Using Narrative Theory for compelling designs
- 2 December 09
- All articles
- Setting - Narrative is a mode of representation that must be interpreted in light of a context for telling.
- Events - Narratives encourage users to draw inferences about structured time courses.
- Making worlds - Events in narrative usually introduce some sort of disruption or disequilibrium into a storyworld involving people, or their representations, whether that world is presented as real or fictional.
- What it’s like - Narrative representations convey the experience of living through a story-world.
The powers of narrative run deep in the human psyche, modern thinking has explored just how important the idea of ‘Qualia’, or ‘what it is like’ can be in relation to an individuals experiences. The power of stories to compel people to action should not be ignored when designing for interaction.
The powers of narrative run deep in the human psyche, modern thinking by psychologists and philosophers has explored just how important the idea of ‘Qualia’, or ‘what it is like’ can be in relation to an individuals experiences and interpretations of the world around them. The power of stories to compel people to action should not be ignored when designing for interaction.
Artwork from The Far Away Man – By Adam Oehlers
“Stories are accounts of what happened to particular people – and of what it was like for them to experience what happened – in particular circumstances and with specific consequences. Narrative in other words is a basic human strategy for coming to terms with time, process and change” The basic elements of narrative – David Herman
People tell stories all the time, whether recounting experiences to friends or attempting to understand the world around them. An individual making sense of their experiences forms a personal narrative from which they then can relate to and cope with their place in the world. Most narratives contain these basic principles
In terms of design, the Setting may represent something that a user interacts with such as an application or product, the events could be inferred as the processes the user must undertake and interact with. Making worlds, is the user creating a world by interacting with something, involving their experiences and situation. The application or product has some part to play in disrupting that world. As designers our job is to ensure the interaction process outputs an improved narrative for the user. An enjoyable experience makes for an improved narrative.
Narrative and the design process
Since narratives are everywhere they can also be useful to improving design processes within a team. This theory was tested by those at the boxesandarrows blog and proved to output great results for both agency and client. The team used the idea of a script to fuel project ideas, illuminate weaknesses or potential problems, review the necessity of features and allow all those contributing to the project to speak using the same language.
The script can illuminate weaknesses or potential problems in a project. Unsure whether a “must-have” feature is really needed? Review it against your characters’ motivators. Does it move the plot along or is it a distracting tangent that should end up on the cutting-room floor? Does the content seem at odds with the visual design? Measure the tone of the copy and the mood of the visuals against the story. Do they all jive or are they at odds?
The ubiquitous nature of storytelling encourages everyone to get involved with the narrative and experience what it is like or the qualia of the characters or users involved within a project.
Telling stories to users
Story worlds usually involve characters, in design the characters are the end users and to some extent the clients who wish to engage with the end users. For this reason it can be helpful to develop a narrative for your end users through detailed personas.
Personas help team members share a specific, consistent understanding of various audience groups. Data about the groups can be put in a proper context and can be understood and remembered in coherent stories. Proposed solutions can be guided by how well they meet the needs of individual user personas. Features can be prioritized based on how well they address the needs of one or more personas.
If designers can empathise with users they will find it easier to design for them, if designers can involve themselves in user stories they can obtain access to what life may be like for them and enter into the narrative element of ‘qualia’.
As a designer, I believe that any attempt to engage with the ‘qualia’ of others will reap many rewards, it is the essential building block of user centered design. It also makes projects more interesting and immersive environments.
The future of narrative
Narratives are changing, the way people absorb narrative is changing, an article in the Times discussed the problems with the new ways of expressing and interpreting narrative,
“Plot lies at the heart of great narrative: but today, we are in danger of losing the plot. Paradoxically, there has never been a greater hunger for narrative, for stories that give shape and meaning to experience.”
I do not think, however, that this is such a negative situation. Narrative itself is changing, the stories of people are always there as we try to make sense of our experiences. Our stories represent who we are and allow others to imagine what it is like to be someone else, it is such a powerful concept it is no wonder design should use this as one of its tools to improve user experiences. An article in Wired magazine shows how agencies are already employing the power of strong narrative to make sales in out over saturated marketplace.
“Narratives are rapidly adapting to converge with digital publishing and transmedia storytelling offers options for readers and writers to engage and connect with stories. Whether you consider this a revolution or evolution, transmedia storytelling is beginning to change the way that books, film, TV and games are being developed and produced”