Story, Development, and Design

Storytelling is not simply narrative. It is an opportunity to communicate values in a way that is resonant and memorable, allowing the people taking it in to position themselves in the story, see its relevance to their current situation, and then play forward a narrative about their own role in the story of now. It’s a way of uncovering the complexities of a person’s world and designing within that context.

 

How does this happen? It happens through stories in which a human protagonist is presented with an unknown and has to make a choice. At this moment of choice, the listener feels the tension of what might go right and wrong, projects herself into that situation and, in so doing, experiences the values with which the protagonist wrestles.

 

So how does it relate to development and design? Story art and craft is one of the best and oldest ways to engage an audience. We approach every project, regardless of its size or scope, from this perspective. Not just story-first, but structure first. Just like screenwriters do or authors do. There are, of course, countless books on story art and craft, typically for writers, filmmakers, game designers and artists, but they’re rarely, if ever, written for the people who build websites, software, tools, services, etc. that are not necessarily art or entertainment.

 

Designers, product managers, developers, content strategists, they can all benefit from taking on a storytelling approach in the process of creation. Take for example the use of experience maps. The maps try to represent an actual example of how a person (or persona) went through and did something they wanted to do. The maps are generally chronological, moving forward through the hours of the persona’s actions one stage at a time. The phrase “experience map” came about because we tend to want to create tools most relevant to the job we’re assigned, but in practice we need to be agnostic of whether the persona is using digital tools or not, or a combination to tools. The map represents the journey a person takes from the idea of accomplishing something to having accomplished that thing in the end. We want to see how it all hangs together from the persona’s perspective.

 

There can be as many experience/journey maps for a particular persona as there are deviations in the way they do that thing. For example, if a persona was taking a commercial flight, there might be different maps for a business-related flight than a leisure-oriented flight. There might be different maps based on whether it’s a last-minute or urgent flight. There might be different maps for long versus short flights, flights where the persona has to get work done before landing, flights where the persona is scared of flying, etc. The relevance is that the mental model represents a set of states of mind (mental spaces) that a person might pop into and out of during this journey toward accomplishing a goal. The states of mind might proceed in a nice linear fashion. Or they might represent a more cyclical approach, where the person revisits a previous state of mind again to re-evaluate something, to continue something, or to address something new that has come up. And therein lies the power of storytelling. We are designing with the notion that the goal and the steps to achieving it are front and center. Taking this approach not only allows for better design, it ensures that the things we construct are tied into the broader ecosystem in which people operate.

Advertisements

Story, Development, and Design

Storytelling is not simply narrative. It is an opportunity to communicate values in a way that is resonant and memorable, allowing the people taking it in to position themselves in the story, see its relevance to their current situation, and then play forward a narrative about their own role in the story of now. It’s a way of uncovering the complexities of a person’s world and designing within that context.

How does this happen? It happens through stories in which a human protagonist is presented with an unknown and has to make a choice. At this moment of choice, the listener feels the tension of what might go right and wrong, projects herself into that situation and, in so doing, experiences the values with which the protagonist wrestles. So how does it relate to development and design?

Story art and craft is one of the best and oldest ways to engage an audience. We approach every project, regardless of its size or scope, from this perspective. Not just story-first, but structure first. Just like screenwriters do or authors do. There are, of course, countless books on story art and craft, typically for writers, filmmakers, game designers and artists, but they’re rarely, if ever, written for the people who build websites, software, tools, services, etc. that are not necessarily art or entertainment.

Designers, product managers, developers, content strategists, they can all benefit from taking on a storytelling approach in the process of creation. Take for example the use of experience maps. The maps try to represent an actual example of how a person (or persona) went through and did something they wanted to do. The maps are generally chronological, moving forward through the hours of the persona’s actions one stage at a time. The phrase “experience map” came about because we tend to want to create tools most relevant to the job we’re assigned, but in practice we need to be agnostic of whether the persona is using digital tools or not, or a combination to tools. The map represents the journey a person takes from the idea of accomplishing something to having accomplished that thing in the end. We want to see how it all hangs together from the persona’s perspective.

There can be as many experience/journey maps for a particular persona as there are deviations in the way they do that thing. For example, if a persona was taking a commercial flight, there might be different maps for a business-related flight than a leisure-oriented flight. There might be different maps based on whether it’s a last-minute or urgent flight. There might be different maps for long versus short flights, flights where the persona has to get work done before landing, flights where the persona is scared of flying, etc. The relevance is that the mental model represents a set of states of mind (mental spaces) that a person might pop into and out of during this journey toward accomplishing a goal. The states of mind might proceed in a nice linear fashion. Or they might represent a more cyclical approach, where the person revisits a previous state of mind again to re-evaluate something, to continue something, or to address something new that has come up. And therein lies the power of storytelling. We are designing with the notion that the goal and the steps to achieving it are front and center. Taking this approach not only allows for better design, it ensures that the things we construct are tied into the broader ecosystem in which people operate.

