The Story of Story: Using Narrative Elements in the Service of Usability.

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The Story of Story: Using Narrative Elements in the Service of Usability. John C. Thomas Usability Professionals Association June 15, 2006 Agenda. Why story? What makes for a good story?
The Story of Story: Using Narrative Elements in the Service of Usability.

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Slide 1

The Story of Story: Using Narrative Elements in the Service of Usability.

John C. Thomas

Usability Professionals Association

June 15, 2006

Slide 2


  • Why story?

  • What makes for a good story?

  • How can stories be useful in promoting useful and usable systems?

  • How do you elicit or create stories?

  • The Walking People (Oral history of the Iroquois): BOTH Story AND Pattern Language

  • Some Socio-technical Patterns from the Iroquois

  • Questions and comments?

Slide 3

Why an interest in stories?

  • Returned to IBM to work in Knowledge Management in 1998

  • “Knowledge management is simply getting the right information to the right person at the right time.”

  • The story of Dr. Maciw

  • Human beings are not just information processors; also energy processors – media matters, presentation matters

  • Guernica, Lincoln Memorial, “Flight”

  • Observe people: you can tell when they are sharing stories: body language and voice animation

Slide 4

Stories are memorable and motivating

  • Can communicate a huge amount of “tacit” knowledge to those who have the requisite background experiences; e.g., Harvey Penick‘s Little Red Book : Lessons And Teachings From A Lifetime In Golf

  • Once experienced, a huge complex of knowledge may now be referenced easily; e.g., Robin Williams in Aladdin

Slide 7

Stories tend to focus on the “edges” of human experience

Slide 8

Though experienced sequentially, story has hierarchical structure

Slide 9

Stories can be viewed as three-dimensional:

Slide 10

Character versus Characterization

  • Character is revealed by choices under pressure; it is what the person is essentially

  • Often confused with mere characterization – the surface aspects of a person: male/female; age; plays the flute; works at IBM; has a white beard; talks with a Dublin accent, etc.

  • Develop empathy for the hero from the outside in

Slide 11

Revealing tension between character and characterization

Slide 17

Stories feed on CONFLICT

  • Intra-psychic

  • Inter-personal

  • With the larger society or physical world

  • The most interesting stories have all three; e.g. The Sound of Music, Casablanca

Slide 18

What makes for a good story?

  • A hero who wants something passionately; many obstacles; willing to go to the “end of the line” (Romeo & Juliet)

  • Three main dimensions: Character, Plot, Setting

  • Conflict: External World, Interpersonal, Intra-psychic (e.g., Sound of Music)

  • Action: In every scene a value should change from good to bad or vice versa

  • An emotional “roller coaster.” A story arc.

    • Cf. “success stories” on a website

Slide 19

Story strength elements:

  • a protagonist with whom we can empathize and sympathize

  • time pressure

  • something important at stake (customer shaved 5% off costs vs. stay in business and 1000 jobs saved in a small town)

  • clear protagonist goal

  • rising action and complication; mounting risk

  • formidable antagonist (Superman: identity, kryptonite, loves friends)

  • peaks and valleys

  • harmonious emotional sequence

  • use of audience superior position or suspense

  • new twist on universal theme

  • meaning -- an underlying theme

Slide 20

Objective Situation:

Sensation and Feeling:


Inner Conflict:

Work from the outside in to engage empathy:

Slide 21

The wind howled.

Jack felt the sting of the sleet.

“Blast it! Suzi doesn’t really need this medicine!”

“Why do I always let her talk me into these hair-brained schemes anyway? Why don’t I fight back?”

Work from the outside in to engage empathy:

Slide 22

Mechanisms of Good Presentation:

  • Show, don’t tell

  • Text and subtext

  • Active, specific verbs; try to avoid “is” “went” “had”

  • Use periodic sentences: put critical information at the end: “I’ll kill you with this gun if you don’t hand over all your gold right this minute.” vs. “Hand over your gold right now, or die.”

