Where journalist skills and innovation meet (and where they don’t)

It’s journalism, but not as we know it.

To set the scene for this rather obscure deployment of the journalist’s skills, let’s just take a brief look at exactly where the interviewing process fits in to the innovator’s skillset.

  1. What are the decisive assets of an innovator?

Unique and crucial insights into user requirements.

  1. How are those insights obtained?

From the direct personal experiences of their prospective users.

  1. How should the founders obtain these insights?

By direct personal interaction with their prospective users.

  1. What skills do the founders need in order to obtain these insights?

Interviewing and recording skills

  • So, are the interviewing and recording skills required different to standard journalistic skills?

Yes and no.

  • Are the initial questions that innovators need to ask standard journalistic questions?

Yes, because those initial questions are aimed at eliciting the details of key user experiences

  • So are the follow-up questions that innovators need to ask much less like standard journalism?

Yes, follow-up questions aim at eliciting ‘if only’ speculations about ‘desired alternative scenarios’

Now let’s see precisely which aspects of the ‘innovation interviewing process’ that derives from the imperatives above fit neatly into the journalistic repertoire and which deviate markedly from it.

Journalists are taught to have a strong predisposition for ‘getting at the facts’ when they are getting input from anyone involved in a particular story.

Nonetheless, although seeking out secondary aspects, like sentiment, suspicion, rumours or speculation is often treated as being a potentially useful guide to the veracity and perspective of the interviewee and a source of other interesting leads which might be worth following up, most of the non-factual content of an interviewee’s account usually ends of being treated by the journalist (or their editor) as ‘background’ unless the content being produced happens to be a ‘think piece’, in which case just about anything interesting can end up being used.

By contrast, the innovator, when they are interviewing a prospective user, rather than sticking exclusively to the tried and trusted interview methods of a journalist, tends to need to rapidly switch to a quite different approach once they have ‘broken the ice’.

Once the interviewee has answered all the innovator’s questions about exactly what they do and whether they would be interested in whatever it might be that the innovator has to offer in terms of the innovations that they are working on, the questions need to focus upon aspects of the prospective user’s experiences which are likely to be very subjective: the innovator is seeking out examples of the user’s frustrations, annoyances and irritations.

They will be asking the user about things that make the user waste their time, struggle to get things done, leave them doing things that seem undesirably menial, repetitive or difficult and either prevent them doing what they would really like to spend their time doing, or prevent them from doing things as well as they could or should, or that make what they do less reliable or more disappointing in terms of quality, quantity, frequency, consistency or satisfaction either in terms of being an activity or as an end product or service.

In the innovation trade, these grievances and tribulations are called ‘pain points’ and the job of ‘digging them out’ in the course of an interview tends to represent a transition in the interview process from something like a reporter’s job into something more akin to a physician’s ‘diagnostic dialogue’.

However, the innovator’s deviation from ‘conventional journalism’ doesn’t end once that aspect has been completed.

Once the innovator has managed to successfully get the user to reveal all of their relevant pain points, the questions move on to an aspect which, if it is in any way journalistic, is not of the kind which dwells predominantly upon facts, or even upon sentiment.

What the innovator is trying to get from the user in their next set of questions is more in the realms of speculation.

‘Dream scenarios’ and futuristic fantasies, essentially entering into the user’s world of ‘if only’: imaginary states of affairs where not only have the pain points stopped hurting, but where wonderful new possibilities have been opened up.

If the user’s fantasy were to somehow be made real, many relevant tiresome and tedious but otherwise unavoidable tasks will have become effortless, unnecessary or even attractive and fulfilling, freeing up the user to spend much more time for doing what they want to do and that they do best, in some important aspect of their work or their life which they currently view as drudgery or worse.

Once the innovator has got answers to these questions, the deviation from anything even remotely resembling journalistic technique takes one further step away from journalism itself.

They need to remind the user (assuming they already said something introductory about this in their ‘ice-breaking’) that not only are they not going to do what anyone else asking such questions might be expected to do (i.e., they aren’t necessarily going to ‘write up everything you’ve told me’) but instead they are going to see if there’s any possibility that anyone else who is doing the same things that they are doing is experiencing similar pain points in terms of frustrations, disappointments and struggles and who would benefit from the same kinds of ‘solutions’ that the user has fantasised about.

In addition, all of this plays into two other key ‘non-journalistic’ aspects of the innovator’s job:

Firstly, ‘doability’: the extent to which the innovator could ever possibly find a way to implement any of the ideas described by the user or find other ways to tackle the user’s pain points.

Secondly, how the user’s answers and speculations affect whatever it was, if anything that the innovator had already been working on or was planning to work on.

All of this still leaves open questions (which are for the innovator themselves, rather than the user) surrounding whether even a doable solution would have a big enough market, as well as whether anyone would be prepared to pay enough for any such solution to make it financially sustainable and also whether the solution could be scaled up enough to satisfy the market and whether there was any practical way of funding development and scaling costs.

But at the end of all the questions that need to be asked, the user still needs to be told enough about these ‘non-journalistic’ aspects of what the innovator is doing, so as to keep both the user and innovator feeling good about the interview process itself and to also keep a mutually beneficial line of communication open.

What would a real journalist think about this?

I can imagine some journalists reading this and telling themselves “I don’t see what all the fuss is about, nothing here sounds all that different from what I do every day, I often find myself wondering whether this ‘innovator game’ is worth me having a go, simply because so much of it revolves around something I can already do” while others will say “The whole process seems to involve the very kinds of thing that I wanted to get away from when I decided to get into journalism in the first place, I think I’ll stick to my day job”.