The Story’s the Thing

This is an excerpt from “UX Storytellers”:http://uxstorytellers.blogspot.com. If you enjoy it, consider getting the kindle edition of UX Storytellers – Connecting the Dots with all the stories!

Here’s something I believe in: stories are what make us human. Opposable thumbs? Other animals have those. Ability to use tools? Ditto. Even language is not exclusive to human beings.

From my amateur reading of science, the story behind our stories goes something like this: the human brain evolved with an uncanny knack to recognize and create patterns; and through some strange twist of natural selection, gradually over millions of years, our brains started turning the incredible power of that pattern-making machinery on ourselves, until we became self-aware.

Aware of ourselves—our own faces, bodies, journeys, homes, children, tools, and everything else around us. Over eons, we went from being creatures that lived in each moment as it came and went, to protagonists in our own myths. Everything in our midst became the material for making stories, strands of moments woven into tapestries that we call things like “nation”, “family,” “love” or “discovery.”

And “design.” Because design is, ultimately, a story we make. And designing is an act of weaving a new story into an existing fabric in such a way that it makes it stronger, better, or at least more interesting, and hopefully more delightful.

 

An Origin Story

My identity as an information architect happened accidentally, and gradually. I just kept doing things I liked, that people were willing to pay me for, until I woke up one day and realized I had a career. And the things I liked doing were invariably surrounded by people’s stories.

One of the earliest jobs I had out of college (after trying my hand at carpet cleaning, waiting tables and telemarketing) was as an office manager in a medical office. It was 1990, and this office of five or six providers was running entirely on a phone, a copier and an electric typewriter. No computer in sight. Every bill, insurance claim, or patient report had to be typed anew … as if the 80s had never happened. I talked the owner into getting a computer and a database management package—a sort of Erector set for database application design that I’d seen at a Mac user group a year before—so I could make the office more efficient.

It would’ve been pretty easy to create a quick application with a minimal user interface, if I were the only one using it. But the owner also had a couple of people helping in the office part-time who needed to use the system too—people who had never even used a computer before. Did I mention this was 1990?

So I had a challenge: how to make it work so that total computer newbies could use it? It was frustrating, fascinating, and probably the single most important experience of my career, because it was a crucible for acknowledging the importance of understanding the user.

To understand the people who were to use the application, I had to talk to them, get a sense of what they’d done before and what sort of forms they had used in the past. What sorts of technology? What terminology was going to make sense for them? How do they tend to learn—by written instruction or hands-on activity, by rote or through improvisation? I learned these things by watching and conversing. Eventually I had enough of a sense of those “users” that I had a full story in my head about how they came to the experience of this particular application, in this particular place.

I wasn’t conscious of this at the time; and I was working completely by intuition. I would’ve done a better job if I’d had the experience, methods and tools I’ve picked up since. But looking back, the experience itself has become a story I tell myself when I need a rudder to remind me of my direction as a designer so that, even when I have nothing else to go on, if I just watch, listen and absorb the stories of the people for whom I’m designing, my design will generally head in the right direction.

 

An Architecture Story

Much later, about ten years ago, I was working at a web design agency, and our client was an organization that acted as a sort of confederation of research scientists, universities and technology corporations. The organization funneled research money from “investor” companies to the scientists and their students in the universities, and in return the companies received “pre-competitive” research and dibs on some of the brightest graduates.

Their website had evolved like so many in those days—having started from a few linked documents, it had grown by the addition of ad-hoc sections and content created in response to member requests and complaints, until it had become a horribly unwieldy mass of links and text. We had been called in to clean it up and organize it. That sounded straightforward enough. But when we started interviewing its users, we found people who were unhappy with the organization and its community in general—scientists who had become more entrenched in their own sub-disciplines, and divisions between those managing the community and those merely dwelling there. Not to mention the natural enmity between academics and business leaders.

We realized that the web site had become a visible instantiation of that discord: a messy tangle of priorities in tension. A new information architecture would mean more than just making things more “findable.” It meant trying to make a digital place that structurally encouraged mutual understanding. In essence, a more hospitable online home for people with different backgrounds, priorities and personalities. It was a chance to create a system of linked contexts—an information architecture—that could help to heal a professional community, and in turn strengthen the organization founded to support it.

That project provided an insight that has forever shaped how I understand the practice of information architecture: the web isn’t just a collection of linked content, it’s a habitat. And the structures of habitable digital places have to be informed by the stories of their inhabitants.