  • Turn “exposition” into “ammunition”

Slide 23

Text and Subtext:

  • If the scene is about what the scene is about, you are dead in the water

  • Love Story 1: A couple goes out to a romantic, candlelit dinner; soft music plays. He says, “Oh, I love you.” She says, “Oh, I love you too.” The hold each other’s hands and stare lovingly into each other’s eyes.

  • Love Story 2: Man is having trouble changing a tire and a woman stops to help. “Hand me the wrench.”

  • Text/Subtext encourages “deeper processing” of material thereby making it both more interesting and more memorable.

Slide 24

Use Specific Verbs

  • "John went across the room."

  • How? By tricycle? Levitation? Teleportation? Hit by Arnold Schwartzenegger? Or, what?

  • Ambled

  • Staggered

  • Crawled

  • Strode

  • Leapt

  • Floated

  • Cartwheeled

Slide 25

Turn Exposition into Ammunition

  • Avoid “Feather Dusting” dialogue. “So, how long have we known each other, Mike? 35 years, eh? Yeah, ever since we were undergraduates together at Case-Western.”

  • “Geez, Mike! Look at you! When are you going to get a clue? It’s 2006 but you’re still wearing the same flower power shirts you wore at our Phi Epsilon Pi parties at Case-Western in the 60’s.”

  • “Yeah, well, at least I don’t wear the same dark suit and power tie combo as every other robot in this city.”

Slide 26

Emotional Sequencing

  • The characters in the story need to follow a logical emotional progression; e.g., fear -- > hate; Stockholm syndrome

  • But, the READERS of the story generally have to follow an emotional progression as well.

  • Scene One ends with something totally disgusting

  • Scene Two opens with erotic love ??

Slide 27


  • Why story?

  • What makes for a good story?

  • How can stories be useful in promoting useful and usable systems?

  • How do you elicit or create stories?

  • The Walking People (Oral history of the Iroquois): BOTH Story AND Pattern Language

  • Some Socio-technical Patterns from the Iroquois

  • Questions and comments?

Slide 28

Stories can be used to enhance usability.

  • Stories can help us understand customer needs more deeply

    • FORTUNE, Feb.3rd, 1997

  • Stories can be used for knowledge creation and sharing within a Community of Practice

  • Scenarios can help concretize and communicate Requirements and Design

  • Stories can help users understand the system

  • In some cases, the product is the story (Pine & Gilmore, The Experience Economy).

Slide 29

Understanding Customer Needs

  • Surveys and self-reports often induce a “should” mode; e.g., people claim to read The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times --- not USA Today or The National Enquirer.

  • Stories may induce more of a “what is” mode.

  • Stories can also induce fantasy and get people to go beyond current context.

  • Stories can induce deeper wants and needs that may transcend current fashion or technological possibility.

Slide 30

How do story and usability relate?

  • Useful usable Design depends on:

    • User

    • Context - Environment

    • Task; Goals

    • Evolving Interaction over time

  • Major Problems:

    • Gulf of Execution

    • Gulf of Evaluation

Slide 31

Usability and good story

  • Good Usability (STORY) Design depends on:

    • User -- (PROTAGONIST)

    • Context – (ENVIRONMENT)

    • Task -- (GOALS)

    • Evolving Interaction over time

  • Major Problems: (MAJOR DEVICES):

  • Gulf of Execution = (CAN’T ACHIEVE GOAL)

  • Gulf of Evaluation = (SURPRISING RESULT)

Slide 32

We want protagonists who:

  • Are willful...have a conscious goal -- will go to the end of the line....want very much to get their task done may have a contradictory unconscious goal

  • Have a CHANCE of getting the goal

  • Teachable

  • Have strong antagonist(s) (the system?)

  • Are resourceful use many strategies

  • Cause us to empathize with them

Slide 33

Developers may see users as protagonists who:

  • Are not willful... will not go to the end of the line....couldn't care less.

  • Instead of having a CHANCE of getting the goal, are either hopeless – or, if the developers are wildly successful MUST reach the goal.

  • Instead of strong antagonist(s), have trivial difficulties.

  • Instead of being resourceful, they have not even RTFM.

  • Users are often not portrayed so as to cause developers empathy.

