An hour later, we heard the next story in the Candle Factory section of the museum. This one was about the famous whaling ship The Essex, the inspiration for Nantucket’s most famous story, Moby Dick. Here the most intriguing prop was a list of the crew on The Essex and their fates. It listed the fate of the cabin boy on the crew as executed, and I couldn’t help being on pins and needles, waiting to hear the story behind his execution. Wouldn’t you be curious, too—gruesome as it might turn out to be? And savvy stagecraft placed that part of the story close to the end, so I was hooked the whole way through. That was all it took.
Why am I now telling you this story of my experiences at the Whaling Museum? Because it helps to illustrate the concepts I began discussing in my last Dramatic Impact column, “The CSS of Design Storytelling: Context, Spine, and Structure,” and how successful a story that fully coordinates the context, spine, and structure can be. From the setting, to the props, to the storytellers, and the wonderfully consistent through-line, keeping the focus on whaling, that came across in everything the museum does, Nantucket’s Whaling Museum epitomizes good storytelling.
Recapping Context, Structure, and Spine
To refresh your memory, there are three key elements to good storytelling: the context, structure, and spine. Each has defining elements, and together they make up a cohesive story. Let’s review quickly. There are some basic factors to take into account in setting the context of any story, as follows:
- theme—the setting of a story—including it’s physical location, time in history, geographical place, and other elements of the world
- mood—the emotional aspects of a story—things like style, tone, rhythm, and intonation
- audience—understanding and reflecting the audience in a way that engages them
The elements of the spine are the basic storylines making up the overall story, including the
- plot—the what, where, when, and how of the story—the basic outline
- characters—who the story involves
- climaxes—the story’s big moments and spectacular experiences
The structure defines how the context and spine play out and become manifest through a story’s
- patterns—in a user experience, these include page types and components, visual design, and even sound
- infrastructure—the technology platform and content on which a story sits
- through-line—the way a story’s goals come to their conclusion—from the beginning to the end of the story
As I’ve said, the Whaling Museum covered all of these elements very well. They admittedly had it easy with the setting and props at their disposal, but putting a good story together for your user experience may be a little more challenging. I’m currently in the midst of helping to wrangle these elements for a great UX story, so I thought I’d share something about my experience with you.
Developing an Internet Story
Recently, I started a new job, making a big move from consulting to internal team, and it’s been great. The domain is exciting and fun. The products are industry household names. The users are passionate and vocal. The story and characters are very solid and well understood. Even so, there are still many elements of context, structure, and spine that we need to pull together to create a truly exemplary story for the Web user experience. For me, that is the fun part of the challenge!
Don’t think the team has done anything wrong in crafting the Web site story. This is a complicated story that my company is trying to weave, and few companies could achieve what this team has. The Web site must reach multiple segments, or audiences, and communicate different storylines for the different domains the company’s products address. This is not a simple, little Web site. The site presents a range of products, across a spectrum from consumer through to the highest-end, professional systems for the sound, music, and film industries. The internal challenges of addressing such a broad range of products sometimes show when there are disconnects or incoherence in the story the Web site communicates. However, those disconnects do not accurately reflect users’ experiences with the products themselves.
One advantage we have is that, as a company, we understand each segment very well. But, communicating to all of them individually is never going to be easy. Of course, we understand that we shouldn’t try to communicate the same story to all of these different audiences, but in the heat of the moment, we may sometimes forget. For example, the latest marketing campaigns attempt to address all audiences through one landing page.
Trying to maintain our storylines across a vast Web site can be an overwhelming endeavor. And I’m sure every large company with an extensive product catalog, ecommerce capabilities, and multiple marketing channels faces these issues. So, how do you attempt to pull together a cohesive message across all of the elements of context, structure and spine? Here is the beginning of the story about how I am helping our team achieve this right now.