Why Stories Work as Design Tools

Humans have a natural affinity for stories. We know this intuitively. When we’re trying to teach a child important lessons about ethics, caution and quick-thinking, we don’t work them through a series of Powerpoint slides on the subject in the hope that it will get our point across.

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Humans have a natural affinity for stories. We know this intuitively. When we’re trying to teach a child important lessons about ethics, caution and quick-thinking, we don’t work them through a series of Powerpoint slides on the subject in the hope that it will get our point across.

Rather, we tell them the story of Hansel and Gretel. Over the course of the narrative – as the siblings walk through the forest, dropping breadcrumbs, as they get taken in by the cannabilistic witch and then delay their transformation from youngster into dinner until they can turn the tables on their would-be murderer – the young audience engages, empathises, and learns.

Adults have a similar experience when it comes to stories. Whether it is the ancient oral tradition of encoding information about hunting or farming into folktales, or contemporary storytelling developments like management case studies, stories have a way of reaching us that mere description can’t match.

This cognitive resonance is what makes design stories a powerful prototyping tool. People can understand complex concepts underpinning a design more easily if they’re embedded in the narrative form. And there are even more reasons to use stories to prototype your design:

  • They can be created right at the beginning of the design process, based on concepts and ideas. No coding or process engineering required – only brainstorming and a bit of writing time (although supporting user research efforts can be extremely valuable inputs).
  • Used well, they paint a vivid, holistic picture of a future user experience in a way that users and stakeholders can engage with and empathetically critique.
  • They provide context – in a story, the focus is not on the solution (eg a website), but on the users and how they go about interacting with it, to their benefit or peril.

And, incredibly importantly:

  • Design stories create a mental “scaffold” for their audience. Once people have understood and embedded the user experience story, you can use that mental model to start adding in complexity. Discussions about business processes, technology, user interfaces can be tied back to the story, to help people make consistent sense of it all.

Planning an example speculative design story

Let’s look at how we’d go about using a design story to speculate on the future user experience – say, showing how some of the major technology and social trends we’re seeing today will change the world in the next decade. To plan out our story, we might first consider a few key storytelling elements:

1. Story coverage and size – what should the story cover, and how big should it be?

In terms of coverage, because the story is going to be speculative, I’ve decided to be a bit ambitious throw in a bunch of trends that I think will be influential in how we live our lives in a decade’s time. These are:

  • Crowdsourced personal decision-making (asking your online social networks to help you decide on what to do, both in your personal and professional life)
  • Social benchmarking (rating yourself against your online social networks)
    Augmented reality, bolstered by ubiquitous GPS usage (technology knowing where you are I a geospatial sense, and being able to “overlay” what you are seeing with additional information)
  • Connected home appliances that are actually useful,
  • Further convergence of many information devices into a single device (so that your smartphone, iPad, MP3 player, television etc all become functions of a single gizmo),
  • Standards unification turning into integrated services across vendor siloes (so that your experience across the online services you use don’t fragment through the need to sign-on multiple times, duplicate information across services, not have access to data from service A while you’re using service B etc).
  • Gestural and eye-tracking interfaces displacing (although not replacing) touch and mouse interfaces (getting UI’s off a screen and more integrated with natural interfaces like your hands and your eyeballs).

As for story size, I’m pretty confident that I can show how the world has changed by telling the story of a single, universal experience – waking up in the morning, and going to work.

2. The narrator – Who is telling the story?

Because the story introduces many new societal and lifestyle concepts, it’s important to focus on the protagonist’s thoughts, motivations and feelings, to help the reader quickly make a connection that will ground the speculative future being canvassed. To achieve this, I’ve decided to write in first person.

3. The protagonist – who is the story about?

I want to make the story about someone that the readers can at least somewhat identify with. So I’ve decided on a character who has certain types of common characteristics (25-35 age bracket, professional, urban, cares about health, relationships and appearance, tech-savvy) without making any of those characteristics come across so strongly that people who fall outside of the aggregate demographic will switch off to “owning” the experience that they’re reading about.

4. “Plot-driven” or “slice-of-life” – how is the story structured?

If I were writing a story about a specific service and its value to the protagonist, I might use a traditional plot-driven story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and where the protagonist faces a conflict that the service being designed helps him/her overcome to achieve his/her goal.

However, I am trying to show how life in general has changed as a result of an accumulation of trends. This makes me lean towards writing the story in the “slice-of-life” mode, where I can show a brief snapshot of a person’s life. I don’t need a plot, or too much context, or for the protagonist to develop over the story’s course – I just need people to give people a sense of what life is like in the “new world” I’m speculating on.

An example of a speculative design story:

So, taking all of that into account, here’s the speculative design story. Interestingly, I’ve had two distinct types reactions from people about it, which I’ll summarise with two actual quotes: “I want this now!”, and “Gee. It sounds like…a nightmare.”