    • Emphasis is often put on characterization, not character --- hence

    • No-one really cares --- no empathy has been created

Slide 34

Empathy as Method

  • Rat study in the 1930’s compared Hull’s theory and Tolman’s theory to predict behavior of rats in a number of situations....

  • And the winner was....

Slide 35

A group of non-professionals asked to imagine what is was like to be a rat and what would they do in this situation if they were a rat.

Slide 36

Later, at IBM in the 1970’s

  • I asked individuals who were unfamiliar with business processes, to imagine each of several roles involved in an invoicing process and then to imagine what information they would want to have on an invoice if they had that role.

  • Each person was able to generate almost all of the information actually required on an invoice

Slide 37

Heuristic Evaluation + Empathy

  • Control Group and Experimental Group given equal amounts of time to find potential problems with system and suggest improvements

  • Experimental Group asked to successively imagine the perspectives of various people; e.g., cognitive psychologist, behavior therapist, occupational therapist, worried mother, Freudian analyst, etc.

  • Experimental Group of Developers and Non-professionals found significantly more usability issues and more suggestions than Controls

  • Desurvire, H. & Thomas, J. C. Enhancing the performance of interface evaluators using non-empirical usability methods. In Proceedings of the HFS 37th Annual Meeting. HFES:Santa Clara, CA, 1993.

Slide 38

Story and Usability

  • The Author (cf. "authority", "authentic") must KNOW

  • The World of the story

  • The Characters

  • Architect a sequence of events through space-time

  • Possibly also a sequence of character changes,

  • and/or world changes

  • AND a presentation to the reader

  • presentation ~= events

  • text ~= subtext

Slide 39

Story and Usability

  • The Usability Expert must KNOW

  • The Context in which users operate

  • The Users

  • Architect potential sequences of events through space-time

  • Possibly also a sequence of changes in mental model,

  • and/or world changes

  • AND presentations to various stakeholders

  • presentation ~= events

  • text ~= subtext

Slide 40


  • Why story?

  • What makes for a good story?

  • How can stories be useful in promoting useful and usable systems?

  • How do you elicit or create stories?

  • The Walking People (Oral history of the Iroquois): BOTH Story AND Pattern Language

  • Some Socio-technical Patterns from the Iroquois

  • Questions and comments?

Slide 41


  • How to collect stories

  • How to morph stories

  • How to create stories

Slide 42

Social Dynamics of Storytelling

  • Storytelling is a social act. Who tells stories to whom?

  • Storytellers Exercise Power. How does storytelling impact status? The "victors" write the history.

  • Storytelling Involves Risk. What are the risks? Are there ways to tell stories that mitigate risks? Telling a story versus Writing a story. Most people like to tell stories; very few like to write stories.

  • Storytelling is Often Collaborative. Stories beget stories. Comparing individual stories can lead to larger truths accepted by a community or team.

Slide 43

Social Dynamics of Storytelling (Continued)

  • Storytellers Try to Enhance Face. What are some of the methods of doing this? How can we use this knowledge to contextualize the story as told?

  • Culture impacts Story. How do people from various cultures modify stories? How can we learn about culture from story?

  • Typically, it is best to observe storytelling among peers; however, sometimes, you need to elicit stories.

  • Elicitor Guidelines. How can you effectively elicit stories from others?

Slide 44

Observations and Conversations with Interviewers (by Deborah Lawrence):

  • Reporters

  • Medical Record Takers

  • Police Investigators

  • Hot line volunteers

  • Therapists

Slide 45

Guidelines for Eliciting Stories

  • Provide a "warm-up" period.

  • Tell something personal and revealing about yourself; perhaps tell a story that is a model of the kind of story you're looking for.

  • Observe an implicit contract of trust.

  • Provide a motivation for the story -- why it's important.

  • Accept the storyteller's story and worldview. Don't resist the story.

  • Reveal who you are, how the story will be used, potential audience and goals, answer questions.

  • Use questions to probe. Sometimes, a totally "off the wall" question can create space for story to emerge.

  • Empower the storyteller -- they are the expert.

  • Avoid threat; don't appear as an expert yourself.

  • Listen with avid interest.

Slide 46

Techniques for morphing "Negative Stories“Issue: We can learn from others mistakes butHow to do so in a corporate environment?