 

A Survival Story

Much more recently, I had the opportunity to work with a non-profit organization whose mission was to educate people about breast cancer, as well as provide an online forum for them to share and learn from one another. When interviewing the site’s users, it soon became clear how important these people’s stories were to them. They would tell the tale of their cancer, or the cancer of a loved one, and in each case the story was one of interrupted expectation—a major change of direction in what they assumed to be the storyline of their lives.
I learned that this website was merely one thread in a great swath of fabric that the site would never, ultimately, touch. But the site was most valuable to these people when it supported the other threads, buttressed them, added texture where it was needed, especially when it helped fill in the gaps of their stories: How did I get cancer? What do my test results mean? What treatment should I choose? What can I eat when getting chemo? How do I tell my children?

They wanted information, certainly. Articles full of facts and helpful explanations. And the site did that very well by translating medical research and jargon into information people could use. But even more than the packaged articles of information, so many people wanted—needed—to share their stories with others, and find other stories that mirrored their own. The most valuable learning these people discovered tended to be what they found in the forum conversations, because it wasn’t merely clinical, sterile fact, but knowledge emerging organically from the personal stories, rich in context, written by other people like them.

One woman in particular lived on an island in the Caribbean, and had to fly to the mainland for treatment. There were no support groups around her home, and few friends or family. But she found a community on this website; one that would cheer her on when she was going to be away for tests, console her or help her research alternatives if the news was bad, and celebrate when news was good. She made a couple of very close friends through the site, and carried on relationships with them even after her cancer had been beaten into submission.

Here were stories that had taken hard detours, but had found each other in the wilderness and had become intertwined, strengthening one another on the new, unexpected journey.

This work, more than any other I’d done before, taught me that stories aren’t merely an extra layer we add to binary logic and raw data. In fact, it’s reversed—the stories are the foundations of our lives, and the data, the information, is the artificial abstraction. Information is just the dusty mirror we use to reflect upon ourselves, merely a tool for self-awareness.

It was through listening to the whole stories as they were told by these digital inhabitants that I learned about their needs, behaviors and goals. A survey might have given me hard data I could’ve turned into pie charts and histograms, but it would’ve been out of context, no matter how authoritative in a board room.

And it was in hearing their stories that I recognized, no matter how great my work or the work of our design team might be, we would only be bit players in these people’s lives. Each of them happens to be the protagonist in their own drama, with its own soundtrack, scenery, rising and falling action, rhyme and rhythm. What we made had to fit the contours of their lives, their emotional states, and their conversations with doctors and loved ones.

 

The Moral of the Story

Design has to be humble and respectful to the presence of the user’s story, because it’s the only one that person has. Stories can’t be broken down into logical parts and reconstituted without losing precious context and background. Even though breaking the story down into parts is often necessary for technological design, the story lives only if we serve as witness to the whole person, with a memory of his or her story as it came from that person’s mouth, in that person’s actions.

Keeping the story alive keeps the whole idea of the person alive. Whether we use “personas” or “scenarios” or task analysis or systems thinking, the ultimate aim should be to listen to, understand and remember the stories, precisely because the stories are the beating heart of why we’re designing anything at all.

So, now, when I’m working on more mundane projects that don’t touch people in quite the same way as some of the others I’ve done, I still try to remember that even for the most everyday task, something I design still has to take into account the experience of the whole person using the product of my work. That, after all, is what we should mean when we say “user experience”—that we seek first to listen to, observe and understand the experience of the people for whom we design. We honor them in what we make, when we honor their stories.

Posted in Discovery, Research, and Testing, Process and Methods, Special topic: Personas | 4 Comments »

4 Comments

  • Melanie Cantwell

    March 23, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    After all, work is no longer work. It becomes our passion. I’m so touched with your experience. We must always be driven by our passion whether it’s part of our job responsibilities or not.

  • William Sharp

    March 28, 2012 at 4:48 am

    Nice piece, Andrew. I liked the way it was written as much as I liked the content. I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts

  • Bill Dorman

    March 31, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    Actually, I thought the poem was the thing?

  • Madonnalisa G. Chan

    April 11, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    It’s been a while since we’ve talked…but I love how you captured the passion of why you do what you do…thanks for sharing and inspiring!

Sorry, comments are closed.