Thinking Like a Storyteller


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As interaction designers we do well at facilitating the complex dialogue between people and the interactive products they use. But we often neglect to consider the story that evolves through the interactions people have with the things we make. Designing with a narrative in mind can make a difference between a product that merely functions well and a product that engages the minds, emotions and imaginations of users.

Drawing on personal experience, narrative theory and examples ranging from interactive products to film, this presentation is a call to action for designers to equip themselves with a deeper understanding of narrative techniques. We’ll focus on core aspects such as theme, scene-making, and sequencing to illustrate how thinking like a storyteller can make you a better designer. You’ll also learn how this approach can be a powerful basis for holistic design.

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  • Based on this, I’ve decide to change my presentation title to:
  • In fact, even before this, I had been thinking a lot about idea that there are these advocates on one side and skeptics, if not actual detractors, on the other side. It feels like we haven’t been able to agree on the place, let alone value, of storytelling in our practice.
  • In fact, it’s become one of those words like design thinking, or innovation, or collaboration. (A friend of mine likes to call these weasel words.) They have emotional throw weight, they sound important, like something we all must be doing. They come with a certain amount of acclaim, but in the end, very few people could tell you, let alone agree upon, what they really mean. Storytelling, I think, is one of those words.
  • Now we do have many examples of the use of storytelling in the design of interactive products… [examples] So I would say that we’ve been using storytelling, up to now, in two ways: One, as a communication tool. The other as a framework. But what’s really interesting is this other type of story: the user’s narrative:
  • Research in cog sci has shown that a stream of self-talk or self-narration occurs in our interaction with design products.
  • Ranging from a narrative of use that represents experience related to product’s set of features and affordances, to personal storytelling whereby users bestow meaning on situations around product use (what does this mean to mean, how does it fit into my life). This is going to happen no matter what we design. No matter what we do. This is a process people are going to use to process information within an experience. But knowing this, how can we optimize that personal narrative? Or better yet…
  • This is what I wnt to talk about today. There’s so much to gain from using storytelling as a communication tool. There’s so much to gain from using storytelling as a framework for design. I talked a lot about that last year… But the next frontier in storytelling as it relates to design is understanding how we can build those cues in the flows, into the ways users interact with products. If you compare storytelling to what we do, you’ll see that what the discipline’s share is the desire for engagement.
  • A kind of engagement that’s both cognitive and emotion. In fact, ot’s the cognitive and emotional, put together that allows us to derive meaning from our interactions. At their best, stories provide meaning, they engage our emotions as well as our minds, they surprise us, delight us, they give us a sense of satisfaction and pleasure when they end. But we all know this. The question I’m interested in is…
  • As a screenwriter one learns, over time, how to employ certain techniques in order to engage or to invoke a kind of response appropriate to the story being written. A screenwriter will actually design for emotion, design for meaning… And one of my favorite techniques is this thing called slow disclosure:
  • This is a great example of slow disclosure as narrated cinematically, as a narrative technique. I’m going to give you a bit of self-narration as I walk through the opening shots of this scene. The first thing you see is a scary face. A very scary face looking intently. The scary face is looking at two figures….
  • Who’ve just arrived in what looks like an abandoned town…
  • Apparently one of those guys on the horse is also looking intently. I’m not sure if he’s bad, I’m not sure if he’s good.
  • There’s the other guy. Also looking intently. Both presumably looking at the first guy we saw…
  • Oh, yes. There he is. They’re clearly looking at each other. Tension has been established…
  • Oh, yes! Something is going to happen. I see that now because they’re getting off their horses…
  • The other guy starts walking toward them… I’m getting very very nervous now because obviously this is a confrontation about to happen…
  • No one else is around. What could possibly be happening here? What is the conflict about?
  • Well clearly he’s mad. They’re getting closer to one another…
  • Yes…he’s determined to get the other guy…
  • But so is he…Yes…
  • Three mad, angry men about to stand off.