 

Storytelling, Presenting and Getting Past the Stick in Your Bum

The other day I was thinking about how to present findings to a client about what was, frankly, a seemingly dry subject. Numerous stakeholders would be involved and would range from the CMO down to brand managers, product engineers, etc. So, knowing I had a dry subject and a conservative audience, I decided to rethink the question a bit.  Was the goal to present findings or was it something more? The goal is ultimately to shake the client’s foundations of belief, to rattle his or her assumptions, to create a new state a awareness.  Any good  presentation serves to evoke a participatory feeling in the viewers and bring them into the moment of experience, compelling them to consider new ways of classifying and thinking about their world, as well as their processes. The report will come later, but the presentation is about changing minds.

That brings us back to storytelling. When we bring our research and strategic thinking to life, the story we weave is less a list of data points than an interpretation and distillation of a series of experiences, Details are selectively recounted including all the “odds and ends that are associated with remembered events”  (see VanMaanen  1988).  The audience is drawn into the story created both by the author/editor and participant(s) – in other words, a good story, and a good presentation, is a shared experience, co-created in the moment. Bore the audience and there is almost no chance of affecting change. Selective packaging to exemplify generalized constructs is a standard practice. What we present needs to illustrate, provocate and elucidate. This is doubly so when addressing the needs of business and design teams with distinct, targeted problems and limited time.  Our editorial choices make points clear in what might otherwise be murky waters – we make learning sexy.  And that means becoming marvelous storytellers.

So what do we need to do to make a good story? First, start thinking in terms of symbols and metaphor. Stories are conveyed through language, which is by definition a symbolic system. The key to successful engagement is to move from structural aspects of a story to the symbolic, uncovering systems of meaning that resonate with clients and compel them to action. These symbolic dimensions that emerge in the narrative add value to brands by fulfilling culturally constructed concepts (quality, status, age, belonging, etc.). A brand is a signal that triggers a field of meanings in the consumer’s mind. These meanings are conveyed directly and inferentially through stories. By harnessing the symbolic power behind these meanings, strong brands move beyond the codes governing a product category and enter the personal space of the consumer.  The same holds true for the client.  Through storytelling and presentation of symbolic codes, clients move from fixating on the product line and can rethink what the brand means in a wider context.

Second, strip the presentation of text. You’re hear to talk and the image on the wall behind you is there to produce a response. Text, then, becomes a distraction unless you intend to use it as a visual manifestation of an idea (imagine a giant “NO” in lieu of something like a stop sign). The media tool we use, be it PowerPoint or something similar, is the comforting factor for audience and presenter alike, not the content. That means we can use the program for displaying images, visual cues and video, but we cannot let it become the focal point – it is like a set on which an actor performs. Don’t let it overshadow the actor.

Third, just because you’re using PowerPoint, it doesn’t mean that you can’t alter the stage. A presentation is like a play – so why not do it “in the round”? Promote physicality, discussion and direct interaction between you and the audience members. Give people small tasks throughout the presentation so that they are not passive recipients of information but co-creators. The more interaction, the more likely they will be to internalize the story you present.

Finally, have fun. It seems self evident, but it is perhaps the hardest thing most people find to do – they may talk about it, but they can’t actually do it. Remember, your role is to produce change, not recite facts.

From Personas to Stories: Creating Better Tools for Design and Marketing

Design ethnography takes the position than human behavior and the ways in which people construct meaning of their lives are contextually mitigated, highly variable and culturally specific. on the central premise of ethnography is that it assumes that we must first discover what people actually do and why they do it before we can assign to their actions and behaviors to design changes or innovation. The ultimate goal is to uncover pertinent insights about a population’s experience and translate their actions, goals, worldview and perspectives as they directly relate to a brand, object or activity, and the role that these pieces play with regards to interactions with their environment. Often, the information results in a large-scale, broad document, but it also often results in the development of personas.

The idea is that personas bring customer research to life and make it actionable, ensuring the right decisions are made by a design or marketing team based on the right information. The approach to persona development typically draws from both quantitative and qualitative tools and methodologies, but because of the very personal nature of ethnography, the methodology often leads the charge. The use of ethnographic research helps the creation of a number of archetype (fictions, in the most positive sense) that can be used to develop products that deliver positive user experiences. They personalize the information and allow designers and marketers to think about creating around specific individuals.

