The urge to describe experiences by telling a story runs throughout human history. From pictograms to hieroglyphs to the songs of the wandering bard, we have developed many different ways of using storytelling devices such as allegory and the arc of a narrative to describe the world around us, and our place in it.
As interaction designers, we are concerned with describing how people might interact with and experience the products, services and environments that inhabit their world. The ability to effectively tell a story, then, is an important part of any interaction designer's skill set, and proves useful at many different points of the design process.
In any design engagement, interaction designers need to be able to communicate their ideas and concepts both internally, to other members of the design team, and externally, to stakeholders and other members of a client organization. Since these clients are often not from a design background or are unfamiliar with the process designers follow on a project, creating a narrative that can explain why and when as well as what and how can really help to communicate the way a designer thinks.
Recently, I was discussing the importance of storytelling with a colleague, and we both remembered the Vodafone Future project as a great example of how a set of ideas and concepts can be gelled together by using them to tell a story.
It's five years old now, but Vodafone Future is still a great example of scenario-based storytelling that effectively communicates concepts, situating them within a coherent narrative.
Imagine that you were a designer working on this project. You've come up with a set of great concepts for devices and supporting services. The question you have now is: what's the best way of communicating these concepts to your client? You might choose to present each concept in isolation and let it stand on its own merits, and this would undoubtedly result in the client getting excited about your work, but you might also miss the opportunity to communicate how your ideas fit within the lives of your client's customers. By developing a narrative in which all of your concepts come together to form a fictional story of the future, you provide context and meaning for your ideas that go above and beyond a simple description of functionality, and it's this context that can really add the color that brings your ideas to life in the mind of your client, helping to engage the client on an even deeper level.
Creating these stories can be a collaborative effort, too. Bringing the client team in to help describe how a concept might work in a real world situation is a great way for the interaction designer to engage the client fully in the design process, getting them really excited about the work. By placing clients in the role of their customers, and getting them to step through the process of creating a fictional improved experience, it can also lead to a greater appreciation of the issues that the client's customers and business currently face.
Finally, creating a narrative that describes how something might work is key for the interaction designer. Going through this process can also act as validation, and is useful for framing and describing how many different potential concepts might work together in a narrative arc, allowing the designer to see whether their ideas might make sense, at least in a hypothetical world. As interaction designers, the ability to communicate our ideas by crafting narratives is vital, and situates us as part of a long tradition of professions that tries to describe the human experience of the world around us in the best way we can.
"Design as Storytelling" by Thomas Erickson, originally appeared in Interactions Magazine iii.4, July/August 1996.
Cindy Chastain recently gave a presentation about how design could adopt the idea of themes from the worlds of fiction and filmmaking.
And finally, some light non-design relief: Illywhacker by Peter Carey, a novel about an arch-storyteller.
Ben Fullerton is a guest blogger for Jennifer Bove, founder and principal at Kicker Studio in San Francisco and faculty for the School of Visual Art's Interaction Design MFA department in New York.
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