In my last post, I’ve mentioned that — if designers must step up to the plate and become skilled facilitators — there are some visual thinking techniques that might come handy, which can be drawn from design thinking, data analytics, system thinking, game storming, and lean start-up.
In this post, I’ll argue for the need of incorporating storytelling in your facilitation toolset for better idea generation and creating shared understanding.
Discussing Design and Shared Understanding
In the second post of this series, I’ve mentioned that I’ve found that — more often than not — is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve.
Just to make sure I’m not misunderstood: it doesn’t matter at that point if the team lacks a vision or the vision is just poorly communicated, the result is the same: team will lack engagement and slowly drift apart.
An important aspect of creating shared understanding within a team is to develop shared memories and meaning. Theoretically, developing shared meaning requires achieving a shared understood lexicology, schema or language in which to communicate, despite differences in backgrounds (education, training, experience, fields, etc.) of the team members (S.Y.T. Lang et al. / Computers in Industry 48 (2002) 89–98).
For developing shared memories, research is showing a powerful connection between story, place, and emotion and building memories (Vox., “Memory, Explained”, 2019):
- Story: few people can remember up to 20,000 digits of Pi, yet a there are lot of actors and readers that can recite Hamlet, which has more than 50,000 words.
- Place: the most accurate memories people had of 9/11 three years after the incident was where they were.
- Emotions are the foundation of our strongest memories. For example, people are more likely to remember faces that express emotions.
Narrative is a way of understanding one’s own and others’ actions, of organizing events and objects into a meaningful whole, and of connecting and seeing the consequences of actions and events. (Chase, S. E., Narrative Inquiry: Multiple Lenses, Approaches, Voices, 2005)
It’s been proven that the real efficacy of storytelling list in three standout features of stories that can help us do our jobs as business leaders (Callahan, S., Putting Stories to Work, 2016):
- Stories are memorable. There is no point in saying something if it’s forgettable.
- Stories convey emotion. People are inspired to act when they feel emotion.
- Stories are meaningful. In the complex environment of work, people need to be able to make sense of what’s going on and how they fit in.
When we are facing hard times to get our concepts along, instead of blaming others for not “getting”, we should ask ourselves “what did I do wrong?” By being conscious of how you are crafting the narrative about your team’s progress, and about how solutions work in the lives of those who use them, you can help make the ideas and decisions of the group stick. Telling the story of the collaboration is as important as the collaboration itself in many ways (Anderson, G., Mastering Collaboration, 2019).
Storytelling as Synthesis
As product leaders and design strategists conduct product discovery and user research related activities, they generate a large amount of raw data (Lewrick, M., Link, P., & Leifer, L., The Design Thinking Playbook. 2018).
By itself, this data isn’t very useful. It isn’t actionable and doesn’t help the teams move forward with their creative design process.
Designers help the team synthesize and build a rich understanding of problem, product and customers by using variety of methods from their toolbox, including on storytelling, visualization, and facilitation.
Storytelling is a very important tool for methods like Contextual Inquiry. While capturing the affinity notes during the interpretation session, the notetaker can also capture other kinds of notes (Wendell, J., Holtzblatt, K., & Wood, S. (2005). Rapid contextual design, 2005):
- Questions: When the team gets booged down over a question that the interviews can’t answer, the notetaker captures it in the affinity notes and encourages the group to move on.
- Design ideas: ideas for solutions that team members produce are captured both to ensure they are preserved and again to encourage the team to move on and remain focused.
- Good User Quotes and Stories to be used later when you are communicating with the rest of the organization.
- Interpretations: The team will hear the data and draw interpretations of how it represents a work pattern or implies an inner experience
Stories can be integrated in our strategy process as a way to synthesise user research and design insights, since (Brooks, K., & Quesenbery, W. Storytelling for User Experience, 2014):
- They describe a context or situation, like stories that are part of personas.
- They can illustrate problems and “pain points,” explaining why a new experience is needed.
- They can be the starting point for a design discussion, explore a new design concept, or describe a new design
Discussing Design as Stories
One good reason to use stories along with design specifications is to keep the real-world context available for reference. As the conversation move into technical details, it’s easy to forget what a feature was added or how it might be used.
These days, it’s virtually impossible to communicate user needs or discussing design with product teams without running into conversations around scenarios (Carroll, J.M., 2003), user stories (Wiegers, K., & Beatty, J. Software Requirements, 2013), personas (Cooper et al, 2014), storyboards (Buxton, 2007), narrative structures (Freytag, 1900), and many other story forms in best practices in user experience methodologies.
Out of those, Personas, Scenarios, and User Stories are the de-facto standard of communicating user requirements to product development teams.
Discussing Design through Personas and Scenarios
A typical persona description should be a synthesis of the most important details observed during research, becoming an effective communication tool. This persona narrative should not contain every observed detail: it quickly introduces the persona in terms of his job or lifestyle. It briefly stretches a day in his life, including peeves, concerns and interests that have a direct bearing on the product (Cooper, A., Reimann, R., Cronin, D., & Noessel, C., About face, 2014). This persona narrative or story should express what the person is looking for in the product by a way of conclusion and should be very informative to the design strategy.
