A UX approach to public relations: Communications as technology

During my time studying public relations at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, I supplemented my coursework with user experience and development courses at our engineering school. I was building 8-step communication plans while also conducting usability testing for apps. I didn’t know it then, but this curriculum crossover invented an interesting academic meld – one that’s made me view communications as a product rather than a service.

Developing a PR plan, in principle, isn’t much different than developing software UX or UI. User experience design is the process of enhancing user satisfaction by improving process of use. UX is a user-centered design process – optimizing an experience for a target audience.

Today, this utility is more relevant to communications than ever; audiences don’t just receive our branded messages, but they also interact with our campaigns and help form their shape. This reality requires that we approach communications as a user interaction experience rather than an audience reception; by improving an audience’s process of campaign use, we can better achieve communication and business goals.

Traditional PR plans utilize a sequential planning model. In software development, a similar approach was called the waterfall method. The step-by-step process was similar to the sluggish passing of a baton. Once initial planning for a project was conducted, designers would build mockups. Then, developers wrote code. After implementation was testing and finally, project completion.

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By the time the final product was deployed, its relevance in the market was dehydrated. The waterfall method isn’t preferred by developers today, because it’s too slow a development process.

Instead, developers abide by an agile framework called scrum. This is a highly iterative, fast-paced, vertical development process. All the pieces involved in development – research, planning, design, coding and testing – are collaboratively completed in lockstep through short sprints. Developers identify features they want to build and quickly work together to produce user-relevant products and updates.

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As a result of such fast-paced development, the creators involved remain focused on what matters – the needs they’re serving, the audience they’re addressing and their product vision.

This method can wholly be applied to communications planning. The PRSA defines public relations in part as a “strategic communications process.” We can treat it like an iterative development process. Instead of separating communications functions like research, design, strategy and social media, wouldn’t it be better instead to work simultaneously in efficient sprints?

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Separate from adopting a UX workflow, we can also adopt a UX planning model. The three commandments in user experience design are:

  1. Be useful
  2. Be usable
  3. Be enjoyable

Another principle in UX: you are not your user. The planning process includes the construction of user personas, during which developers paint a picture of their primary and secondary users so that they always build for the right target audience.

Aren’t these all valuable guiding principles in PR?

There’s much more PR can pull from the modern UX development process, including unique models for success measurement, project management and ideas about the value of simplicity.

All in all, I think PR and UX make for an interesting strategic combination, and I believe there’s an untapped value in building the communications product.

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