The Link Between Storytelling And UX

Listening to a professional storyteller really had quite an impact on me. It made me realize, and I wrote about it here, that storytelling presents an entirely different way to make a presentation – or enhance a presentation. Since then I’ve made an effort to do some storytelling in my own presentations, either at the start or the end. In between I’ve made more use of videos that help to tell the story. My other visuals, as much as possible, serve more as supplements or backdrop to the larger story I’m trying to tell. Personal experiences are a good source of stories, and I’ve crafted them with tales about an old family car or the time my family raised a chicken (or so we thought) in our house. I’ve also used some of my camping trip experiences to make a point. I’ve also experimented with shooting short videos, using my Flip, of librarians responding to a question or sharing a thought, and weaving an edited version into the story line. The challenge is making it relevant to the main theme of the presentation – as a lead in or to bring it all to a close. If the story is completely disconnected then it makes little sense. By no means would I describe myself as a good storyteller, but I’m trying to get better each time I try it.

One thing I’ve found helpful is to better understand the fundamentals of storytelling – knowing the elements of a story and how to present it in a way that will have the best effect on the audience. I recently discovered some good reading for those of you who want to be better storytellers or give it a try. What I also learned is that storytelling can help more than presentations. It can be essential to designing a good user experience. I started my discovery with a post called “Juicy Stories Sell Ideas” by Whitney Quesenbery and Kevin Brooks. But I didn’t realize these co-authors also have authored a book titled “Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting Stories for Better Design” until I read about it here – where they were interviewed. My library did not have a copy, so I thought I’d see if interlibrary loan might help. I was amazed to discover that not a single U.S. academic or public library has purchased this book (according to Worldcat). Perhaps the other countries where the book is found know something we don’t. Anyway, these new discoveries lead me back to the “Juicy Stories” post, and there I found some additional links with one to a post at Smashing Magazine titled “Better User Experience with Storytelling”.

I really enjoyed this post’s breakdown of the of the elements of the story. The key points are:
* good stories have a specific design to them
* stories need to create an emotional connection with the audience
* the story arc explains the structure of a story (e.g., beginning, middle, end – but with more detail)
* every story ever created/told uses the same basic formula (a chart explains it using contemporary films)
* storytelling can help in designing user experiences.

One challenge to creating a library user experience is that some library workers may resist the idea. They will make the point that the people who come to the library are not really interested in having some sort of experience. What these library users really want is to complete a transaction or make use of the space – and then be on their way. If libraries offers those things so that the user accomplishes what he or she wants, with nothing beyond the bare basics, then it can be described as a good experience. None of that is unreasonable. Yes, things must work right so that the user gets what he or she wants in an efficient way. If our library is unable to provide that simple “it works” experience, then we must figure out what is broken and fix things so that we at least deliver a baseline acceptable experience. Perhaps we can aspire to do more by taking into consideration the entire experience the library delivers, not simply what any one worker sees from his or her own vantage point in the library?

Let’s use storytelling to reflect on the value of the user experience. Consider the following scenario:

John is a sophomore at a large public research university. During his freshman year, a librarian came to John’s class and explained how to do the research for his introductory writing course. John never needed to actually go to the library though, he found all the resources needed from websites and one of the library’s article search engines. This semester however, the instructor specified that two reference books had to be consulted for the project, and both were only available in print in the library. So after his morning marketing course, John walked over to the campus library. Upon entering the building a security guard stopped John and asked him to show his campus ID card; that made him feel a little uneasy. Wasn’t he a student here and was this the way to welcome him to the library? The first thing he noticed was the smell – not a good one either. Maybe something moldy or perhaps some food another student left in the trash a few days ago? Either way, not pleasant. No matter, John would just find the book he needed, make a few copies and get to lunch. But there was just one problem. John had no idea where to find the book, and he saw nothing in the way of a sign that he could use to get started. So lacking a sign he decided to walk into the first stairwell he saw, figuring the reference books would be on the next level up. The stairwell looked like it could use a fresh coat of paint and there was some graffiti on the wall. On the next level there were lots of computers, but John looked around and didn’t see any books at all. There were still no signs to provide an overview of the layout of the building. Fortunately John saw a desk and thought he could get some help. It turned out the desk was mostly for help with computers and printers, but the student sitting at the desk was able to look up the call number for the reference book John needed. John found out he needed to get to the lower level. Once there he struggled to get to the right call number location – again – no helpful signage. Finally, he figured out the way the numbers worked and managed to get to the right spot, but only to find that only one of the books he needed was there, but with no sign of the other one. John figured someone else in the class may have gotten there before him and taken the book away. This should have been simple, he thought. It was anything but simple. After finally finding out where the copiers were, he found out the copiers only worked with campus cards and he didn’t have funds on his card. One copier accepted change, but John only had a $20 bill. Since he only needed two copies John managed to find a friend who gave him the twenty cents he needed to make the copies. Then he left, and decided he’d do anything he could to avoid coming back.

