Dave Malouf on Storytelling and Interaction Design

I talk a lot about the importance of thinking about the story of your product or service. I have always assumed this has to do with my background of studying photography, film, video and interactive media-I originally wanted to be a film director—and my work as a writer. But the need and interest in story seems to be a growing trend across a range of disciplines, from design to business to life. Here’s a good talk on Storytelling and Interaction Design from Dave Malouf that he gave at the From Business to Buttons conference. It ends with a great example and a challenge:

Lists and numbers versus stories

Eugene Wei posted a piece about why our brains love lists over on his Remains of the Day blog. It explains why all those “20 ways to…” blog post headlines are such popular click bait. But it’s not the list thing that I found so interesting, rather this snippet of Wei’s experience of working at Amazon.com:

At Amazon, Jeff Bezos hated when folks would bring giant Powerpoint decks to present to him. While you’d be speaking to your first slide he’d already flipped to the end of the deck, having absorbed it all, and would start firing questions at you about slide 27. After a while he was so sick of the whole charade he banned Powerpoints and forced everyone to start bringing ideas to him in prose form.

Although I do often present with a slide deck, it is usually just one of images plus single straplines. (I also use Keynote rather than the design disaster that is PowerPoint, which means less time dicking around with formatting). The art of telling your story is crucial and I find a sequence of images works like a storyboard for me. I try to work out what the narrative is of I want to say.

I’m fascinated by Bezos insisting on prose form because I think it forces people to think through their idea as an experience much more than PowerPoint slide decks do. PowerPoint decks encourage a particular paradox—they allow people to present far too much information in a format that leaves out too much information. Single bullet points and list items can be wormholes into whole discussions and cover up all sorts of assumptions. Tufte has already covered the problems with PowerPoint, of course.

Writing in prose or constructing a narrative forces you to think of your audience and that leap of empathy is a crucial difference. PowerPoint is broadcast, a machine gun full of bullet points sprayed at an unwilling audience. Storytelling is seduction, pull rather than push.

That Bezos insists on this approach is interesting because a lot of managers want slide decks, believing, I assume, that having all the information in note form means they are more productive and efficient or some other bullshit executive myth. In reality, they’ll make their own assumptions, reading their ideas into the spaces between the list items and then switch off.

A good story, well told, hooks the listener—no need to try and force them to pay attention. I would imagine that if Bezos feels drawn in by the story of the idea, he assumes customers will be too. This feels evident in the recent Amazon Air stunt. It’s not about a cold-hearted, rational business proposition, but about selling an idea in the form of a story.

Developing a story of an idea might sound rather fluffy and emotional to some managers, particularly those who place great store in that other poor vehicle for human experience, the spreadsheet. Numbers feel solid, rational, impossible to argue with. But a business proposition presented in a spreadsheet also contains forecasts of growth/profit/customers. What people tend to forget is that these are also made up numbers. It is why so many tech stock analysts regularly reveal themselves to be idiots. Tell someone a story and they will poke holes in it in no time. Storytelling is an art and it’s actually much harder than most people believe. Honing an idea to be told in 300 words of prose is way harder than plonking a few bullet points on a slide.

Storytelling for Designers

As a design educator I watch and read a lot of project presentations. I worked out the other day that I must have seen at least 2,000-3,000 student projects in my time. A key thing I have learned is that the telling of the project’s story, whether as a pitch, presentation or documentation, is as important as the project idea itself.

Coaching my students on the story of their presentations has become one of the key parts of my teaching. In our book on service design, we write about developing the service proposition and experience prototyping. As a set of testing criteria, we have a (mostly) hierarchical checklist of questions to keep in mind, the first and most important of which are:

  • Do people understand what the new service is or does?
  • Do people see the value of it in their life?
  • Do people understand how to use it?

This checklist works for almost any situation and project that you are trying to communicate to someone, be it a service, product, artwork, screenplay, policy, business proposal, relationship proposal and more. As someone who loves the idea of developing unified theories of everything, lists of principles like this appeal to me. Just replace the word service for whatever you are proposing. The underlying questions are:

  • What is this?
  • Why should anyone care?
  • How do they interact with it?

