Storytelling for User Experience Blog

Crafting Stories for Better Design

Posts written by Whitney Quesenbery & Kevin Brooks

  • Where books come to life

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    It all started with this tweet from storytelling maven Tim Sheppard

    The power of story, brought to life. Caution: may cause heart attacks in archivists & librarians.

    The link points to a YouTube video called “Going West.

    Dramatic reading? Animation? Who knows. It seems to live at the center of the connection between written stories, oral stories and multimedia?

    It’s from the New Zealand Book Council

    Like no other human activity reading opens up our imagination. It enables us to understand those around us. It allows us to project the future and reach back into the past. Reading can entertain, challenge and educate. We believe that reading can transform people’s lives.

    Our mission is to inspire more New Zealanders to read more; to promote reading in general, but particularly to represent and promote New Zealand writing and writers – our own artists, stories and points of view.

    It’s not the medium… it’s the story.

    Can technology kill storytelling?

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    Someone sent me an article that suggested that “The Internet is Killing Storytelling.” The author contents that no one can think in more than 140 characters any more, and that the skills needed to create and listen to an extended narrative are disappearing.

    “…the primary victim of this radically reduced attention span [is]the narrative, the long-form story, the tale. Like some endangered species, the story now needs defending from the threat of extinction in a radically changed and inhospitable digital environment.” Paradoxically, there has never been a greater hunger for narrative, for stories that give shape and meaning to experience.”

    Even as he bemoans the demise of narrative, Ben Macintyre finds signs of life in Japanese thumb novels, or keitai shosetsu. There are book readers for the iPhone, and Amazon claims that people buy more books after they get a Kindle than before.

    Can something as basic as sharing a story really be killed off so easily?

    Stories have survived the invention of writing, the printed book, movies, animation, and even hypertext. The form may change, but I’m betting that we will keep finding ways to include stories in our lives.

    Brother Blue, Storyteller

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    Brother Blue, a legendary figure in storytelling, died on December 3. He was the center of a community of storytellers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for over 20 years. Kevin Brooks and Laura Packer call him the father of modern storytelling.

    “His stories always allowed the listener to imagine bigger worlds, see themselves in the heart of the tale and believe that they, too, were storytellers. Brother Blue said that he told stories, “from the middle of the middle of me to the middle of the middle of you,” and that if you heard another person’s story you could never harm them, so stories could save the world. He never stopped telling stories. — From his obituary

    A storied career

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    Kathy Hansen’s blog, A Storied Career, has links to all things about organizational storytelling. Her topics range from “storytelling and change” to “storytelling and social media” to a wonderful collection of quotations about stories and storytelling.

    And, she interviews story practitioners on how they apply storytelling to their own work. I was tickled to be one of those practitioners and to find myself in the company of people like Annette Simmons (author of The Story Factor and Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins).

    – Whitney

    UX Book Salon at UPA 2009 in Portland

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    Want to talk about storytelling? We always do, so we’re taking an hour out of the UPA conference in Portland to invite folks to a UX Book Salon on Thursday morning at 8:30.

    We’re looking forward to a lively conversation about how we use stories in our practice. Personas, presentations, or analysing participants. What works? What doesn’t? What have you been dying to try? Bring your stories and lets compare our experiences.

    Contact Lou or Whitney at the conference for details of where to meet.
    Or follow the conversation @rosenfeldmedia on Twitter

    What kind of story is this?

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    One of my favorite radio programs is This American Life. Each week, it collects a few stories on a theme, looking from a few, often offbeat, perspectives. These are examples of fantastic storytelling, masterminded by Ira Glass. You can hear him talk about how he approaches his work in a video from GEL 2007.

    As much as I love them, I simply don’t know how to describe these stories.

    They are not “news stories.” There may be resonance to current events, but they are rarely the timely recounting of a significant event we think of as “the news”. But, they are about real people and usually about things that really happened.

    It’s not representative. There is no pretense that these stories are more than a glimpse into one life, one view, one story. The stories are more about the texture of an experience than a carefully structured look at a task or goal.