While our character John satisfied, at least partially, his need can we say this is a good experience. Other than the lack of good signage, nothing was really broken. It’s just a matter of having to deal with the library and figure things out. You could easily re-write this story to vastly improve the experience (e.g., the smell of fresh coffee coming from the cafe, a well-designed interior, a greeter at the door welcoming you and getting you off in the right direction, etc). Yes, many people come to libraries to accomplish something specific, such as finding a reference book for an assignment, viewing a DVD or even asking for help with a research project. But in accomplishing those things the experience each person has could make the difference between never coming back again or wanting to become a regular user of the library. Which do you and your colleagues prefer to offer? If you want to find more examples of how storytelling can be used as a planning device, look no further than ARL’s recently published “ARL’s 2030 Scenarios“. Each scenario is built around a story about a researcher. It helps the reader to imagine a different future for the large research library. The point of the “Better UX With Storytelling” post is that we can work with our colleagues to develop stories like this one about John to help us think through the type of experience we are giving community members, as well as the one we’d ideally like them to have at our library.

Whether it’s integrating a new dimension into your presentations or sitting down with your colleagues to craft stories that can help all to understand the type of experience the library offers. and to think through the desired experience, storytelling can be a powerful tool for designing a better experience. You should take a look at the post “Better User Experience with Storytelling” for two reasons. First, it (along with the other posts mentioned above) will help you to become a better storyteller if that’s a skill area where you’d like to improve. Second, it will help you to better grasp the power that stories can have in creating emotional connections. As DBL posts have state previously, a great user experience provides more than just a transaction, it provides meaning for its users. Every library worker has, at one time or another, engaged with a community member who experienced the library at far more than a transactional level. The challenge we face is how to build meaning and emotion connections into all the touchpoints where the user community interacts with the library. Developing stories may help us overcome that challenge.

Late addition: another blog post on using storytelling as part of the design process

You Know How To Capture Your Good Ideas But How Do You Get Others To Support Them

Seems like there’s a lot being written about good ideas these days. If you follow what’s been written here in the past about design thinking, creativity, innovation – and capturing your good ideas when they come – chances are you are already improving at coming up with good ideas and capturing them as well. But just coming up with good ideas isn’t enough. How do you get others – mostly your work colleagues – to buy into your good idea? That’s where most of our ideas tend to run into the proverbial brick wall.

Consider this example based on a rather simple idea – a good one on the surface – that a library worker developed that he thought would make a small, but noticeable difference for some members of the library community. What I like about this idea is that it provides a great example of how we can come up with a good idea by keeping our antennae up so that we more acutely observe and listen in our library environment for ways to design a better library. The staff member noticed that in this one part of the library where there was nothing particular going on, students would gather in small groups to study. They would sit on the floor or pull some chairs together. They might make some noise. The staff member thought the library could do better for these students, but knew the library needed great flexibility to make the most of every piece of real estate. The simple observation lead to a new idea for a better library – create a flexible study space by installing a set of folding room dividers. Not only would it give the students more privacy, cut down on noise and make for a better study space, but it could be enhanced with a flat panel monitor on the wall for collaborative work. Great idea, right. Well you know what happened next. Of course, lots of reasons why that’s a bad idea. Too much foot traffic in that area already. Students who like the current setting will complain. The reference desk will be swamped with students asking how to use the monitor. When the walls are closed we won’t know what the students are doing in there…and so on. Certainly the project will require some funding, but it’s hardly what Jim Collins would refer to as an “above the waterline risk”, not to mention that if any of the imagined problems actually surface the room dividers can easily be removed. Still, there is opposition to the idea. Why does this happen and what can we do about it?

First though, back to the matter of more being written about good ideas. Seems there are two new books driving this conversation. I previously mentioned one of them, Steven Johnson’s new book about where good ideas come from. I noticed that Profhacker also had a post about Johnson’s book (if you aren’t reading Profhacker – sign up today). I also noted that Profhacker has a good post, along with comments, about capturing your good ideas – something I wrote about a while back. But there’s another book about good ideas you may want to read. This one, by John Kotter, isn’t about coming up with ideas and capturing them, it’s about the problem described above – how can you come up with simple ways to defend your ideas against the critics so that they have the best chance of surviving and actually getting implemented?

Kotter’s book is appropriately titled “Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down“, and I’ll share a few ideas from the book here. You can also read about it here, and there’s a good interview with Kotter in which he shares his ideas from the book in the October 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review (p. 129-132). Here is a brief summary of some of the key points that Kotter shares that explain why new ideas are attacked and how to instead gain support for an idea. Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to anticipate that your idea will be attacked. Kotter says the attack response is murky mix of human nature and group dynamics. His research showed that the most successful idea champions didn’t respond by trying to put down or marginalize their opposition. Instead they did what Kotter calls “inviting in the lions”. These folks embraced those criticizing their ideas, and invited their opinions. One of the biggest problems in getting support is information overload. Rather than give time and attention to a new idea, co-workers find it faster to just write it off and hope it will go away, thus giving them attention for other projects. Inviting their participation by engaging their attention – even if it is negative – is a good start. Then what?

Of course, there’s more. You need to know the four common attacks and how to avoid them. In fact there are up to 24 attacks (everything from “why change” to “we can’t afford it”) that Kotter and his fellow researchers identified. By being more familiar with what they are, Kotter says you can be prepared to respond – what you don’t want to do is respond by winging it. That usually ends up badly. So where do you learn all this? From the book. If you’re not sure if you should read it, here’s a ten-minute video interview with Kotter that should give you a better idea of what to expect from the book. I’ll be taking a closer look. Good ideas are hard to come by. When I get one, I want to give it the best chance possible of making it past the idea stage.