Story-telling, UX, and how to find your spine

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When I changed career path from journalism to user experience design, it was largely on the faith my friend Lidia had in my journalism skills. “Dude!” she said, “You’re perfect for this.”

At the time Lidia was wrapping up her PhD in Human Computer Interaction at Swansea University, where I was editing itwales.com. To her, it didn’t matter that I’d had minimal exposure to UX until that point. As a career changer herself (from social work to HCI), Lidia knew firsthand that skills can be learned and adapted as needed, but aptitude and appetite can’t be bought or taught.

Fast forward to 2009 and what do you know, Dr. Lidia Oshlyansky, now a UX researcher for Google, was right. There are plenty of transferable skills between journalism and UX. Foremost among these is knowing how to ask the right questions.

What happens first?
Getting that right is half the fun and most of the battle won. Then you use your newfound knowledge to tell a story. It might be factual, it might be persuasive, it might inspire millions, it might hit the deck like a lead balloon. And this is where most people find out if they are a writer or a raconteur.

For years, I’ve known that I can comfortably claim to be the former. It’s never been a problem for me to string words together to convey meaning. Far harder is playing the part of the story-teller. The glib remark, the well-timed gibe and all other manner of device to propel a conversation along, those I can manage.

But set me the task of recounting an anecdote for an audience and it all falls to pieces. I get the parts mixed up. I forget the punch line. In the awkward lull that follows, I make a desperate dash for the finish line — break the tape thinking I’ve told it all… only to realise I’ve missed out something crucial. And like that, we’re back in lead balloon country.

All that changed last week.

What happens next?
Last week, along with my colleagues in the Experience Design team at EMC Consulting, I joined Alex MacLaren from an improv and theatre training company The Spontaneity Shop. Alex was going to teach us how to be more charismatic as story-tellers. The goal was to learn to use our body language in a positive and encouraging manner that brings out the best in other people while advancing your objectives as well.

Illustrating a collaborative approach to story-telling, Alex took us through an exercise in re-telling the story of the Titanic. With flipboard and marker pen, he captured as many nuggets as we knew about this event. After the initial flurry of response died down, he stepped back and as a group, we decided on the three most important facts of the story.

  1. That the Titanic was claimed to be unsinkable.
  2. That she sank.
  3. And that she sank on her maiden voyage.

Those, he said, were the spine of the story. The spine is all you need to tell the story to its full effect. Everything else you know, you can add as embellishment, for colour and atmosphere. But without the spine, the story collapses. Without the spine, the story is not a story.

As experience designers, everything we do to progress a project from the discovery phase to design, build and beyond hinges on our ability to tell the story of the problem to those who are paying us to solve it. This is as true for UX as it is for advertising and brand management as it is for finance and human resources.

No matter who we are or what we do, framing problems and their solutions in the context of a story is something we do every day -mostly subconsciously. Can you imagine how much more compelling and persuasive the story can be when you come to it with intent?

The reason I and so many others struggle with story-telling is this: Because we hear stories with a beginning, a middle and an end, we mistakenly believe that the story’s beginning can be found somewhere obvious, like one end of a piece of string. The problem is, a story is not a piece of string. When you imagine your story as a living, breathing being, with a supple spine at its core, you see how it hangs together and you know exactly how to tell it. As long as the spine is strong, the story rings true.

And in the end?
So, how do you find the spine of your story — or more accurately, your client’s story? You construct it out of the pieces of information you gather through observation, research, casual chat and formal conversation. It begins with what you can observe about their business from the perspective of an outsider. It continues with the informal discussions you will have over coffee, and the more structured conversations that will take place as you ready your pitch or proposal. And it is fleshed out and given colour and depth when you speak to absolutely anyone and everyone you can get your hands on, from the central to the supporting characters.

As with user research, you may well have to tease the story out of your story-tellers. Keep an eye out for icebergs — those little nuggets of information that a client will omit when asked a direct question, but drop into an unrelated discussion, seemingly unaware of the greater import this information has to the success of the project.

Like the time when, on a redesign of a retail ecommerce site, we proposed changes to the navigation and information architecture which, in theory, made great sense. All the work that had gone into that stage of the project fell to ribbons when the client, after days of working alongside us on this particular phase, mentioned almost as an afterthought that the last time they’d made a similar change, it wiped a noticeable chunk off their revenue stream. Oh, how we laughed as we traipsed back to square one.

The client brief is very much the tip of the iceberg. There’s definitely going to be more to it than meets the eye and being able to piece together the story from multiple angles will vastly aid your efforts at solving the problem. The trouble is, so much is said over the lifetime of a project that unless you’re keeping track of it all, important details will invariably be lost or forgotten — especially if the only place they reside is in the dusty halls of the server racks.

The approach we’ve employed on my current project at EMC Consulting is to keep a low-tech, easily updated project story wall that is always visible to the entire team. In other words, we’ve stuck a piece of butcher’s paper along a wall. On this we’ve mapped out what we already know about our client and the project, including key players on both sides. Any time the client or their customers mention key phrases; anything they repeat, anything they stress, etc. goes on a Post-It note on the wall. This way, we know at a glance our motivators and our constraints, and who we need to involve to progress the story. No matter who gets drafted in or out of the project team, the story will persist.

Over time, I expect it will look like a more organic version of an affinity diagram that evolves over the duration of the project rather than as the product of a single brainstorming session. Ultimately it will serve as a visual touchstone; a physical reminder of where we started and where we’re headed. In the end, it will be the spine of the story of the story. One of my favourite songs puts it best: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

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