The 2020 user experience of Monday morning in a digitally integrated world

My glasses wake me up. They’re streaming something that sounds like a Brahms concerto to the speakers in my bedroom. I slowly surface from my sleep and reach for them, while rubbing my eyes with palm my other hand. I put them on, slip the earpiece in, and groggily scan the virtual display.

Hovering above my bed is the name of the song that’s roused me – it’s actually a Bach sonata. I don’t recognise it, but 82% of my personal network seems to have been enjoying it in their Wake-Up Channel. I gesture-tap the Like button, and then gesture the sound down to low. Immediately, my day’s appointments spring up.

My first meeting’s with Rosalyn, my company’s new marketing person. I gesture through to her unified profile. A list of her most recent status updates, media she’s liked, and her photostream, slides into my field of vision. I read this for a few moments and then look at the “Done” button, which highlights in transparent blue after a second of my staring at it. I gesture it all away.

Ok, I think to myself. Shower. Clothes. Breakfast. Then off to work.

I open up the weather with a few motions of my hand; chilly in the morning, rain in the afternoon. Rosalyn seemed like a sharp dresser, so I decide to dress to impress. I gesture open my virtual wardrobe, and ask it to choose something that’s going to make me look professional and competent. It starts crunching a few streams of data – the weather, my clean clothes stockpile, fashion combinations that other professionals in my channel have Liked on me, and my own custom preference settings. Finally, it spits out a few outfits. I Twitbook these to one of my favourite review groups – RateMyOutfit.judge – and jump in the shower – with my WetGoggles, so I can read my news feeds while I’m waiting for the conditioner to do its hairy magic.

By the time I’m dry, shaved and generally presentable, I’ve got a recommended outfit (63 votes ahead of the others I submitted), and I’ve also been reminded that I need to take the car in for a service. The traffic’s looking a bit grim, so I delay my car service appointment to tomorrow with a few gestures.

Instead, I decide to cycle in to work, so I look at the bike icon in my transport layer, and it courteously turns blue. I pull up my health stats – my heart rate’s nice and low, but my glucose levels could use a bit of beefing up and my cholestorol’s a bit high. Not that the cardiosensors in my shoulder are going to autopage the cardiologist or anything, but my doctor’s definitely going to give me the old nutrition lecture in my monthly virtual consult. Ah well – at least I’m in the 80th fitness percentile of my personal network. It’s one of the reason I like having unhealthy friends.

I signal that I’m going to be riding out in about 10 minutes to everyone who’s cycling to work today and who lives within a few miles of me. Hopefully I can be part of a group of cyclists when I ride in. It’s always nice to have some company – and there are so many ridewithme.fitfitfit subscribers in my suburb nowadays.

I walk into the kitchen, put the kettle on, and make myself some toast. When the water hits 80 degrees centigrade, an alert starts flashing in the corner of my vision. I look at it, and it brings up a context menu. I glance at the option I want and gesture the kettle to “maintain heat”. Then I go get some green tea leaves. While I’m waiting for the tea to brew, I look out the window.

As I scan the street below, my eyes move past the Convention Centre.A little information bubble springs up above it telling me that one of my favourite bands will be playing there next week and that my schedule is currently free. I check to see if any of my friends are going.Three of them are,so I purchase some tickets and join the event channel to make some plans to meet up with my friends before the concert.

Looking down at the street, I see two blinking green arrows with the ridewithme.fitfitfit logo hanging above two cyclists in the distance. They’re heading my way for the group ride. Based on their speed and the traffic, Google Maps is telling me that I’ve got about four minutes before they cycle past. I chug the tea and start lugging my road bike down the stairs of my apartment. The Bach music I was listening to earlier has changed to a new release by the band I just booked tickets for. I gesture on some pounding beats, and start cycling as my ride group rides passes by.

There are about half a dozen riders in the groupride. We follow the virtual arrows hanging in the air guiding us on the best route to avoid the traffic. One of my ride group looks pretty foxy.By the time we peel off towards our respective streets in the city, she has purchased tickets to the concert I booked in for too and will join me for a drink afterwards. I just hope that her voice is as attractive as her face and her personal profile, once we actually get to hear each other speak.

This story could be told using many types of experiences as a basis – visiting a doctor, shopping for groceries, going to dinner. As long as the experience is one the audience can relate to and benchmark against their current state , it’s possible to scaffold the complexity and paint a vision that people can thoughtfully consider.

Regardless of the specifics of the story, the freedom that the storytelling form gives you means that you are only limited by your ability to imagine the world in a way where your ideas – as wildly ambitious as they might be – have played out.

Top image: Pawlowski

Darren Menachemson

Darren Menachemson (twitter: @thoughtpod) has worked in the design field since the late nineties. During this time, he has started new design capabilities for large Government agencies, designed complex person-to-Government interactions and worked with senior executives and project teams to turn fuzzy concepts into integrated product and service blueprints. Darren currently works for a strategy and experience design consultancy in Canberra. When he’s not working, Darren plays guitar and Irish fiddle, draws and writes things, and cycles a lot.

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