I have been thinking about storytelling recently as I get back into writing and try and help others try to write. Stories are a means of expression. A creative way to express an experience, emotion, opinion, written stories (not just the fictional novels) are a way to record and share an experience that you are having.
Writing can be a wonderfully private, cathartic experience. Something so personal that the idea of actually letting someone else read it is downright terrifying and a little bit of an affront. But in my profession and others, you need to do more of it. And, yes, you need to share it. It is exposing yourself and your interpretation of something for critique. But isn’t that the good part?
At Moment, critique is an everyday occurrence. Whatever you come up with in your notebook, InDesign or Photoshop is eventually going to be picked apart and questioned. That pretty little thing you created is going to be torn apart and you are going to have to start all over again. At least that is what a wise person once told me.
Sketches or digital products are expressions of designers opinions of what some experience should be. Written pieces are the same. They are expressions of what the author has deemed to be the best way to tell that story. Their experience. They are each planned, constructed, sketched, critiqued and reworked before they eventually get before the user.
Writing and digital product design call for us to take a step back and think about our personal feelings, the feelings of others, what is valuable, what is interesting, what could make people want to ‘use’ this thing? They are simply different medium.
Reading a story follows the same arc of interest as the first time you use a new digital product. And if it is really good, you want to look at again and again.
“The first thing you should think about is the stance that you as a writer take when putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Writing is cognitively unnatural. In ordinary conversation, we’ve got another person across from us. We can monitor the other person’s facial expressions: Do they furrow their brow, or widen their eyes? We can respond when they break in and interrupt us. And unless you’re addressing a stranger you know the hearer’s background: whether they’re an adult or child, whether they’re an expert in your field or not. When you’re writing you have none of those advantages. You’re casting your bread onto the waters, hoping that this invisible and unknowable audience will catch your drift.” –Steven Pinker
If writing is unnatural, how do you make it feel more natural? More fluid?
The story. Stories are based in oral traditions. Actually sitting face-to-face to someone and telling them a narrative. Stories provide structure, a schema or mental model to follow that pretty much anyone can relate to.
There is almost always a purpose to writing. You are trying to express something and relate to a more fuzzy person on the other end. You are taking them from introduction, the build-up. Slowly climbing to the peak, the climax. It’s the excitement and gist of what you want to say. You reach that and begin to wind down to a lull before slowly building back up again to a small knoll of interest. You want to leave them intrigued.
A good story will always leave the audience asking to hear more.
Writing is only unnatural if you let the outcome, the form remain unnatural. Stories are natural bridges between dialogue and written narrative or expressed thought. Tell more stories. And stories are not limited to fiction.
You have this division, and you have all this area in between the sciences and the humanities that no one is colonizing. There are all these questions in the borderlands between these disciplines that are rich and relatively unexplored. One of them is storytelling and it’s one of these questions that humanities people aren’t going to be able to figure out on their own because they don’t have a scientific toolkit that will help them gradually, painstakingly narrow down the field of competing ideas. The science people don’t really see these questions about storytelling as in their jurisdiction: “This belongs to someone else, this is the humanities’ territory, we don’t know anything about it.”
What is needed is fusion—people bringing together methods, ideas, approaches from scholarship and from the sciences to try to answer some of these questions about storytelling. Humans are addicted to stories, and they play an enormous role in human life and yet we know very, very little about this subject. There’s an important growth area here for new understanding.
Storytelling is great, we all love stories, but do we need empiricism, too, or can we let stories run away from us and lose track of empirical reality? That’s certainly a danger."
Things that work don’t create interesting stories.
One of the biggest hurdles in making Design Fictions is that the better that objects work, the more ‘seamless’ the world is run, the more boring the fiction is. Tension, loss, love, pain and fear (etc.) are all more interesting emotions to explore. Hence the tendency towards either dystopian or corporate idealist narratives. Finding the uncomfortable haunting fiction that surround an object, the place where social life starts to break down and fracture is far more interesting than a world that ‘just works’."
The faults and errors are what make things interesting. It provokes curiosity, creativity and ultimately engagement. Not to mention that nothing really “just works” no matter how much you say that. There is always going to be a fault or something that just doesn’t work. It’s idealistic to think that one thing can just work for everyone.
However, if the story is good enough, interesting enough, grounded in the reality, but imaginative and pushing the boundaries, there is something there. If everything just works then everything is just boring.
Above all else, sociology helps us learn to ask critical questions about both individuals and their broader context. What factors shape an individual’s life chances? How do changes in policies and laws impact people’s daily lives? Is this person’s experience typical, or anomalous?
Learning about sociology not only enhances a writer’s ability to tell interesting stories, it also helps us tell stories that will have a powerful impact on those who read them."
As a pseudo-sociologist, the skills I learned, namely the importance of the social context of, well, pretty much everything, changes everything.
Recently, I went to three conferences in one week and, looking back, there was one nuanced theme that ran through all of them: storytelling. The Design Research Conference (DRC), Brooklyn Beta, and UX Sketch Camp were all very different from the speakers to the content to the audience, but all drove home, either explicitly or implicitly, how important storytelling is. It is not only important to tell a good story, but also how to take greater care and awareness in the creation of that story.