  • Anonymity

  • Projective spaces; e.g., British Navy Admiral cartoon

  • "Trusted Source & registered anonymity" (e.g., Moose Crossing)

  • Re-framings: "I almost did X, but -- Deus Ex Machina -- hence, goodness"

  • "I had intra-psychic conflict; almost did X, but thankfully did ~X; hence, goodness" (airline seats)

  • "As an experiment, on a small scale, we did X and discovered badness; hence, ~X"

Slide 47

Creating Stories

  • Take a "What if?" larger, smaller, prettier, uglier, stronger, longer, grosser, etc.

  • Focus on an action, a person, a thing, a quality and say:

  • where did this come from ?

  • where is it going?

  • how did it get here?

  • when will it end?

  • who made this happen?

  • why is this here?

  • what will happen next?

Slide 48

The best stories come from ...

  • When were you most upset?

  • When were you most frightened?

  • When were you most amused?

  • When were you most yourself?

  • When were you forced to be least yourself?

  • When were you most angry?

  • When were you most earthy?

  • When were you most spiritual?

  • Can use your own experiences even if the “setting” and “content” of the story you are creating is quite different.

Slide 49

The Walking People

  • Oral history of one branch of the Iroquois transcribed into English by Paula Underwood

  • Includes additional material about the translation, the relation of the narrated locations to modern geography and about the process of using the story

  • Less like a “blog” than a “Pattern Language”

Slide 50

The Walking People is persistent

  • Internal Redundancy

  • Songs repeated often

  • All learn the narrative

  • However, some are especially selected and trained as storytellers

  • “Listening” is not passive but an active process that requires “deep” processing

  • An awareness of the possibility of error

Slide 51

The Walking People is likely to be an accurate recounting

  • Travels recounted and descriptions are consistent with geography

  • No “story-arc” in The Walking People

  • No “deification” in The Walking People

  • No retroactive “fixing” of erroneous decisions

  • The events are physically and psychologically believable

  • No “we/good” “they/bad” dichotomy

Slide 52

The Walking People as Pattern Language

  • Sole criterion for inclusion seems to be whether the incidents recounted show new learning

  • Each story includes context, detailed description, summary of solution pattern and an “analysis of forces” illustrated by a recounting of the arguments pro and con

  • Taken together, the stories form a lattice of inter-related solutions to a domain of problems

Slide 53

An Approach for knowledge creation and sharing: A Pattern Language

  • Christopher Alexander

  • Architectural “Patterns” that capture recurring problems and solutions

  • Organized into a “Pattern Language” – a lattice of inter-related Patterns.

  • Examples:

    • Eccentric Town Center encourages commuter traffic to stop at Town Center

    • European Pub

    • Gradient of Privacy in homes: porch, entry, living room, dinning room, kitchen, bedroom

Slide 54

Some Socio-Technical Patterns

  • Elicit from Diversity

  • Rule of Six

  • Small Successes Early

  • Reality Check

  • Who Speaks for Wolf?

  • Support Conversation at Boundaries

  • Social Proxy

  • Context-setting Entry

  • Answer Garden

  • Registered Anonymity

  • Anonymized Stories for Organizational Learning

  • Mentoring Circle

  • Radical Co-location

  • Levels of Authority

  • Rites of Passage

Slide 55

Elicit from Diversity





Slide 56



  • They wove ropes

  • which were long as well as thick

  • and with which those who were struck by Ocean

  • and washed from their footing

  • might be restrained by others

  • who were more secure.

Slide 57

Iroquois “Rule of Six”

  • You are in a meeting room. Your calendar says the meeting is supposed to start at 10 am. The clock on the wall says 10:15. John is not here yet. You think: “John doesn’t really care about this project.”

  • According to the “Rule of Six” you need to generate five additional explanations for the current situation.

