Using stories in user experience architecture

18 September, 2013    

There are lots of things to focus on when you’re designing something. I think there are three layers of abstraction to most digital design challenges. The simplest is the interface – deciding what things look like. Interaction design turns 2d designs into something with both form and function. But there is another layer – the layer of experience. This is where the serious work of design happens. User experience architecture is about pulling together interface, interaction and experience to design and build an ecology. UXAs want to design systems that deliver great experiences, rather than independent and unconnected solutions.

The power of stories

When you’re thinking about the interface, or even the interaction, it often feels natural to focus on visuals. UX designers in particular probably naturally have a tendency to think visually. But visuals are only half the story. I think most UX archiectects have probably got a stronger allegiance to words than pictures. I love words. I find images are sometimes too reductive, they make an idea literal. If you’ve ever had detailed feedback on a wireframe or an early design you know the dangers. But words have often got a little more ‘wiggle room’.

Design is often a process of divergence and convergence – you need to set off towards a shared destination but get the most out of everyone by letting them find their own way there. This is one reason why the special type of wiggle room that a good story can create is hugely important.

A toy underground train

As this NY Times article describes, language can force the brain into running a simulation in the mind. Stories are essentially a string of events – cause leads to effect as events unfold. This, ‘event thinking’ initiates a creative activity. It acknowledges the gaps – the spaces that connect the cause to the effect and invites the storyteller and the audience to fill the gap.

And it’s pretty hard to skim over mistakes in a story. From an early age we’re being conditioned to spot things when they don’t ring true in story form. Being so attuned to reality described in story-form forces a higher degree of scrutiny. We know how stories work. And although we tell stories using words, stories can far outstrip the communicative potential of plainer language. Rather than just words, stories force us to think about events and sensations – they force the brain to react creatively.

As the brain attempts to synthesize the meaning of the story, we treat it as a reality. Responding to a story requires a completely different process to plainer language or PowerPoint presentations. We relate stories to our own experience. We build the meaning. It’s not just a process of transcoding symbols, turning a series of letters into a word. This approach to describing ideas is more about enabling decoding – it’s a richer way of learning and thinking about an idea.

Stories syncronise people - they build empathy.

Stories synchronize people – they build empathy.

And stories synchronize people. They build empathy as they call forth imaginative responses. Being told a story is like entering a special kind of experience. The ‘simulations’ that stories initiate allow us to live life vicariously.

Most design projects start with an idea. Ideas are great. I love them. But just as any exponent of the ontological argument will tell you – an actual thing is usually better than just the idea of the thing. Ideas are useful in design, they get us started. But if design is as much of a science as it is an art, ideas only ever provide us with the hypothesis. We then need to create a design to test the hypothesis. How we get from idea to design will often determine our success. And jumping straight to the design skips an important stage of incubation. Stories help us make sure we’re all pointing in the right direction. It can also create the space for the idea to grow and take shape, before you have to commit to describing that shape visually in a design.

A good story is perhaps the cheapest, most perfect prototype we could ever create.

This is one reason why personas are such a powerful tool when you’re designing anything. Personas force us to think in narrative terms. We tell ourselves stories about how these ‘fictional’ users interact with our designs. I currently work at the BBC creating products for our ‘Knowledge and Learning’ audiences. We break the audience into segments – people who have to learn (teachers and students) and those people who want to learn. We then segment further, splitting our audience into narrower, behaviour-based groups. We have ‘Media-savvy enthusiasts’ who love our digital toys and rich media content because they love the web and the things it can do to media consumption. We then have ‘Heartland knowledge lovers’. These people love the output from the BBC on TV, but we don’t do a great job of pulling them online. By creating personas based on these broad behaviours we can start to tell stories about how real people interact with our products and the products we have planned.

Our idea was to make navigation feel more like consumption.

Our idea was to make navigation feel more like consumption.

For example, recently we’ve been focusing on how we can make the content we offer online feel much more like consumption, rather than navigation. Navigation on the web is vital – it’s the surface layer of the information architecture. It’s what I care about. But navigation can often feel like the functional bit in-between the fun – it’s like putting petrol in the car or maintaining the guttering on a house – it’s necessary, but rarely enjoyable. Navigation isn’t where the heart of online experiences are – it’s a means to an end.

Consumptions is the powerful core of online experiences. On TV our knowledge lovers can find a programme in the EPG and watch it, job done. Rarely does a satisfying and immersive online learning journey involve so few ‘functional clicks’. Our idea was to make navigation feel more like consumption. We needed a story.

Ladders and walls

ladders

Our story began by describing the difference between the experiences we were talking about. I started by talking about the different types of navigation and the experiences they’re well-suited to.

Structural navigation is the menu-y type stuff that establishes sections, hierarchies and reveals the shape of the IA. This navigation tends to support vertical movement, but can also do bits of lateral movement too. Associative navigation excels at the lateral movement. It’s great for the sideways jumps. Then there’s utility navigation, special little bits that do a specific job.

I started the story by talking about how our users interact with these different types of navigation.