But there are problems with personas. Don’t get me wrong, I believe personas can be useful and help design teams. But I also believe they can reduce the human condition to a series of attributes and lose the spirit of what personas are designed to do. First, in terms of scientific logic, because personas are fictional, they have no clear relationship to real customers and therefore cannot be considered scientific. So much for the science.

For practical implementation, personas often distance a team from engagement with real users and their needs by reducing them to a series of parts. The personas, then, do the opposite of what they are intended to, forcing design teams down a path that gives the illusion of user-centricity while actually reflecting the interpretations or the individual designers. Creating hypothetical users with real names, stories and personalities may seem unserious and whimsical to some teams within an organization and be, consequently, dismissed as so much fluff. But by far, the biggest problem, at least to my way of seeing things, is that while we want to use personas to humanize potential customers and users, we in fact reduce them to objects and a laundry list of actions, personality quirks and minimalist descriptions.

I’m not advocating the dismissal of personas, but I am suggesting that perhaps there are alternatives. One place to start is to admit we are writing fiction when we construct these tools and expand upon that notion. We should be adding to the mix humanistic narratives. Customer novellas, so to speak. It requires more time and effort, both on the part of the person/people creating them as well as those using them, but it also gives greater depth and insight into the needs, beliefs and practices of the people for whom we design and to whom we market. Rather than relying exclusively on a dry report or a poster with a list of attributes.  In this model, the idea is to create a short story in which actors (the eventual personas) engage with each other, a wider range of people, and a range of contexts. Doing so allows us to see interactions and situations that lead to greater insights. It allows us to look at symbolic and functional relationships and tease out elements that get at the heart of the fictional characters we create.

Why is that important? Because it does precisely what personas are meant to do but typically fail at – provide depth and characterization, establish a sense of personal connection between designers and users and provide breakthrough insight and inspiration. Anyone who has read history vs. historical novels is familiar with the idea. It is easy to reduce Julius Caesar to a series of exploits and personality traits, but in doing so we lose the feel for who the man was. A historical novel, in contrast, adds flavor by injecting conversation, feelings, motivations and interactions. We walk away with a feeling for who he was and what affect he had on others, good and bad.

Imagine developing a persona for Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. We could say the following and attribute it to all Hobbits: Frodo is enamored by adventure but frightened by it. He loves mushrooms, has no wife, is extremely loyal to his friends and will work at any task he is given until it is done, regardless of the difficulty or potential for personal harm. He disdains shoes and has a love of waist coats.

There’s nothing wrong with this description, but for anyone who had read the trilogy or even seen the movies, the shortcomings are obvious. We miss the bulk of Frodo’s personality. In exploring the novel, we come to develop a rich understanding of Frodo, a deep understanding of his motivations and personality and his relationship with other members of the party, including the Ring.

For the literalists out there, I am not suggesting we create anything as vast as a novel, particularly one as expansive as The Lord of the Rings, but I am suggesting that we move beyond attributes and create stories that more fully develop the people behind the personas. Several pages of engaging writing is sufficient. Not only does it provide deeper insights, but it engages the reader more fully, inspiring them to go beyond the “data” and explore a wider array of design, brand and marketing options. Again, it isn’t meant to replace personas (or the research report), but to add to it. It requires more effort and time on the part of the person creating it as well as the person consuming it, something people are often disinclined to do, but the end result is better design, greater innovation and a more complete vision of what could be.

Stories, Invention and the Bottom Line

The power of a good story, or even a rather mundane one, is truly phenomenal.  In it are wrapped up the hopes, dreams, symbols, and significances that shed light on who we are as individuals and as members of a culture.  But the real power comes not from the explicit statements that emerge during, say, interviews, but from the subtext and patterns of meaning people assign to objects, relationships, and thoughts as they are created by participants through narrative. Not everything can be expressed as matter-of-fact discourse, especially things one cannot really put one’s finger on, or things that do not exist yet. Some of them are central to human experience, such as falling in love or admiring the full moon rising over the sea. If we want to explore this kind of experience, we need means and methods that are suited to communicate it.

I kept thinking about this problem, and one day I decided to see what happens if I explicitly ask research participants to write stories, pieces of fiction, about a topic related to my client’s needs.  Specifically, they were asked to write a story from the perspective of someone shopping for beer.  Much to my surprise, I ended up a wide range of ideas being expressed and a degree of complex language that was poetic, mundane, funny, sad and utterly fascinating.

I have used this method of gathering insights ever since, when I want to learn about things that are beside the topic but nonetheless worth exploring. It is by no means a replacement to fieldwork, but it is another tool that can be used to tease out how people construct their world in ways they may not normally be able to express. These things concern the creative aspects of the cultural context of how meaning is constructed.

