University of Arizona

University of Arizona

Boosting Community Engagement through Human-Centered Design

University of Arizona is one of the 2017 winners of the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. See all 10 winners.


  • Michael McKisson, Assistant Professor of Practice, University of Arizona School of Journalism
  • Irene McKisson, Editor, #ThisIsTucson/Arizona Daily Star
  • Becky Pallack, Product Manager, Arizona Daily Star
  • Rob Wisner, Director of Innovation, Arizona Daily Star

See a 2019 example of McKisson’s Product Development in Journalism class here.

Describe your project

Can students help local newsrooms better serve and engage with users by researching a community’s unique needs and identifying ways to solve them?

Students in the University of Arizona School of Journalism will spend a semester learning best practices for community engagement and principles of human-centered design and the lean startup method. Then they will complete a semester-long, paid fellowship, working with editors and programmers in the Arizona Daily Star’s innovation lab to take a winning idea from the classroom to the community in a year.

What is your live news experiment?

Students enroll in a news product design class in the fall semester. During the class, they learn principles of community engagement, human-centered design, lean startup, user analytics, business, prototyping and pitching.

They work with a professor and alongside professional mentors at the Arizona Daily Star to target a community (geographic, ethnic, faith, political, economic) in southern Arizona and talk with members about their information needs. Students conduct interviews and work with the Star to hold listening sessions that to collect information and sources that will help the Star cover Tucson more fully and accurately. Students ultimately work with members of the community to create or revamp a news product that better serves the target group’s unique needs.

A core principle of design thinking and lean startup is that there are no answers inside the office. We will push students into the community to find the answers they need. The resulting product could be as technical as an app or as simple as a Facebook page.

At the end of the course, students present their products at Pitch Night before faculty and students of the journalism school, community members and an advisory board. The board picks the best pitch. During the next semester, winning students become Arizona Daily Star Innovation Fellows — a paid, semester-long position — and work closely with the Star to take a product to market.

If the experiment works, what do you think might happen?

Students will learn valuable skills they can use in the real world. The Arizona Daily Star will better serve its existing audience or create new markets with products that are well designed, relevant and helpful. The Star will make connections in communities it doesn’t serve now and demonstrate its commitment to local news. It will engage the community in ongoing discussions about potential areas of focus and will listen to those people talk about what kinds of stories would best serve their community. Watching fellow students design and implement a live news product while earning a competitive fellowship will foster a new culture of innovation and experimentation in the school of journalism as well as in the newsroom.

The experiment will succeed if students have developed launchable products that better serve particular communities. Refilling the class in its second year will also indicate success.

Signals that a product has “better served people through community engagement”:

  • It has measurable goals at launch.
  • People are using the product, which we’ll measure with analytics.
  • Students and partner journalists have spent time listening to the community they aim to serve and have opened a line of communication.
  • Members of the community will tell us they feel more listened to and involved in coverage of their community.

How is this project unique and innovative?

Product development, design thinking and lean startup principles have not traditionally been used in newsrooms or journalism schools. Product managers and user experience designers are becoming common at large media operations, but these specialities have not filtered down to smaller newsrooms and companies. This experiment and the partnership with the Arizona Daily Star to launch products developed by students exemplifies the teaching hospital model of journalism education, while improving the news experience for people in southern Arizona. Rather than writing a 500-word story or producing a two-minute video package that only the professor sees, students will develop something that can have a tangible effect on news coverage in the community where they live. Additionally, creating products that streamline the news or create new markets may improve the financial strength of a local news organization, in turn providing more opportunities for students when they graduate.

What technology platforms will you use?

Students may use or research new technology with help from the innovation lab at the Arizona Daily Star, but the experiment does not require new technology; it requires a shift in thinking about how journalism is performed and taught.

If it works, how might this experiment change teaching at your school or media practices in your partner’s newsroom?

A successful project would likely prompt more collaboration between professional media organizations and the University of Arizona. The Pitch Night will showcase to both students and faculty how journalism can be stretched beyond the inverted pyramid and a video package. If the project is successful, community engagement and product development could become a more important focus in the curriculum. A competitive fellowship with successfully launched projects will inspire students to work toward their own innovative projects.

Product design forces professional reporters and editors to think outside the traditional bounds of print reporting. Perhaps the solution is not a three-part investigative piece but an event or social media presence. This experiment will force more of the newsroom to put readers first by involving them in the design process. Involving the community in local journalism is a huge shift for the newsroom and would help it move forward.

The University of Arizona team provided an update on its project in a March 2018 report. Class was scheduled to begin in August 2018.

Update: What have you discovered?

One thing we have discovered is that the product development cycle is a rapid process in the real world where people work as rapidly as possible to move through the iteration cycle. However since the class is 16 weeks, it is slows the process down, which is something we are working on. So far students are beginning to learn about News Product Development and what it is when I speak to classes to pitch them on signing up for the course.