In pursuit of stories

Stories are integral to human history and culture. Before we had written language, we had stories imprinted on the walls of caves with pigments made of ochre and soot. Before we had agriculture, we developed rich tapestries of myth, folklore, and legend. We use stories to teach, to entertain, to delight, to think through problems, to impart wisdom, to inspire, to predict the future, to provoke, to share ideas, to make sense of the world around us, and, most importantly, to relate to one another. Stories are one of our most powerful tools for developing empathy with others. Studies have shown that reading Harry Potter, for instance, increases children’s acceptance of people from marginalised groups.

Designing digital products requires that we weave stories to bridge the gap between humans and computers. We may have designed the machines, but they aren’t designed for us. A computer program has a sort of narrative structure (there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, there’s a climax and a denouement), but it’s not designed to be easily understood without specialised knowledge. Designers are tasked with clarifying and simplifying that story, using metaphor, imagery, hyperbole, personification, and other narrative devices.

People are integral to the design process. This means the more you talk to people, the better you can frame your decisions in the context of the real live humans who may end up using your product. I’ve spent a great deal of the last year talking to small business owners. As an introvert, it’s a process that I find exhausting—finding people to talk to, phoning them, scheduling sessions, making sure my microphone is working and my hair is vaguely brushed, and trying to awkwardly chat to a stranger for an hour via a video connection that is invariably a bit choppy and laggy—and then afterwards, reviewing everything, writing notes, and trying to glean insights.

But the interesting thing is that I never need to work to pull stories from people. The moment people get comfortable and start talking, the stories just appear. I use a script (with its own narrative structure), but invariably someone will mention something interesting offhand, and I’ll ask a follow up question that pulls out a story. I’ve chatted with a police officer in the counter-terrorism department of the NYPD who moonlights selling insurance, a cafe owner who sells handmade bunny slippers, a Brazilian expat struggling with Canada’s cold winters, a restaurateur who built his business in an abandoned building made of shipping containers wrapped around a three-story tree, a fashion designer who changed gears and opened a wine bar, a physical therapist who changed careers after a car accident, a cleaner who approaches her work with a distinctly philosophical standpoint, a designer who now runs a dog-walking business, and so many more different people, all with extraordinarily different stories to tell.

Through finding and developing stories, we can humanise what could otherwise be an exercise in frustration. When our work is rooted in the stories of the people who use our products—both their real, lived experiences, and the potential future stories of their interactions with the products we build for them—we have the ability to tap into a fundamental part of human culture, and connect more effectively with people.

Search for and tell stories about people, not just data.


By sarah semark

Sarah is a designer who codes. She likes building things and fixing things, and believes that good criticism is vital to making the things you love better. She is most likely to be found working in an airport, cursing at her screen and making odd faces.