Designing for use

One of my obsessions is non-linear storytelling.

I enjoy the apparent contradictions contained in the idea. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end. They are built on plot, theme, and character. All put together more or less carefully by the author. Non-linear storytelling pulls the rug out from under this idea. Or at least it apparently does.

But more importantly, non-linear (is there a better word for this?) storytelling is useful in “designing for use“. In ‘real’ life, the plot, the meaning, the entry and exit points, and even the value of a particular experience vary widely based on the history of the individual experiencing it. Designing with characters in mind helps explore the idiosyncrasies that give depth and potential to the experience being created.

I often conduct this design process based on the finding of ethnographic research; engaging people in real-life situations offers insights that provide more clarity to the purpose and desired outcomes of the project. But I’ve also done successful work based on creating personas from the imagination and then building the interactions from there.

Variations of story-centered design are becoming more and more common, I believe. For instance, at the Image, Space, Object conference put on by Mike and Kathy McCoy and Fred Murrell at RMCAD we have used story-centered design for the past three years, with surprising results (and a lot of fun).

At the AIGA Aspen Design Summit last summer, the participants divided into teams to do prototype design for applied solutions to real societal problems. My team was included some superior designers (for instance, Margeigh Novatny of Smart Design, Robert Fabricant of Frog, and Adam French from the d school at Stanford), and we worked for Paul Polak and his company, IDE. The process wasn’t without its struggles, and we may have worked out teams a little hard (OK, really hard), but we did show that it worked.

In the past couple of years I’ve done story-centered prototyping for a number of clients, especially in the travel industry. For instance, I recently completed a project for the National Trust for Historic Preservation (through PhoCusWright) that included both research and design. It was strategically valuable to explore the specific opportunities for interaction between various characters who have (probably) never met.

Experience design is the practice of creating structure and developing content in a manner that will allow the one experiencing the design to create their own meaning. Control the experience too closely, and you risk imposing a reductive linearity on your audience. And, in our wiki world, you also take away the opportunity for the audience to become a partner.

On the other hand, designing for use doesn’t mean not creating content; the quality of the ultimate experience relies on the quality of the prototypical experience. Quality results require vision put into practice, and storytelling is a great way to express vision in an engaging manner.

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