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In design, storytelling has become a fashionable trend over the past decade with many speakers, writers, and websites professing the importance of storytelling to design. While storytelling can be useful, it also runs the risk of misleading teams if not done conscientiously. In this article I’ll discuss the role of storytelling in design and how to use it wisely.
In my experience, storytelling is used for three primary purposes in the design profession:
- Real stories of people who might use the product or service.
As Whitney Quesenbery describes in “Storytelling for User Experience”, these stories, as captured and retold through user research, build empathy and understanding for other people’s experiences to help ground and inspire the team.
- Stories embedded into products and services.
The idea here is that great design should tell a story to the user. This idea is often criticized, because the majority of cited examples, like a website using photography or a roller coaster ride, seem to lack narrative development.
- Stories that describe how the experience could be.
These are speculative stories about possible futures. When used casually they can allow teams to rapidly explore possible solutions in an empathetic way. When formalized they can help align groups of stakeholders around a vision. There are many nuanced forms of stories in this category including “scenarios” and “design fiction”.
This article focuses primarily on this third kind of storytelling.
Recognize the power of narrative
Speculative storytelling plays a central role when organizations make decisions about what to build next. It helps teams consider the question: “What vision should we pursue?” Design strategy is about identifying opportunities and framing solutions at a high level to get the commitment to design and build them at a low level. It’s common practice, in my experience, to wrap arguments about what to build within a story to give them emotional weight. While I can’t deny the effectiveness of this approach, I’ve long harbored a queasiness about focusing on the craft of storytelling.
Everyone loves to call out misleading statistics, but misleading stories are even more pernicious. The problem, as I’ve come to realize, is how to tell when a story is misleading? Unlike statistics and other scientific data, I don’t have a robust set of tools to see through the smoke and mirrors.
Stories, good stories, have a power that is gripping. They dive deep into our psyches and prove convincing even when they are complete fiction. While some of our most beloved stories are intentionally fiction, I wonder how to distinguish misleading tales from those that contain an essential truth.
Question the future
Within design, the stories we tell are about the future. They’re about how people will use and love some product, and how that product will result in increased profits. These stories are fictions, necessarily, since they take place in the future. They are also seen as one of the best ways to convey the vision for a product because they capture the human experience. They engage the audiences’ empathy for the protagonists. Yet, one runs the risk of telling a compelling tale that leads the group off of a cliff. Just because I can tell a compelling story about a future product doesn’t mean we should actually build that product. So how can we distinguish helpful stories from misleading ones?
When considering a story within the context of design strategy, I suggest the following starting points for evaluation:
- Is the end user of the product portrayed realistically?
Is the actual user or person who will be impacted accounted for? Do they have realistic motivations? Are there quotes from real people to support the story? It’s too easy to tell stories of profit and power when the only players are abstract business units or users who love the product. When you are forced to include the actual humans in the story you are forced to address humanity and all its complexity. Take a story about mobility for example. Volkswagen surveyed American SUV drivers and found that 87% of them plan to stick with SUVs for life. They concluded that “our current portfolio of SUVs aligns with what consumers are prioritizing”. Unfortunately, this simplistic conclusion detracts from the actual needs they found, “comfortable seating” and “safety”. Richly describing what these mean to people would uncover opportunities to invent new forms of transportation as Tesla and others have done. The survey alone is equivalent to focusing on the proverbial faster horse, when cars are just around the corner.
- Are all the characters in the story accounted for?
Has the story accounted for partners, employees, regulators, and competitors? Even user-centric stories often skip important characters and gloss over the potential pitfalls. As Porter has shown, competitors have plans of their own; ignore them at your own risk. Returning to our mobility story, as companies consider the shift to electric cars it’s important to factor in all the different stakeholders. For example, how might employees of car companies be impacted? Bloomberg Law reported, “One-quarter of auto assembly workers could be displaced if U.S. consumers embrace electric cars, according to the Congressional Research Service, given that electric models are simpler to put together than their gas-guzzling predecessors.”
- What are the larger societal trends surrounding this narrative?
Much like with statistics, context is key to understanding a story. Be skeptical of any story that doesn’t account for the larger societal trends surrounding the topic. For example, has our mobility story accounted for the chronic debt crisis? Some have speculated that car loan defaults could be the next financial crisis. Has the narrative accounted for the need to electrify our entire transportation sector and power it with renewable electricity? Has it accounted for the role of public transportation?
- What are alternative narratives?
While it’s best for authors to provide some alternative narratives of their own, savvy consumers should consider alternatives to the alternatives. As Peter Schwartz explains in “The Art of the Long View”, it’s impossible to predict the future, but if you can identify a strategy that works in a variety of future scenarios, then you have a solid plan. You’ll still have to make course adjustments, but you have also effectively hedged your bets. In this model, one good counter-narrative can change everything. For example, even in a future where all vehicles are powered by renewable electricity, the marketplace could be radically different depending on whether utility scale generation or micro-grids dominate. The likely answer is a bit of both.
- How does this story fit your own agenda?
Con artists will tell you that the best of them tell their victims what they wanted to hear. Does the story sound perfect? Is it everything you ever wanted? How would you feel if it turned out to be false? Especially in cases where you would be disappointed if the story turned out to be untrue, tread cautiously. Your own emotions may be misleading you to believe this story when you shouldn’t. With mobility, are you invested in oil companies or electric vehicle companies? Are you sentimental about cars? Are you feeling any strong emotions about electric cars?
- Does the story include a range of consequences?
As they say, “there is no free lunch”. There will always be a range of negative and positive consequences to any product. And there will be a range of uses by both good and bad actors. A realistic story about the future should account for this range. One technique that can help you develop an understanding of what consequences to look for is “consequence scanning”. Even in a future where all vehicles are powered by renewable energy, there will still be a range of consequences. According to the US Department of Energy, “EVs typically require less maintenance than conventional vehicles.” Will this hurt the job prospects for mechanics?
This is not a complete list by any means, and I would love to hear if you have methods, frameworks, or ideas for how to detect misleading stories.
Prioritize real human connection
Designers who talk about storytelling love to emphasize that stories are emotional. It is precisely this emotional power that worries me about stories. When we are feeling intense emotions, we are also least able to make rational decisions. We are least able to discern truth from fiction. By framing the problem around creating stories, there is a risk that we allow the best story to win, when in fact we should let the most accurate and truthful story win.
I can’t deny that humans love stories and that stories are a powerful method of communication, but I can warn against emphasizing stories and the quality of their telling. As Yowei Shaw of Invisibilia says, people are “weaponizing narrative” to advance their agendas precisely because “people feel defenseless against narrative”. In a sort of narrative cold war, “it’s like whoever is the best narrative master will win. Nothing we can do except do it better?”, says Shaw. Telling better stories does not lead to better designs and better outcomes. Better design leads to better outcomes.
This is why I appreciate the emphasis that Relationship Design puts on real people. It correctly focuses on these real people rather than on any one particular design methodology and techniques for being more compelling. The goal is to build great products that enhance the relationships between real people who stand at the center of the design process.
As designers, our role is not to tell stories but to use stories as one method of communication in the process of creating great products and services that bring those people together. By focusing on the experiences of these people, Relationship Design can help ensure that the stories we tell each other remain grounded in reality. And hopefully by thinking critically about those stories we can establish a common truth that leads to great outcomes.
Stories are powerful tools to convey ideas and create alignment. When told truthfully and with great humility they can be a force for good. Just as easily they can be twisted and tailored to suit any need. Be skeptical when someone starts spinning a yarn and remember to ask questions. Whether it’s in design or real life, we need to develop our skills for how to see through false narratives.
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