Why are stories important for interaction and knowledge? Traditional cultures are storytelling cultures in the literal sense: people tell each other stories. We have often set this fact aside in the post-modern, linear, data driven world of business, but it is still fundamental to who we are.  People do not buy products based on specs alone, they buy based on deeper issues that connect products and places to their humanity. At certain occasions the stories gain a special role, such as at a child’s bedtime or while sitting around the kitchen table (the primal campfire). Stories make it possible for us to share our world, not lists of product attributes. We actively participate in the creation of culture by listening to stories and telling them—and we learn about culture through stories. It is in the context of understanding stories that we uncover triggers and meanings that simply don’t emerge fro surveys and interviews. They supply us with metaphors and meanings that are hidden from view when people are in the participant mode. Stories give them license to explore ideas and create symbols that tap the deepest recesses of a product’s or brand’s subtler meanings.

Stories are aimed at exploring the subjective, but not the individual. They are the collective myth. The point with composing a story is to find a collective level in the invention. It is a kind of inter-subjective reality. Creative solutions and innovative ideas arrive when imagination is actively used by participants, not just the people working for the company in need of answers.

Art, Video and Client Acceptance

When we conduct qualitative research it is inevitable that we have clients who choose to dismiss what we have to say.  More accurately, there are people within the organization that have, for a host of reasons, made the decision, consciously and subconsciously, to find any excuse possible to reject the finding.  The question is what to do about it.  That means reflecting on what the objections to the work are and the underlying case being used to dismiss the findings. Unfortunately, I think a large part of it stems from the fact that we, unlike a computer program used to crunch data, are the instruments of investigation, analysis and reporting.  The researcher frequently takes on the role of omnipotent, unseen author and expert – and that can be disconcerting to the person on the receiving end of the research. The text, sound clip, or video narrative is filtered through the researcher’s eyes; eyes that are, if trained properly in the tenets of the anthropological discipline, self-reflexive and committed to the honest and ethical treatment of the information gathered.  And in this lie the subtle politics of power and the subject/researcher relationship.

Our words alone, for right or wrong, frequently lack credibility in the minds of business executives and designers who are intent on validating their work or personal views.  What we have to say can be ignored in the light of “common sense” experience held by the business and design teams.  Conversely, while the statements of participants have credibility, their thoughts are often seen as disjointed, irrelevant, or dismissible as singular anecdotal moments.  By constructing stories, both parties (researcher and participant) gain credibility and influence.  The narrator/editor gains the status of author and guide, moving from being perceived as irrelevant to the business situation to a position of authority.  The participant is given greater significance in that he or she is understood as representational of a wider range of meaning, cultural patterns, and behavior.  The participant or participants used in a final work convey a coherent message that can, when the “story” is told well by the author/editor, be implemented by members of the audience.  Video in particular serves to provide specific direction while enticing the audience to tread into deeper waters, thus sparking greater innovation.

In conducting fieldwork, we as anthropologists are asked to share the concrete experiences of the participants’ environment, shared behavior, language, social relations, etc.  In sharing that rich and complex world, new ideas and deeper understanding emerge on the part of the client.  We as the experts see, hear, write, and film what are the most important aspects of the field experience and distill them into something that can be used by the various members of the business, development, and design teams.  And because video is such a potentially influential tool, showing the drama of daily life, the dramatic and artistic side of the story can create waves in the business community that the traditional, omnipotent style of presentation cannot.  Presentation styles, choices of material and stories, lighting, viewing angles, organization, etc. all work to structure the portrayal of a culture or population in ways particular to the ethnographer or team of ethnographers and in ways the client can relate to.  There is an inherent story-like character to all ethnographic accounts of the field.  This is doubly so when research is presented in the video format because of limitations of the lens and the limited timeframe of most cinematic pieces; the convention of film is to present information to an array of senses in a relatively short amount of time.  This does not imply that the videos we create are fictions or that the goal is simply to dazzle the audience.  It simply means that ignoring the story-like nature of the video results in dry, dull work that does little to impact the attitudes, expectations, and development directions of our clients.

The goal is ultimately to shake the client’s foundations of belief, to rattle his or her assumptions, to create a new state a awareness.  It serves to evoke a participatory feeling in the viewers and bring them into the moment of experience, compelling them to consider new ways of classifying and thinking about their world, as well as their processes. There is an artistic element to good research and its presentation. Without the art of ethnography, though it may sound counterintuitive, the findings are easier to dismiss. The story is central to the success of any ethnographic project.