  • Now there getting to the point where they’re within arms reach. And omg, he’s reaching for his gun. Someone’s going to die here! But then…
  • Surprise…they’re all together. They all went in to ambush some other guy inside that building. That was a surprise. A slow disclosure leading to a surprise. See how it engages both cognitively and emotionally? When I’m watching I’m thinking, trying to form hypothoses based on what’s presented to me, and I’m making making assumptions about those hypothoses, trying to see if they’re true and based on what the narration is telling me. And in this case what I was thinking wasn’t true therefore I experience surprise, an emotion… So this is my theory…
  • In this pres, I’m going to unpack the storytelling word, try to build it back up again with some meaning, then explore a new way of looking at storytelling in the context of interaction design: how the cognitive and emotional response to the products we design can be optimized when designers better understand the craft of storytelling (making). So, yes, we can use it in interaction design.
  • If you’re going to start with theory it might be wise to go all the way back to the beginning. The poetics actually still holds up as a foundational set of concepts about how narrative structure works for writers and filmmakers today. All stories, accoring to Aristotle are… But what makes them differ…
  • This is important because it allows us to see that stories are delivered by a variety of mediums…and for us the medium is a digital interaction. But the point that I really want to make is that there are actual two types or manners of storytelling.
  • We most often use diegetic storytelling in the stories in things such as personas and scenarios. Mimetic storytelling is also used, most often in the form of storyboards where actual users are depicted in a way where they are telling the story. Dramatic storytelling, however, is the type we, as ixds, have the most to learn from. The kind of storytelling you find in movies, plays and some novels. It’s not purely narrative, or episodic, but based on principles of probability, cause and effect related to action. In fact, if you break down the elements of dramatic storytelling, you ’ ll begin to see the parallels between the forms. And if you can see the parallels between forms you ’ ll begin understand why there ’ s a potential relationship between the way dramatic stories work and the things we ’ re trying to accomplish as interaction designers. So let’s start with Artistotles definition of dramatic storytelling…
  • If you think about it, these are components of what we work with as designers all the time. (Well, except for the plot part)…But I’m going to talk about how that would work…
  • If you were going to diagram a dramatic story it would look something like this. Most stories have a shape. If this is what a story looks like, it’s the quality of the craft that goes into building it ---the selection, ordering and timing of events, using narrative techniques that expose those events---(and there’s a lot of artistry in that as well) is what determines the quality of the emotional/cognitive response to it. Around that we have all of this other stuff. According to his six elements of drama, we also have ideas/theme, language, rhythm (patterns) and spectacle (the visual elements).
  • Now if you were to look at that same graph, but with agent (or characters) represented within it, it might look like this. Meaning: there’s a relationship between the way agents are acted upon and pushed forward by events and/or interactions.
  • The big difference, is that, in interactive products, the user is also an agent or character who can initiate and perform actions in the unfolding events. a user is an agent/character in a collaborative story (environment) involving other system agents or characters. the closest thing we have to plot in interaction design is the task flow… In some way they are telling a story about a series of events. It’s a plot of sorts….
  • Now let’s think of the story arc as a kind of task flow where the agent is the user (or character) enterin an interactive space… It could be an actual physical space, it could be a website, it could be a product…so let’s imagine how that might work. so the customer enterts this interactive space and based by the setup, based on the possibilities presented in this environment he makes a decision…
  • and as a result of that decision, the system agent gives him a response…
  • And that leads…
  • the customer to make another decision…Based on that response, he gets another response from one or more system agents, that lead him to some other decision…
  • where there are even more possibilities…that leads to
  • another action…until there’s
  • a conclusion
  • or an ending.
  • So if you think about it all actions have a beginning, middle and end. It starts somewhere and it ends in a particular way. And it happens over time. This is what Aristotle mean by a whole action. This is what I would call…
  • And this is are starting place. Just knowing this before we get into narrative techniques can help us understand that there is this narrative flow that we as designers can attend to. the only difference…the reality is that in an interactive product, the flow might look like this…
  • But still, I would argue that it has a shape. It’s not so linear, and we can anticipate every path that might be taken, but we can use this as a model. But why use storytelling as a model? We have other design theories and principles that suggest how and why users have an meaningful/emotional response to a product. Storytelling, for one, is a more holistic approach that taps into deeply embedded ways of experiencing/organizing information already.