A scenario describes human activities or tasks in a story that allows exploration and discussion of texts, needs and requirement. It does not necessarily describe the use of of the software or other technological support used to achieve a goal. (Sharp, H., Preece, J., & Rogers, Y., Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction, 2019).
Context scenarios address questions such as the following:
- In what setting(s) will the product be uses?
- Will it be used for extended amounts of time?
- Is the persona frequently interrupted?
- Do several people use a single workstation or device?
- With what other products will it be used?
- What primary actives does the person need to perform to meet her goals?
- What is the expect ends result of using the product?
- How much complexity is permissible, based on persona skill and frequency of use?
Discussing Design through Goals and Principles
If personas and scenarios are the starting point, goals and principles are the finish line (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015):
For whatever aspect of a design you’re critiquing, you can ask of them, “Does this help us reach our goal of …” or “Does this adhere to the principle of … that we set?” Followed by “How?” and “Why?” (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015):
Goals are the desired, measurable outcomes that result from a product being used. The team should feel that the goals set forth are achievable and meaningful and they should correlate to a change in user behavior.
Principles are the qualities and characteristics that the product will exhibit in its content, behaviour, and so on as people use it and interact with it. Good principles should be somewhat specific. Characteristics like “fun” or “amusing” don’t make good principles because they are still pretty broad, and each team member might have a different interpretation of what “fun” is.
Good design principles also act as constraints and filtering mechanisms for detailed design ideas. By virtue of being specific:
If personas and user stories are such common in ways of communicating requirements to product development teams, how come product team either lack a vision at the beginning of a project, or slowing stray away from it as the project lifecycle goes on? I’ll argue that while personas and user stories have been great to trigger conversations around what users are trying to accomplish at a task level, systems are becoming more complex, and it is becoming harder and harder to conciliate the goals of users at the task level with the experience at that system level. We are going to talk about some techniques to address these challenges when we talk about Storytelling and Mapping.
Storytelling start with Listening
Stories are all around us, if you just listen to them. The trick to getting to good stories in your user research is to make the time for them (Brooks, K., & Quesenbery, W. Storytelling for User Experience, 2014):
- Look for juicy stories in any user research, as you observe or review your notes.
- Learn to ask questions that encourage people to tell stories.
- Thinking out loud procedures can keep the conversation and stories flowing comfortably.
- You can find stories in many places, including search logs, customer service records, survey data, even internal staff who work with users.
Listen to the conversations taking place, keeping a ear out for time markers — you’ll be surprised at just how many stories begin with these. Notice the types of stories being told. How long are they? Who are the heroes and who are the villains? Now notice how you respond to the stories. How do they make you feel? Do any give you of emotion? (Callahan, S., Putting Stories to Work, 2016)
Keep a mental note of any stories that generate an emotion. These are the stories with power (Callahan, S., Putting Stories to Work, 2016).
Discussing Design, Storytelling and Stakeholder Management
Although each audience has is own dynamics, there are a few types that you meet often enough to generalize about them. This is not an exhaustive list, but a few of the most common personas (Brooks, K., & Quesenbery, W. Storytelling for User Experience, 2014):
- Strategic leaders: People who need to generate and maintain a common vision for their company, group of products.
- Managers: people with a mission—often a product—who need to make the decisions that keep their entire team on track towards a common goal.
- Technical experts: people who implement a vision, making the myriad detailed decisions that add up to a product or service.
If you are presenting stories to crated shared understanding around strategy or design, consider what details help make a story authentic for them, and how a story might have to change to take into consideration.
A Story is also a promise to share something with the audience doesn’t know. To qualify as a story, there more be something that’s unanticipated. It doesn’t have to be a great insights, but the listeners should — at least — raise their eyebrows a little. That’s what makes a story-worthy (Callahan, S., Putting Stories to Work, 2016)
Stories for Leaders
When you create a story for a leader, show how the idea your are “selling” makes a bridge between users and the business. For example:
- Identify a pain post that users experience and then show the solution.
- Identify a gap in the market and show a new way to fill it with a new product or a change in the current one.
- Identify a new approach by reconfiguring common or existing components in an unconventional way.
- Identify trends in the user experience of your customers and how that is affecting the business.
Stories for Managers
Managers usually don’t have a lot of time to spare. More often than not, they like short, concise meetings, not leisurely brainstorming sessions or deep dives into user research. Don’t plan to tell long detailed stories to this audience. Instead, think about when a story can have the most impact.
- Use stories to kick off new idea, especially if you need a bit of context to explain how it will work.
- If you are bringing bad news from research, such as the discovery that the target audience doesn’t really want or like a new product idea, make sure to show how the story is typical of a group what important as customers, users, or other stakeholders.
- If you are presenting a new idea, find a way to connect it to a well known situation, so that it seems more plausible. You might even do both in one story: present a problem and a solution on a simple narrative
- Most importantly, don’t get bogged down in detailed specifications or technology.
Design Strategist Multiplication Program
As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, myself and my colleague Edmund Azigi are designing a Design Strategist Multiplier program per request of Scott Lietzke, our VP of Design at SAP SuccessFactors.
Such program is be practice-based, accompanied with a series of seminars, corresponding required reading and reflective practice journaling to create the opportunities for people to grow.
In the next post, I will talk more about the Storytelling and Vision.
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