Storytelling is a word that has been tossed around a lot in buzzword bingo in the technology-advertising-startup world in the last year or two; however, the ethos of storytelling is to create a compelling, cohesive narrative to facilitate understanding and provide context. In design, especially the design of digital products and services, this is becoming increasingly important. According to Don Norman, “This is not about the crafting of the thing; it’s about humans.” The focus of design (in the context of this quote, design research) is not simply about the beautiful end-product but how you got there, the impact of that product, and where it’s going. So, then how do you tell a good story and how can we work to better understand the designer’s role in it?
Storytelling can happen in many forms, from videos to images to writing. No matter the medium, there needs to be some sort of inherent or learned ability to craft a narrative, identify key points of interaction, ‘plot points’ if you will, and what will follow from there.
Core to crafting a narrative or story is reflection, understanding, formulation and articulation. In my opinion the first two are the most important because they are where designers, researchers, etc. uncover those ‘nuggets,’ the compelling, emotionally resonating moments. These are the building blocks of not only a product or service, but also how to build that product and look at how others will perceive it.
“Reflection deficit disorder” - Patrick Whitney
Patrick Whitney, the Dean of the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, speaking at the DRC, made a great point that speaks directly to why stories are important in the design process: reflection. Reflection seems like such a simple act, but in the must faster-paced present we are in, it is has become a rarer and rarer activity. We have gotten rid of the time to step back and reflect on where we are and where we are going. Reflection allows time to see the ‘plot line’ and understand where a product or discipline fits into that. Reflections helps to craft and tell a better, more timely story.
“Design as a form of inquiry, not beauty” - Anne Burdick, Chair of the Media Design Program at the Art Center College of Design, DRC
Asking questions, or inquiry, is a means to understand and communicate an answer. While reflection helps to provide context for where you, as the narrator sit in relation to the audience, it is equally important to spend time actively working to understand who exactly you are talking to. After all, storytelling is communication; it can be something that creates a conversation or serves as one.
Design of anything, from a digital product, physical product or a service is a mediation between two parties. How do you communicate the intent and purpose of a product to the other party? You tell a good story. The product should reflect where it came from, where it is and where it is going. It is not only important to share that arc over time with key client stakeholders, but also place it in the undertones of products to provide context and coherence.
“The real problem is communication” - Don Norman, Speaking at DRC
At times, communicating and explaining a product or service can seem as challenging as designing it. A story is meant to be told. There is a story in and behind every product, but how do you express that to someone else? I guess, this is where the admen come in. Richard The and Matt Jones of the Google Creative Lab (and some of the minds behind Google Glass) suggested making the ad for the product before it exists. Through creating the ad, you are able to identify elements of value that are compelling to the outsider (not just the design team and client). What will people really care about? Why is something there? What’s the real value of this thing? Effective communication (not to mention the story itself) is about articulation of value.
So why does storytelling matter? It matters, especially to designers moving forward, because:
- The thing does not always speak for itself. And there needs to be some context.
- Stories are an empathy tool.
- A key to storytelling is engagement and interaction; the core to what a designer does.
- They help us to understand and communicate context.
There is a difference between creating a story and writing one, but either way, at their core, stories are about understanding, interpretation, imagination, and connection.
Stories help you to construct an experience beyond the device, which is undoubtedly the future. What is a user journey? It is a story. There are plot points a.k.a points of interaction, but what about the spaces inbetween? How do you weave these all together? It is a growing problem that needs to be more critically examined and addressed as experiences, not device-human interactions, are the core to what we design. How do you understand, articulate and design for those spaces in between? In order to create a more seamless, holistic journey that speaks more directly to users and stakeholders, constructing a flowing narrative is imperative.
This post originally appeared on Moment’s blog here.
I spend the bulk of my time thinking about how to talk about design in a compelling manner. How can I make people on the outside understand what it is like to be on the inside?
As a marketer/brand shepherd (another variation on my title here), it is part of my job to think that way. It is my job to be a storyteller. It is increasingly becoming everyone’s job to do this. I cannot count the number of times that I have heard a designer, developer, basically a ‘creative’ say that they hate marketing. I always find this ironic considering a good deal of them are constantly on twitter, tumblr sharing their thoughts on the subject among other things.
I hate to break it to these folks, but that is all marketing. You are branding your own identity and sharing it in a compelling manner, looking to connect with others. Some even do it with hopes of a ‘profit’ - either literal or figurative (like a new job).
Just as with people and their personal sharing ideas, the product and the experience is now more than ever in the marketing domain. We have become very product-centric, the digital product or the physical one, therefore the product more than even has the power to win or lose a customer. The design of it hinges on not only the nuts and bolts design, the cultural understanding, user empathy, but also how ‘marketable’ that is. Is it something people will want to use is core the value proposition and the marketing.
- “Why Storytellers Lie” by Rob Beschizza
We tell stories to give our lives order, to make them somehow more rational. Such an interesting idea, especially when you apply it to our insane use and love of social networks, which are essentially methods of storytelling. Yes, they allow us to share and connect, but there is a deeper meaning to why we use them and stories might just be at the core of it. Did social networks and our always-connected-devices finally give us the outlet we needed? Validation that our the stories we portray of our lives have order and purpose because others are out there doing the same thing?