  • Cut to 1500 odd years after Aristotle where modern narrative theory as well as cognitive psychology have much to say about our experience of story. children as young as 4 or 5 easily recognize the activities telling and/or following a story.
  • Mention constructivist theory in cog sci, where comprehending narrative is a dynamic process involving three factors: our perceptual capacities, our prior knowledge and experience, and the material and structure of the story being experienced. The perceptual capacites are about our physical ability to comprehend: see, hear etc. Prior knowledge is about what we bring to the story based on experience. (In the Good, Bad and the Ugly, I come to that story with assumptions about what it means to be a cowboy in a movie) And the structure of story is the thing we can design for: It’s the thing that’s about the patterning and the sequencing and the technques that we use to tell the story that we get cues from. What’s most interesting is that people (in our culture, at least) comprehend story based on a master template, or an internalized abstraction of narrative structure.
  • David Bordwell refers to this as the canonical story format which goes something like: introduction and setting of characters, explanation of state of affairs, complicating action, ensuing events, outcome, ending. Basically, narrative is a (mostly) universal means of processing experience.
  • This is something we can design for. And…
  • Plot is the thing that drives narrative comprehension and engagement with story. In structuring plot a writer will consider the selection, ordering and timing of events, as well as the narrative techniques that expose them. We, as reader/viewers, then get cues from the way the plot is crafted that allow us to engage cognitively and emotionally with the story. Once we understand what those cues are and how they elicit our involvement with the story, we can understand how to design for similar types of engagement. There are four types of narrative cues relevant to interaction design that elicit cognitive and emotional engagement with story:
  • For plot, I’ve pulled out four types of cues that we get in the experience of plot that are relevant to interaction design and I’ve turned them into things that we can do as designers: communicate potential is providing cues that will allow the customer to understand what that ineractive space is about, about inferring the possibilities with that world. expressing causaility is about giving cues that will allow the customer to understand how things happen. How do we as designers reveal that? reinforcing probability is about giving cues that allow users to assumptions about what’s happened before as well as anticipate what’s going to happen next. So how do we reinforce probability or how do we break it down? facilitating completion, and by completion I mean the pleasure and satisfaction one gets in a really good ending.
  • This type of engagement happens very early on the story (or scene). A good storyteller will know just how much information to provide that will allow us to understand how things work based on the way the potential of that world is revealed: the way character is established in the action and the dramatic situation that provides characters with causes to act. This is the dramatic potential. This is the first and foremost draw into the story---our wanting to understand the possibilities. So I have a little clip to express what I mean: [show clip of rear window] a metastory about the way we
  • It’s something that is established at the beginning of a story and can engages us both cognitively and emotionally.
  • Mention the idea of empathy, but empathy is not complete without undestanding motivation. As designers we need to think about what will motivate customers to make that first action. (How, then could this be improved?)
  • This is about those moments in the story where we simply want to understand why. It’s also about the nature of first incidents that establish the rules of the environment being represented. This kind of involvement is facilitated by representing clear causes to events that occur.
  • It happens from the beginning of the story and continue throughout and involves a cognitive engagement.
  • Based on our understanding of what’s going on in the story we look clues and form hypotheses about what will happen next. It’s the type of engagement that brings us deeper into the story because effects of various actions have been represented in a way that incites interest and makes us want to keep on going. This is a kind of involvement is facilitated by narrative techniques that either satisfy, prolong or thwart expectations established by previous events.
  • It’s what happens early to midway into the story and the activity that most deeply engages our minds and our emotions. It’s also the type of cue that helps establish meaning: being able to see the whole of the action, understanding what it’s about.
  • A good ending provides not only a completion of the action being represented but also the kind of emotional closure that’s implied by the notion of catharsis. We derive a sense of pleasure and satisfaction when a story
  • Character is the vehicle by which the story is told, but true character is revealed in action. Talk about empathy and motivation. Chris Fahey.
  • Doing this allows us to: Re-vision the context for dialogue/communication that occurs between humans and interactive systems Design more fluid and engaging dialogues/experiences that tap into the natural tendency to organize experience into story.