If you fail at an earlier step, it is very hard to be convincing at a later step. If people don’t understand what the product or service is, then it is impossible to convince people of its value and they are not even going to begin to bother to understand how to use it.

To take it back to relationships (and services are relationships), it’s like trying to convince someone to marry you without them even knowing what you look or sound like. It does happen, but shows like Blind Date are hilarious and cringeworthy because it usually does not. The Bachelor works by drawing these three principles out over a whole season:

  • Who is this girl?
  • What makes her special?
  • How does she act/do the couple interact in certain situations?

Most stories work the same way:

  • Who is the character, what is the setting?
  • What is of value and what is at stake and how does that create the dramatic conflict?
  • How does the character act in this situation?

Social networks mostly follows these principles too, but sometimes the value and how questions are switched, as anyone who has had to answer the “What is Twitter?” question will know.

Sometimes you have to start using something in order to discover its value. This can be a risky strategy. Some people won’t even bother to start interacting at all, because they do not understand what it is all about. I think the reason why this works with Twitter is because the learning curve of how to use it is so tiny: express something in 140 characters. The why of Twitter takes a little longer to discover.

Facebook is the opposite. The why is clear (at least it is if you are a teenager), but nobody knows how to manage their privacy and half a dozen other settings. Good luck with trying to find out how to permanently, properly delete your account too.

Storytelling is a design process

One of the reasons I coach my students about their project stories before their big presentations is because storytelling is an iterative design process that needs practice and it can easily go off the rails. We think we know our work so well and can just talk about it.

There is often the temptation to dive straight into the how it works part without any setting up of the context. This leaves the audience, including an external assessment jury, confused as to what they are looking at and why they should care. Sometimes, in earlier versions, the story of the project is pitched back-to-front or with sudden shifts in the narrative flow, leaving the audience to invent their own backstory. When the backstory is no longer controlled by the presenter, it allows room for misinterpretations and misunderstandings. That can be a recipe for disaster or, at least, bad grades.

Stories of stories of stories of stories

There is an interesting, fractal process of storytelling and re-telling that happens during design projects too. Insights researchers go out and gather stories from stakeholders. Then they come back and tell those stories to the project team.

The design team work on their concepts, telling each other stories about their ideas and previous experiences. They then present their ideas as stories to the larger project team and these concepts are finally pitched to the client as scenario stories. The client pitches these stories internally along with their own additions and interpretations of the design team.

Once the product or service is brought to market (with many stages of storytelling in-between), a brand will tell the story of the company, product or service to potential customers through advertising and marketing.

Finally, the customers use the product or service and tell others stories of their experiences with it, because markets and brands are conversations. Now we have come full circle, because it is those conversations that insights researchers tap into in the first place.

What’s your story?

There is an adage in screenwriting that you should try and write the best movie you possibly can, because it will eventually be watered down into just an okay movie by the time so many people (read: stars and executive producers) have had their input. I think the same is true with design projects — it is crucial to get the story clear in your own head as a designer, or as a team, before it goes out into the world and mutates into something unrecognisable.

The very act of defining and refining that story — in screenwriting these are reduced down to log lines — is an act of design and helps the designer be clearer about what they want to achieve. By having a clear story, designers can also be more aware of when things are going off track. Log lines are not as easy to write as it looks when you read them. This example is the log line for the film Looper taken from The Blacklist:

“In the present day, a group of hitmen are sent their victims from the future.”

Boom. The whole film encapsulated in one line. You can be sure the writer started with a longer line than that or even several sentences before whittling it down. One you have this, you know what your project is about and it remains a guiding light. If you find yourself having to explain more details to just get the idea across, something has gone awry.

Stories are the foundation if culture and society and what make us human. Without then we would, like dogs, be sniffing each other’s bottoms to find out about what our friends and colleagues have been up to. I’m thankful that we have language. Make use of it.