Story-Based Design II

Story-Based Design II

In the last thread, Tim Beadle wrote:

I may be missing something (and I am in no way an expert!), but isn’t story-based design the same as persona-based design?

I realize there’s a namespace collision here, and I’m glad Tim bring it up. There’s a distinction I’m trying to make between the “usability” notion of story-based design and what I’m trying to define. The distinction lies with how I think of the application of story to design.

One thing that bugs me slightly about “usability” (and I admittedly have not worked directly with many experts or professional firms) is that the approach is rather depersonalized and dry. For all the talk of “story” and “personas”, reaching as far back as the early 90s…there just hasn’t been much passion in them. If I were to describe the stereotypical “usability expert”, I think of an insightful, quiet person with the uncanny ability to make perpective-shaking adjustments in a product or process by asking a simple question: “how do people really interact?” And then they would produce a wonderfully-written document that states the newfound principles of design with such clarity that it takes my breath away. My eyes would widen in appreciation of the accompanying diagrams, visually designed with such power that I can’t help but absorb the concepts I had just read about. I immediately put it up on my wall, circling one particularly-glorious info-blob and writing YES!!! next to it in bold red Sharpie.

Then I go have lunch, and forget about it.

The usability expert wonders what the hell happened, but as a consultant he’s already on to the next gig, hoping that maybe his ground-breaking insights will actually take root in more fertile soil. The problem is that for all the work that went into clarifying those important, business-altering insights, the expert has failed to engage us. In the worst case scenario, the usability expert becomes a prophet, crying out warnings of the Coming Infocalypse that is already upon us, Web 2.0 methodologies already dangerously swaying out of control. But no one cares, because the prophet is still making the mistake of addressing people in the abstract, as personas. They’re not engaging me or my reality as an individual. They’re talking about someone like me, but not me. There is no feeling of personal relationship, and I think that’s pretty important.

Let’s look at this another way: you’ve written some kick-ass user stories for your software product! High five, guys! With these documents, the development process finally has real focus and guidance. In fact, these user stories are SO GOOD that you’re submitting them as-is to a number of literary short story competitions!

Oh wait…they’re not that good, at least not in that way. If I were to take off my usability goggles, in what way are these personas useful outside the context of software development?

Stories go far beyond software development and is at the crux of several trends I’ve been watching: Kathy Sierra’s Creating Passionate Users, Joel Spolsky’s Best of Software Writing, Donald Norman’s Emotional Design, the Experience Design movement, even online comics, the Clue Train and leadership… all of these center around story, emotion, heroism, and visualization. Story is a lot more than just personas and models. Stories are what motivate and connect people with action, set examples to follow, and are most importantly personally relevant.

That is what I am interested in. I think it’s a given that passionate users are empowered users. What I want to figure out is how to be a passionate creator, and how to leverage my newly rediscovered passions for writing, teaching, and community building in a way that is approachable by people who intuitively understand this, but can’t quite put it yet into words. “Story Based Design” isn’t the phrase…it’s something else.

More in this series:


  1. Ian 18 years ago

    I completely understand where you’re coming from based on this entry. I’ve run into this with so many projects, and UMaine actualy has a NMD design lab that focuses on learning what the user is passionate about and why. It’s a very tough thing to crack.

    For example, I was once on a project creating a web site for a non-profit group working to support the lobstering industry. It was incredibly difficult for me to figure out how people could be so dedicated and so exctied about a topic that just seemed dull to me. In the end, the client was happy, but I knew that the site just didn’t carry that sense of passion that it’s users wanted.


  2. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Hey Ian. I think there are pretty universal principles at work here, and one of my side projects for this is to try to lay them out. I’ll have to see what research in the area is being done…I know a few people I could ask.

  3. Katy 18 years ago

    Don’t forget though, there’s a usable website and a usable website.

    I attended a web accessibility seminar recently and they were really up on user experience etc.etc. blah blah, but if they (the user) can’t actually use the site (i.e find things in a timely manner, locate things within 3 clicks) then what’s the point of having created this “story” for them in the first place? Sure the site is excellent and the client loves it but it’s basically dead in the water….

