Mama, tell me a story!

Last year a letter from the editors in Ergonomics in Design sparked my interest. Unfortunately I didn’t get around to commenting on it then due to a slight significant imbalance in my work and life. Today I have more work, and (with the arrival of our new daughter) quite a bit more life, but I also have more balance, so there you are.

In the letter I’m thinking of (yes I’ll have to look up the article online later) the editor described a recent study confirming the effectiveness of stories in training. Simply put, a story format was better than a traditional white paper at communicating key findings, and aiding recall and retention.

I have been a long believer and proponent of the value of story telling in the larger sense. I believe stories and characters matter, and that pop-culture matters more than the revered classics. I’ve become convinced that persona and plots are the building blocks for how humans interact with their world. They are like programs, installed into our mind and ready for recall. It’s generally recognized that play is practice for reality, and play is essentially first person storytelling, often communal.

All of this is well and good, but perhaps not such a very new insight (or speculation). However reading the article helped spark a new idea for how to express the role and purpose of Ergonomics, Interaction and Experience Design.

For the first half of 2006 I had been evangelizing the smile principle: “We bring the smile to the user”. This is catchy and simple, it works for consumer product design, and is good marketing for our profession. But it hardly covers the full scope of our value in all those cases where the customer is already angry (a good experience matters more when you’re calling support) or engaged in life or death tasks (ergonomics are most critical for emergency response workers, or doctors). It’s also very abstract. How does one really make people smile? Clown faces? Unobtrusive impeccable service?

Beginning in November 2006 I started using customer service as a metaphor. Just as you want good service – polite, attentive, responsive, knowledgeable, helpful – from sales people when you walk into a store, customers expect the same thing when they use a machines and services delivered through those machines. If they don’t get it, they will go to a machine with better customer service. This metaphor is a little more complex, but for folks who know retail and service industries, and marketing folks this approach seems to bring an immediate “Aha!” They understand the end goals and measures. They understand the reasons behind the effort. The strategies and techniques to achieve those goals are novel, but that is to be expected. Sadly this metaphor comes off as pretty opaque the further you are from such industries.

So what about stories? They should provide a perspective that is accessible to everyone no matter their background, because the framework of stories is universal.

Story theory says that stories are the description of conflict between the intentions of the hero, and some other force which thwarts his will. This is true even if your story is light and easy (I get up and want some soda. I walk to the vending machine, but I have no change. I buy a pack of gum to get change, but now the machine tells me it’s out of my favorite brand. I walk across the street and buy it from the mini-mart) or if your story is hard and epic (We need to destroy the ring that will enable the evil overlord to take over the planet. 12 heroes to march to a volcano to throw the ring in and melt is down. Most of them get separated along the way. Two make it, but can’t go in the front gate, so they trust an unscrupulous creature to lead them by a back door. They go through the back door, get betrayed, but through the unexpected resourcefulness of the least heroic, complete their mission and save the world). Try but, fail. Try something else, succeed.

Our lives are full of conflict, even those of us lucky to live in the privileged security of the first world’s middle class. As humans we have to navigate a continual stream of thwarted intentions, from demanding relatives, unreasonable bosses, the jerk who cut you off on the freeway, even to the Starbucks employee who gave you the wrong change. We are the heroes of our own stories. Every day is a story where the hero attempts to do something, is thwarted, tries an alternative until they succeed.

To understand what this has to do with design, consider the question, “What roles does your product or service play in the story of the people who encounter it?”

You might be tempted to consider your creation the hero, but that would be a mistake. Consider everyone’s favorite great product, the iPhone. When the commercial shows an email suggesting dinner, leading into a Google search for Indian restaurants, followed by a Phone call to confirm reservations, it’s easy to think of this little gadget as a superhero swooping into to save the evening from reheated take out. However superheros of the caped and masked kind don’t really have very good stories. They tend not to overcome conflict so much as conveniently sidestep reality. The real story is implicit the reason why you were about to have dinner alone. Working late? Fight with the girlfriend? New in town? The audience of the commercial can empathize with all those scenarios and more, because those are the conflicts they encounter in their daily stories. The promise of the iPhone is great because we mere mortals are not Clark Kent, able to see empty restaurants with x-ray vision and fly over traffic jams. To succeed in these stories we need a helping hand, and the iPhone promises to provide that – not unlike Cinderella’s fairy Godmother.

Which brings us back to the question. What role does your creation play?

Will it be yet another obstacle that thwart’s it’s user’s intentions? Beware the vending machine that eats quarters! Fear the dread dialog box of ambiguous choices! Shudder at the thought of the phone tree that cuts you off after waiting for thirty minutes! There are oh-so-many products and services that are little more that cheap villains.

Or will your product be the helping hand, the essential tool, the fairy Godmother that saves the day? Of course, like Cinderella’s carriage, designs often have a bit of both. It gets you to the Prince’s ball, but not past midnight. It shows you restaurants, but only if you have cell coverage. But while nothing is perfect, the trick is continual refinement in the effort to remove all possible villains and booby traps, and to provide the world with a cornucopia of seven league boots, invisibility cloaks, and cups that never run dry.

This is our vocation.

We come from a noble lineage. From Vulcan’s mighty forge to the shoemaker’s hovel, we’ve crafted the tools that turned the tide. From outskirts of Mos Eisley to the ramparts of a Danish castle we’ve appeared to reveal the truth. Our job is ever so much more than to make people smile, or to provide good service.

Simply put, we make heroes.

One Response to “Mama, tell me a story!”

  1. Wiz

    I was searching online for you guys hoping to find a phone number to see how you are doing with your new arrival. The only news I’ve had is Brian Miller’s link to the first baby pictures. It is good to know you are ok. I would love to call.
    The article is very inspiring. It has been a long time since I read your writing.

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