Starting with the audience convinced us all that users want different things at different times. Their behaviour adapts and changes accordingly. The story evolved to consider what these shifts in behaviour are.

Some people will use our sites and be looking for a specific thing. Exploratory seeking occurs when people know what they’re looking for and have a decent idea of where to find it. During most of this type of behaviour users will be referring to a mental model of the ‘domain’ (area of interest), occasionally pushing it out at the edges and comparing it with the structural navigation they’re seeing as they move around the web. Discovering unknown needs will usually happen during an exploratory seeking session, where the users finds that their mental model is missing a huge chunk. Helping someone to learn online is often about bringing about this experience. We help the user to discover that unknown needs exist. We help them to navigate around the web, supplementing their mental model until they can switch mode back to exploratory seeking.

It turns out that evolution has had a big influence on the way that we look for information. From the days of hunter-gatherers through to just a few hundred years ago, there hasn’t been a lot of motivation for most of us to go out and look for information. Most of our knowledge was gained through a semi-passive process of osmosis – we used to learn from the man with the biggest spear or the longest beard. We learnt from other members of the tribe, from those around us. Even now that we have Google, information seeking is typified by a process of least effort. Laziness, and therefore by limited extension, proximity maters.

When it comes to information seeking and retrieval most of us are fairly lazy.

The story began with the audience, they were our characters. But we needed an idea that would describe how we wanted to change things. I started describing how our current websites were like a series of ladders. They were well structured and did a simple task really well. They excelled at vertical navigation – they got people between specific and general content quickly and intuitively. But they were bad at lateral movement. Whenever you move from a ladder to something else, at any height, there’s a horrible moment when your centre of gravity is nowhere. It’s a moment of risk. This was exactly what was wrong with our current navigation – it didn’t reward the risk of taking lateral navigation across different sites – the type of thing that needed to be frictionless to help people learn. It put the blinkers on our users and tied them to a set of prescribed paths, with deviation from these paths feeling precarious.

Great navigation should feel like a climbing wall.

Great navigation should feel like a climbing wall.

An over-reliance on structural navigation can create silos of content that feel like ladders. Climbing walls are different. Walls can turn navigation on it’s head, it feels like consumption. One climbing wall, proximity is the single most important thing. Each navigation element on a page can become a manifestation of rich interconnections between content. And making use of content as navigation, we can cram our navigation full of information scent – look at the colour-coding on the wall. This kind of information scent sets expectations and creates navigation that feels more like a recommendation engine than a set of generic signposts. Navigation can feel as though it adapts and re-orients itself around the user, because the content becomes the navigation. Any page can be a homepage (thanks to search).

Because we focused the story on the audience, we saw and knew that the user is never really three rungs down our carefully prescribed structure, they’re always at the centre of their own experience.

To throw in another metaphor, we’re comparing ‘snakes and ladders’ to jigsaws. In ‘Snakes and ladders’ success is fairly arbitrary. There’s a system, but as a user you have little control. But a jigsaw is packed with order. The system is understandable. Different users can adopt different strategies to complete the picture. We wanted to create a magic jigsaw – ordered, fun to complete and able to support multiple finished pictures.

Diverge and converge

From this storytelling we were able to distil the essence of the idea into a set of feelings. It brought it to life. We then created a set of principles that held true to the story I’d been telling. These enumerated principles are much closer to being testable. We have these principles at the back of our head as we work towards a solution. And because they’re testable we can make sure we’ve remained true to the intentions we set off with.

This process of definition, discovery, refinement and re-design is at the heart of the design process. Design is a process of divergence and convergence. The real power of stories is that it allows us to converge creatively. Because stories encourage a creative response, people feel ownership of the ideas that emerge.

The syncronising effects that stories have has a nice side effect, it can lead to the ‘appropriation’ of ideas and designs by other people involved in the project. Have you ever had that awkward moment when you’ve told a friend a story and then been in their company a week or so later when they pass off the story as their own, or they even try to tell you your own story? Listening to a story activates a brain, a listener will often turn the story into their own ideas and experience. It’s a great way to get people to buy into your ideas. Using stories you can build consensus and give others that emotional response that you had when you first had or heard the idea.

Then, moving from story to design principles to specific recommendations is often much smoother. Recommendations are the hypothesis on how to deliver the principles. If the principles set down things that we can test designs against, recommendations are a first attempt at meeting the requirements of these principles in a design.

Filling the gaps – user experience architecture

The metaphors we use constantly in our everyday language profoundly influence what we do because they shape our understanding. They help us describe and explore new ideas in terms and concepts found in more familiar domains.
Earl Morrogh, Information Architecture: An Emerging 21st Century Profession, 2003

User experience architecture is about connecting the dots, pulling technical requirements and user needs together. We deal with the big, complicated messy bits of design. The world is big and complicated and messy, but the way we’ve always made sense of the world, and taught other people about it for generations has been to do it through stories. Whether through conversations, designs, prototypes or presentations we should all be telling stories.

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