  4. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Katy: I agree in principle. What it comes down to is that people recognize when something sucks. “Usability: the field” addreses one aspect of that. The other aspect I’m talking about is engagement, and I see that as paying more attention to story and to presentation. Usability is not mutually exclusive vis-a-vis to story/presentation, though people sometimes fight over them as if they are.

    My biggest beef with usability is as dogma; the principles are fine. Perhaps usability has its staunch adherents because it is more measurable and therefore more guaranteed, in a sense. Look, we can find information more quickly! We timed it and counted clicks! We have results! But sometimes, I get the sense that they are also afraid of content…when it comes down to it, usability experts are not the content experts, and what people care about is the content and how it’s relevant to them.

    It’s kind of a thankless job, in retrospect, to be a usability person. There should be a “Usability Expert Appreciation Day”, just like they have for embattled System Administrators.

  5. Nollind Whachell 18 years ago

    “What I want to figure out is how to be a passionate creator, and how to leverage my newly rediscovered passions for writing, teaching, and community building in a way that is approachable by people who intuitively understand this, but can’t quite put it yet into words.”

    It’s like there’s this door in front of you right? You can see but you just can’t figure out how to step through it yet. Hehe, we seem to have a lot in common lately. :)

    Another book you may be interested in reading.

    How To Find The Work You Love by Laurence G. Boldt

  6. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Nollind: I think I have that book somewhere, or have seen it mentioned. I am with you on the door analogy, except I don’t see the door as clearly. I just know it’s a door, one of many, that I could step through.

    The other analogy that just popped into my head, which is weird because I never really watched the show, was “Why haven’t I lept yet?”

  7. Gordon 18 years ago

    So it’s user experience you are looking at then, not just the “how a user would use stuff” but “how a user emotes when using stuff”. Trickier by far.

    Take the iPod. Is it the “most usable” product of it’s type? Possibly but it gets away with a LOT of limitations (no radio for example) by the emotional attachment that has been generated. WANTING to use something and HAVING to use something are entirely different motives.

    I think, then, there are three fields that all combine: usability in it’s ‘metric’ format (the 3 click rule), user stories (user is a [type] wants to do [x], [y] and [z] with this [product]), and the final, much harder to define, emotive side of a product. The latter is partly tied to marketing, partly to design, partly to user experience.

    I call the whole kit and caboodle: “User Experience”.

    (gosh, I hope I’m not miles off on a tangent on this!)

  8. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Hey Gordon, thanks for the great comment! I should look a little more into the “Experience Design” side of things, but the current writing I have seen on this has been rather dry. How can one write about generating user excitement in such an UNEXCITING way?

    The iPod is a great example btw, particularly it’s “usability vs emotive” aspects. In the game design biz, we have the same issues with the word “fun”. Back in the 90s, a bunch of people tried to define it as “interactions per minute + hollywood production values”, and ended up producing some very slick non-sellers. You may see the analogies with Usability.

    Industrial Design is one area that I might look toward for guidance…it’s exactly the three fields you’re talking about, combined into one. When I was a kid I assumed it meant designing factories; I still kick myself for not looking into it further. Though at the time, it probably wasn’t as prominent as it is now.

    Also, in game design I have a principle I call “Expectation Management”, which can be coupled with what might be called “showmanship” in the practice of close-up magic (the stage craft). Both of them approach the problem from a slightly different angle: in expectation management, you’re careful not to introduce elements that cause people to expect more than you can deliver…think of it as what Norman calls “affordances” in the Design of Everyday Things, except in a mental state. In showmanship, you do your best to entertain/engage the audience while keeping their attention AWAY from the areas they could be looking…this is how sleight of hand works so effectively, masking the ugly mechanical reality to create the suspension of disbelief.

    In the design of a piece of non-magical software, we’re aiming not for suspension of disbelief, but for more of a GROUNDING of something we can BELIEVE in. I think Usability does a good job with that, and maybe that’s enough.

    So where was I? I guess I’m really just saying I like the practice of usability to take people’s desire to be be more creative into account, and have a little fun with it. That’s showmanship. I suppose this is what I have against the stereotypical “we don’t need graphics” type of usability expert…they would make terrible magicians, sucking all the fun out of the day-to-day. “In my hand I am holding a beautiful white dove. I am hiding the dove up my sleeve, because you are not to be concerned about that, as it merely distracts us from the important task of making it go away. Ok, it’s gone. Thanks for coming.”