Slide 58

Iroquois “Rule of Six”

  • Your calendar entry is wrong

  • The clock on the wall is wrong

  • John comes from a culture where 15 minutes is not “late”

  • John was unavoidably delayed in traffic

  • John was waylaid by the Vice-President and even now is talking up the project

Slide 59

Seek to Understand the Heart of Others

  • The Iroquois reflect on how giant tree sloths became extinct and how even now bear and deer are more difficult to find; they decide to understand more about how their four-footed brothers live and ensure the world is arranged for their prosperity

  • Later, when confronted with a war-like tribe with superior weaponry, they see that this other tribe, unlike the Iroquois, has a strict division of labor between men and women. The Iroquois use this, first to learn the arts of war and then, when battle comes, to “freak out” their opponents by sending five women to fight their braves.

Slide 60

Small Successes Early

Based on the story of Old Grandfather who invented Clothing

Slide 61

Reality Check

Slide 62

Reality Check

Slide 63

Who Speaks for Wolf?Visual by

Slide 64

Where can you find out more?


  • Fog, K., Budtz, C., Yakaboylu, B. Storytelling: Branding in practice. Berlin: Springer, 2005.

  • Frey, J. How to Write a Damn Good Novel : A Step-by-Step No Nonsense Guide to Dramatic Storytelling, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

  • De Geus, Arie The living company: habits for survival in a turbulent business environment. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1997.

  • Lawrence, D. and Thomas, J. Social Dynamics of Storytelling: Implications for Story-Base Design. AAAI Workshop on Narrative Intelligence, N. Falmouth, MA. November, 1999

Slide 65

Where can you find out more?

  • McKee, R. Story. New York: Harper/Collins, 1997.

  • Paulos, John Allen. Once upon a number: the hidden mathematical logic of stories. New York: Basic books, 1998.

  • Schank, R. C. Tell me a story: Narrative and intelligence. Evanston: Northwestern University, 1990.

  • Thomas, J. Narrative Technology in the New Millennium. Knowledge Management Journal. July, 1999.

  • Thomas, J. Stories, Storytelling and Human Computer Interaction. Human Factors and Ergonomic Society Special Interest Group on Computers Newsletter, July, 1999.

  • Turner, M. The literary mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Slide 66

Where can you find out more?

  • Thomas, J.C.; Danis, C. M.; Lee A. Who Speaks for Wolf? Report of the T.J. Watson Research Center. RC22644 (2002).

  • Pine, J. B. II & Gilmore, J. H. The experience economy: work is theatre and every business a stage. (1999).

  • Desurvire, H. & Thomas, J. C. Enhancing the performance of interface evaluators using non-empirical usability methods. In Proceedings of the HFS 37th Annual Meeting. HFES:Santa Clara, CA, 1993.

  • Thomas, J. C., Kellogg, W. A. & Erickson, T. A. The knowledge management puzzle: human and social factors in knowledge management. IBM Systems Journal, 40 (4), 863-884, 2001.

Slide 67

Q & A?

  • Comments, questions, suggestions?

  • John C. Thomas



Slide 68

Hand Washing Duo

Rhythm required

Side by side “confessional”

Conversation OK

Team accomplishes the work

High shared stimulus context

Using Dishwasher

Rhythm not required

Unitary better

Conversation ?

Team or One prepares machine to accomplish the work

Moderate shared stimulus context

E.g. Washing Dishes

Slide 69

Traditional cooking

Negotiation Required

High shared stimulus context (same meal)

Synchronous activity

Conversation likely


No negotiation required (separate meals)

Asynchronous activity

Conversation less likely (person who is ready first starts some other activity)

Fixing Dinner

Slide 70

Traditional Queue

  • Some shared context; however…

  • Perceived as competition for limited resource (tickets may run out)

  • People in front are costing you time

  • Face to Back of Head orientation

  • Asynchronous movement reinforces individual identity (cf. rowing)

Slide 71

Vibrating Pager Queue

  • The obviousness of the competition has been greatly reduced

  • No requirement to “face the same direction”

  • Face to face interaction possible

  • Conversation is much more likely

Slide 72

Enhanced Telephone Help Desk Queue

  • Many more people need help solving technical problem than servers available

  • People describe problem

  • ASR used to group similar problems

  • People are bridged onto a conference call

  • Synthesis announces to group their areas of overlapping interest

  • Group may be able to solve the individual problems

  • When available, help first gives generic advice

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