  • Finding a theme is simultaneously an act of analysis and creativity. It’s not something we impose, by design or vision or some other form of inspiration; it’s something we extract from our insights. Ideally, it will emerge from the raw material of your assembled goals, research and analysis. But most important, it will emerge from our EMPATHY with users. And from this, we find theme. So here’s an example of what we do…
  • Thinking Like a Storyteller

    1. 1. Thinking Like aStoryteller Cindy Chastain @cchastain #ixd10 #story
    2. 2. revised title: What’s the deal withStorytelling?
    3. 3. innovation! design thinking! storytelling!
    4. 4. communication tool user stories personas scenarios framework brand stories storyboards demos product stories
    5. 5. my story
    6. 6. Ahhh..this button, will direct a call to the president of the company. Oh! the call is going through….If the president of the company gets his call, he will be happy. If he is happy, I will be noticed. If I am noticed, perhaps I can get aself-narratives raise… This device is so good for my life!
    7. 7. how can we, as designers, providecues that will deepen that narrative connection?
    8. 8. engagement cognitive emotional
    9. 9. What can we learn from the discipline of storytelling that will help us design for more meaningful and engaging product experiences? the ultimate question
    10. 10. slow disclosure
    11. 11. The image cannot be displayed. Your computer may not have enoughmemory to open the image, or the image may have been corrupted.Restart your computer, and then open the file again. If the red x stillappears, you may have to delete the image and then insert it again.
    12. 12. surprise
    13. 13. Stories engage us because of the way they’re designed.
    14. 14. If we, as designers, had a betterunderstanding of how stories arecrafted, we would have a betterunderstanding of how to craft deeperkinds of engagement in theinteractive products we create.
    15. 15. Act I: Theory the construction and deconstruction of narrative (!)
    16. 16. The Poetics All stories are, “in their general conception, modes of imitation.” -Aristotle
    17. 17. But what makes them differ… Objects Medium Manner
    18. 18. Two Manners of Storytelling… narrative/telling dramatic/showing diegetic mimetic
    19. 19. Aristotle’s Six Qualitative Elements of Drama Plot (events) Character (agents) Thought (ideas/theme) Diction (language) Song (pattern) Spectacle (the visual)
    20. 20. So, how does this relate to interactive products?
    21. 21. the shape of narrative flow
    22. 22. Canonical Story Format introduction and setting of characters explanation of state of affairs complicating action ensuing events outcome ending
    23. 23. Narrative Flow introduction and setting of characters explanation of state of affairs complicating action ensuing events outcome ending
    24. 24. understandingnarrative craft will help us get there
    25. 25. Act II: Craft Or what we can learn from storytelling about the art of narrative flow.
    26. 26. Aristotle’s Six Qualitative Elements of Drama Plot (events) Character (agents) Thought (ideas/theme) Diction (language) Song (pattern) Spectacle (the visual)
    27. 27. Three Primary Elements of Storytelling Plot (events) Character (agents) Thought (ideas/theme Diction (language) Song (pattern) Spectacle (the visual))
    28. 28. first element: plot
    29. 29. To understand afilm’s story is tograsp whathappens andwhere, when andwhy it happens.
    30. 30. four relevant mechanics of dramaticnarration communicate potential express causality reinforce probability facilitate completion
    31. 31. communicate potential
    32. 32. cognitive/emotional
    33. 33. express causality
    34. 34. cognitive
    35. 35. reinforce probability
    36. 36. cognitive/emotional + meaning
    37. 37. facilitate completion
    38. 38. emotional
    39. 39. second element: character
    40. 40. Well designed system-based agents, cancontribute to dramaticengagement, elicitempathy, and influencethe actions and emotionalresponses of humanagents involved in thesame activity.
    41. 41. Act III: Challenge
    42. 42. If we can move away fromthinking of products interms of interfaces andstart thinking of them asrepresentations orenvironments, in whichagents perform actions wewill get us to a placewhere we can design morefluid and engagingdialogues/experiences.
    43. 43. understand the craft of storytelling
    44. 44. design with a narrative in mind
    45. 45. develop narrative craft for design
    46. 46. yes, we can use it
    47. 47. the end (thanks) @cchastain