Telling stories

Christmas is a good time for sitting around a fire and telling stories. Practice your storytelling this Christmas, and hone your interaction design skills for 2009.

People love stories. But beyond that, stories are fundamental to the way we think as human beings. Salesmen tell persuasive stories about successful installations and satisfied customers. Social workers pass on complex case histories as stories. Just about every culture in the world passes on valuable knowledge to the next generation in the form of stories.

Christmas tree

When properly told, stories incorporate all the ingredients people need to think and learn: situation, actors, events, challenges, consequences… They help us gain a little of the benefit of direct experience, with much less of the pain.

So it makes sense that interaction designers need to be great story tellers. I’ve picked three kinds of storytelling used in interaction design…

  • Scenarios
  • Specification
  • Rationale

Scenarios: Invent a story

Because we’re not fundamentally good at imagining futures or situations different to the one we are in, we have to consciously and explicitly create stories to make sure we do things right. Interaction designers create personas (the characters in the stories), describe the context of use (situation and back story) and the personas’ goals.

Then we create scenarios. We try to tell a compelling and realistic story of how our personas will reach a happy ending by using the product. Because we’re all good at listening to stories, the team can spot the good ones, the implausible ones and the radical-amazing-breakthrough ones quite quickly.

A storyboard

Specification: Many stories

A specification – however sketchy or detailed – is a story. Actually it’s many stories, captured simultaneously. What will happen if the user goes here or there? A good specification has a lot in common with a Choose You Own Adventure story. (Did somebody say adventure? Now there’s some classic interaction.)

Choose your own adventure: Mystery of the Maya

The trick for a good interaction designer, though, is to make sure that the story of your product has no dead ends. So the best specs spend plenty of effort on handling error situations, as well as just the positive story.

Rationale: Meta-story

The importance of rationale is often underestimated. Rationale is the story of how and why a design decision has been made. “We’re doing it like this because…” When your storytelling has led you to a non-obvious (but demonstrably right) conclusion you don’t want your team and your stakeholders re-creating all the failed stories you’ve already told all over again. It takes too long.

Rationale also demonstrates how much effort has been put into reaching a conclusion, so that the team doesn’t forget how far they’ve come.

Pictures are not stories

A picture, in this context, doesn’t tell a story so much as beg for one. A beautifully drawn image of an interface, frozen in time, might look persuasive – and it might hint at past and future interaction. But it doesn’t answer many of the important questions: how do your users reach this point? Where do they want to go next? Will they know what button to choose? What will happen if they click that button? A picture on its own is open to misinterpretation by everyone who looks at it, from developer to CEO.

When you surround it with other pictures and information about the sequence they link in, then a story unfolds. And that’s what interaction design is all about.

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