Young Seattle & Local News

Designing methods and artifacts
for audience research at The Seattle Times

My team partnered with The Seattle Times to research the challenge of growing subscription relationships with young Seattle. We identified design opportunities, and developed a three-month research plan.

We designed and left culture probes with millenial participants, and explored the results with journalists in a design workshop.

Drawing from our research insights, I built a journey map to guide our final design.

The Challenge

I designed these graphics to illustrate my team's participant findings.

We identified three types of relationships between millenials and local communities.

Nobody is sure what makes a welcomed news experience today.

The Seattle Times is passionate about creating meaningful reader engagement. But analytics don't give them the reader information they feel they need to provide relevant, actionable news.

Readers want to want news, but mobile formats challenge their ability to develop relationships with professional news sources. Caught between interests and convenience, they have difficulty defining an engaging news experience.

Our readers are
an abstraction to us.

— Thomas Wilburn, Newsroom Web Developer, The Seattle Times

As we interviewed Seattle Times staff members, this quote came up again and again. Their subscriber base was aging. They wanted to serve a younger, digital, and more diverse audience, but lacked strategies.

What would it take to connect the newsroom with young Seattle?

Design opportunities

Research led us to three design opportunities:


Rethink the paywall experience to motivate young readers to subscribe to news sources


Design a news interface that lets readers share which stories influence their lives and values


Create an experience that flows intuitively across short breaks, matching reading behavior

Over the next three months we’ll ideate and prototype in these opportunity areas, leading to a complete design specification for The Seattle Times.

A participant shows me her culture probe during an interview.

Research plan

My team conducted a literature review and competitive assessment to understand the state of digital journalism. The Seattle Times shared audience analytics and past reports. We built forward from this data to choose our primary research methods.

I designed this graphic to help my team visualize the balance between our different research methods.

We focused on filling the qualitative data gap - providing what the Times did not already have.

Recruiting Young Seattle

As we began interviews with Seattle Times journalists, we recruited nine millennial research participants. We distributed invitation cards through friends and family, at coffee shops, and at local concerts.


We recruited potential Seattle Times readers; millenials who valued news, but did not necessarily have a relationship yet with the paper.

Participants sampled a variety of ages from 22-32, as well as number of years spent in the city.

I mapped our participants by location. All participants lived in different zip codes.

Culture probes

We wanted to learn what interested young Seattelites about their local environment, and how they organically encountered these things in their daily life.

Culture probes are a technique for uncovering the unspoken attitudes and needs of a local culture. Researchers leave participants with creative artifacts, designed to provoke equally creative response.

Like astronomical or surgical probes, we left them behind when we had gone ... We used oblique wording and evocative images to open a space of possibilities.

— Bill Gaver, Tony Dunne & Elena Pacenti, culture probe inventors

Tell, don't ask

Culture probes tell a story, rather than asking for one. They create the space for participants to externalize what’s on their minds.

Out of the box

We constructed white, laser-cut boxes with 6 colored envelopes. Each envelope held a 10 minute activity. Our culture probes were designed to be:


All activities were modular and self-contained, with a week to complete.


We laser-cut our designs to communicate value, and inspire caring responses


Every activity had to hit this sweet spot. We piloted and iterated to check.

My team put a lot of thought into our probes, iterating each interaction until we felt we could tell the right story.

As the team's visual lead I designed our style guide, and executed laser cuts and final artifact production.

Each activity interrogated specific questions.

For example, the “Color Your City” activity gathered participants’ attitudinal and informational relationships to different parts of the city.

During piloting, I learned that a map without neighborhood boundary lines produced more expessive results—including dots and overlapping stripes.

This participant wanted to know more about Ballard and Freemont, but also felt they spent too much time there. This sparked an interesting conversation during their interview.

Design workshop

We led a design workshop with Seattle Times staff members. Each person focused on the results from a different culture probe box, and discussed how creating news for this specific reader would change their processes.

Together with the staff, we categorized what we learned about young Seattleites based on knowns and unknowns.


After wrapping primary research, we drew insights from our data by coding categories and connections across all our participants.

i ♥ data


The value of local news is unclear to readers unless they have a way to act upon it

Young Seattleites value national impact and global perspectives in their news coverage. They determine news importance based on who is affected.

They do care about local communities, and want to feel informed beyond the bubble of their own lives. They just don't see a connection between the way local Seattle news is covered, and their values.

Opportunity    ⟩      

lead with actionable impact of local news


Young Seattleites desire to see news from multiple perspectives as a way to counterbalance for both personal and news source bias

Journalists, on the other hand strive, strive to counterbalance bias through process transparency and factual accuracy.

We identified a gap in how The Seattle Times tries to present itself, and what young Seattleites are looking for.

Opportunity    ⟩      

juxtapose perspectives earlier in the digital experience


The Seattle Times cares about representing local populations but has no systematic methods

Reporters have experience getting detailed information about people and environments through sources, but these skills are not put to use understanding readership.

Opportunity    ⟩      

channels for journalists to investigate reader feedback

Communication channels

The newsroom has channels for two-way communication with its sources, colleagues, and even tools and news products - but no channel for reaching out to its readership.


Young readers consume digital news during short breaks, which make it difficult to remember interesting news series or stories

This impedes the development of strong relationships with digital news sources, and impacts willingness to invest in such relationships.

Opportunity    ⟩      

an experience that flows intuitively across short breaks

Journey map

Next steps

My team begins ideation and prototyping this summer.

As we brainstorm and narrow down design concepts over the next few months, our first decision point is whether to design for either the Seattle Times staff or readers as our primary population.

Prototypes will increase in fidelity as we build toward a product video, full design specification, and high resolution mobile prototype.



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