    But. If I was designing an application for telemarketers, I can’t imagine a better way to understand what that work is like than the story “The Fate Most of Us Fear”. Having heard that story, I can’t ignore it. I want to know more. Is it really true that the short pause on your answering machine is a weary sales associate grabbing a few seconds before the system pushes them on to the next call? What makes some people talk to that telemarketer like they are another human being? The story conjures up a whole world in 10 minutes.

    Have you got a great story?

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    We’re looking for a few good stories.

    Specifically, we’d like examples of how you use storytelling to help inform your design process or to communicate a design.

    What’s worked for you? Or did you try an idea that fell flat?

    We’d like a rich selection of samples of different storytelling styles to include in the book. Maybe yours will be one of them.

    Flinging stories into the future

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    Kevin and I were thinking about how stories work. In many cases, the value of stories is in their ability to bring the past into the present.

    Family stories and corporate stories both keep the past alive, creating a culture out of shared events and how they are shaped and interpreted in a story. Think of “the story of how our company was founded” as a guiding principle in the values and mission of a company.

    Other stories preserve information as a narration about an event. The stories swapped by the Xerox copier repairmen, made famous in The Social Life of Information, are stories that serve as a knowledge management repository.

    But the real value of stories in user experience design is that they can move us into the future.

    Steve Denning’s springboard stories are like that. Their goal is to get a running start on a situation, and then let the audience take the final leap, imagining where that beginning might lead.

    We started thinking about stories as a kind of trebuchet. You wind it up by loading it with information about the present. But it’s power comes when all that information is released to fly out into the future.

    This can be a great way to introduce subtle shifts in context, and then describe a future that extends that trajectory. Here’s an example that explicitly builds on time:

    • 20 years ago: He liked going to his favorite music store and browsing through the bins of classic vinyl for unusual records.
    • 15 years ago: She’s walking down the street talking on the phone…
    • 10 years ago: He reads articles from 10 news papers from around the world a day.
    • 5 years ago: After 30 years of collecting music, she could carry her entire music library in her purse, search through it quickly and play any selection. [And all she’s missing are liner notes.]
    • Today: He hears a song playing in a café, holds up his phone, learns the title, and grabs it to add to his collection.

    And here’s where your story of the future begins… In one way, it might be a wild fantasy for an innovation. But, the trebuchet reminds us of all the magical innovations that we’ve already seen, and shows us that maybe this new idea isn’t such a big leap after all.

    We’re curious. What strategies have you used to introduce a radical idea, one that both breaks with the past and is an extension of it (if you look at it the right way)?

    Can engineers tell stories?

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    We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. Miguel Jiménez wrote a blog post about the power of storytelling in interaction design and said:

    Including a concise use of storytelling and sketching in User Experience processes can make a real difference. If a product is designed to communicate with users and interact, then communication is the base of the overall experience – improving communication and narrative skills should definitely improve acceptance and connection with users.

    He goes on to talk about his own lack of skills in this area, and the workshops he’s taking on digital journalism and creative narratives to improve them. We hope that Storytelling in User Experience Design will be exactly what Miguel is looking for. It’s great to see so many people in UX getting interested in storytelling.

    Occasionally, we hear that stories aren’t appropriate in software engineering, or UX, or human factors, because these are scientific, engineering fields. When we talk about stories in user experience, we don’t mean “make believe” or “made up” stories. It’s a way of communicating, wrapping people and context and events into one package.

    It’s all about finding ways to talk about the big picture, not just the details.

    Thanks, Miguel, for sharing your thoughts and your journey. And, we’re pretty chuffed that you think of Kevin as an “eminence” in the field, too.

    Stories catch their attention

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    Thanks to Victor Lombardi for his post How to Tell a Story and a great summary of elements of a good story. The post illustrates the viral nature of great stories. It starts with a story about how Victor got interested in stories:

    “I remember the first time someone impressed upon me the usefulness of storytelling. Back in 2000 a researcher came to Razorfish to study how we worked in order to improve our knowledge sharing. He told me how Secret Service agents studied storytelling so that, if they suddenly found themselves in the back of a car with the President for 5-minutes, they could quickly summarize all the pertinent facts about a situation in a format that was more likely to be absorbed.”

    Now, think about your last presentation. I bet there was something you really wanted everyone to hear. Did you summarize it in 5 bullet points. Or did you weave it into a short story that would make it compelling and help everyone remember what you said…and why it’s important?