The Elements of a Good Story
Storytelling is an age-old tradition, because it’s one that just plainly and simply works. As the book Storytelling for User Experience by Quesenbery and Brooks says:
“We all tell stories. It’s one of the most natural ways to share information, as old as the human race.”
I won’t regale you with research that shows people learn and comprehend better from stories than they do otherwise. Just know that it’s out there! But to be a really good storyteller, you need to understand three basic concepts: Context, Spine, and Structure (CSS). Each is critical and necessary, and all three need to work together.
If we look at Midsummer’s, we’ll recognize that Shakespeare has provided the Spine for us already. The Spine is the basic storyline that runs throughout the play. It gives us the basic plot and characters. If you aren’t familiar with Midsummer’s, it’s basically a story of love, lust, and mischief. Shakespeare has also provided the Structure: There are five acts, with scenes within each act. There is a clear opening to the story, a climax, and a conclusion. Those are the easy parts.
The one thing Shakespeare hasn’t provided is the Context. What is our setting for this production? Our director has told us only that it is to be “traditional.” In most cases, the director has a time period in mind for a production or a particular theme to focus on. Without that, it’s hard to do character development and really give life to the words. Also, we haven’t yet worked with any groups of actors other than those we have scenes with, so we aren’t seeing how all the pieces come together. Focusing on only small parts, without that bigger picture, is challenging to say the least.
Storytelling and Design
Storytelling is important not only to theater. I agree with Tom Erickson, who says in his article “Design As Storytelling” that design is a social, collaborative activity. I believe a UX designer’s role is to bridge all of the pieces that bring a design to life—from product management, marketing, user research, and design all the way through development. If that is true, communication is critical. Stories become an essential communication vehicle in the user experience world. Every day, we talk to users, bring back their stories, and co-create with them.
Major parts of our work are building personas, creating scenarios, and creating and using prototypes in usability testing—all of which connect our work to real users. Of course, we must also talk with various people within our organization to understand the case for a product’s business value, as well as relevant technical constraints, and negotiate a balance between all of these factors. But, in the end, to get buy in, we need to tell a compelling and engaging story about our design and its value. And we need to evangelize that story. To be successful in design, as well as theater, it makes sense to spend some time on the CSS—the Context, Spine, and Structure.
There are some basic factors to take into account in setting the Context of any story:
- 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
When crafting the story behind your product’s theme and design, consider the basic concept behind the story’s plot. How does your product or site differentiate itself from the competition? What is your key value proposition? It’s also important to remember the current culture and norms that your design must live within. Do your technology and its capabilities match or exceed what is currently available? Do you understand current aesthetic tastes? Be clear about this from the get-go.
The mood you create can be a critical factor in communicating your story properly. This is especially true in interaction design, because you won’t be there to explain the story when users encounter your design. Elements like typeface, color, writing tone—and even things like formality, diction, and grammatical correctness—can all affect the emotional response of users. Other elements of interaction also affect mood, including the kind of animation you use, the speed and fluidity of interactions, and even the sounds you choose to use. The rapid growth of touch smartphones and tablets gives these elements of interaction a new and more detailed focus that can make or break an experience.
Understanding your audience is the driving factor behind doing user research, which spans the full spectrum from gaining a basic understanding of a broad market segment down to learning about the details of an individual user’s work practice. Eliciting information through contextual inquiry and affinity diagramming is a good way of achieving this understanding.
Keeping your product’s story focused and showing users case studies and testimonials from other users also helps to engage them and demonstrates your understanding of the audience. I think it will be interesting to see what challenges we encounter as consumer technology moves into the business space and changes the expectations we must meet. Functionality that merely gets the job done will no longer be acceptable. It will be important to understand how to make business more consumer friendly.