Narrative as a Design Element

Let it be recorded here that Cindy Chastain is awesome. Back in 2010, I saw her talk at my first UX conference in Savannah.



I had already started to dig into narrative as an essential part of selling design, in my practice as a design researcher. My exposure later on to such gems as the Writer’s Journey and Get Storied, only deepened my love for storytelling…and why I advocate for storytelling as one of the essential phases of design!

She talks about some narrative elements, like slow disclosure, surprise and story arcs that can be used for objects, interfaces, presentations…they are the Atoms of narrative.

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Her analysis of story arcs is awesome. I tell people over and over again: Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. This *seems* simple, but most people leave out at least 1-2 parts! (if you love sesame street you might want to check out this classic video on storytelling)

A beginning is the slow disclosure…or a fast, hard drop into the dramatic tension. It’s choice! But so many presentations I see don’t really start…they just have a title and then start talking. That’s the difference between a narrative and a drama. Show don’t tell, my teachers always said!

You would also be amazed at how many presentations don’t end. Or, at least, don’t end at the right time, or with a bang. End in the right way, and people will know to applaud. Run out of time, people will be left confused or rushed. If you have 10 minutes, tell your story in 5, then stretch to 7. Leave yourself some breathing room, and time to land the story soft or hard, as you choose…but make sure you end it! Don’t trail off.

Narrative as a Design Element

But in digging deeper, Narrative and Story can help guide design and unify, not just the end-user experience, but the internal creative process. Chastain spoke to this back in 2009. Narrative offers…

a new way of thinking about holistic design, by envisioning experience themes at the start of project. An Experience Theme is basically an over-arching statement or phrase that encapsulates the value and focus of the experience we intend to deliver to users. It may sound like a strategy or “vision”, but at its core, an Experience Theme identifies what the product/service/system is all about from the point of view of users engaging with the product. Once agreed upon, the theme can not only be used as a conceptual frame for design solutions, but can serve as the foundation for the Product Concept and Experience Strategy, a clear set of goals for the product/service/system design. The slides explore how this idea was developed in the context of an interactive agency and how it was applied to several projects. It also shows how teams can generate experience themes.

On Slide 29, Chastain quotes another talk from 2009, about how essential narrative can be in unifying a fragmented experience:

As experiences now span multiple media, channels and formats, we need to look to narrative, interaction, emotional elements to sustain transitions across channels and formats

Joe Lamantia

Beyond Findability IA Summit 2009



At each phase of design, narrative can help us keep a clear image of the user problems in mind. That, and a powerful statement of the value of our design solution, can help teams build the right products internally…and sell them deeply into organizations to get them launched…and get people to use them. As my friend Rob used to say: “Narrative!”

Daniel Stillman
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