express their curiosity? Have we left that gap open?
One of the first design patterns I learnt as an interactive data journalist was the Martini Glass structure, where the reader is first taken through a directed narrative (the stem of the martini glass) to explain the central story in an information graphic, before interaction is opened up for them to explore the underlying dataset (the body of the glass). Nicky Case’s work often employs this structure to great effect.
In the Martini Glass structure, the directed narrative functions as a tutorial, providing useful context and establishing user interaction patterns that prepare the reader so they won’t be lost or overwhelmed when they move on to the exploration portion.
While the 2010 Stanford paper used this term to denote a specific design technique, I believe it could be generalised to form a design philosophy applicable well beyond data visualisation or information graphics.
The stem of the martini glass, then, is information that is relevant, directed and addresses a specific user need. This can be constructed from personas, be optimised via A/B testing, and measured by metrics showing whether it succeeded in solving the users’ problem.
The stem leads into the body of the martini glass: a space for creativity, serendipity, and user agency. Here, the author’s role is to design an environment for exploration rather than a narrative to convey information.
This pattern is by no means new, but the idea that we need to pay attention to both parts, and especially that we need to preserve a space for exploration, feels more important than ever before.
Business-driven software development lives in the world of martini stems: it is obsessed with how to maximise returns and minimise friction. As developer and entrepreneur Maciej Cegłowski has railed against, this is leading to a crisis of bloat on the modern web:
When you have bloat you’re not leaving room for other people, you’re not leaving room for creativity, you’re not leaving room for wonderful things to happen, because they happen in the gap between stuff.
Even if it doesn’t seem harmful in the moment, the aggregate effect of it is kind of crushing.
I have come away at the end of my fellowship with a more nuanced view of how we can foster curiosity and help people ask the right questions.
Instead of rejecting solutions-based journalism in favour of one designed from the ground up for empathy and emotional understanding, I’m advocating for a more blended approach that asks simply that we are mindful to leave a gap for our audience to interact, to have a voice, and to participate.
As the late, great Leonard Cohen sang:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.