stories have power

(newsletter #19)
For a few years, Christina Wodtke has been speaking and writing about using stories in your work. When she says “story,” she means stories with characters and a setting and conflict and resolution. She says stories that develop your concern for the character’s outcome are memorable. And she compares stories with a climax to a typical product decision-making process where the focus is on what can be created or fixed–not why.

Stories are what came to my mind during the filming of an Expose UX episode where I was invited to be a judge, along with Pabini Gabriel-Petit and Kate Rutter.

The entrepreneur that presented that night was Alex Shaw. Here is his initial pitch.

People have an innate curiosity about the things that they see in their daily lives. For some of us it’s architecture. For some of us it’s art. Garden Answers is trying to help those who are interested in plants. One day my neighbor, Peter, comes over and says, “I was going for a walk and I saw all these wonderful plants in the neighborhood. But I don’t know what they are. Can you use image recognition to help me figure out what that plant is?”

That sounds like a story, right? It has a character, Peter, and a setting in a neighborhood. But the conflict is described as “curiosity,” and there is no resolution.

Instead, here’s a more memorable story:

Peter just bought his first house, but the front yard looks ratty. The yards of other houses of the neighborhood look nice, and he wants to transform his own yard. With excitement, he plants a bush with huge gorgeous flowers that he finds at Home Depot. But the flowers all fall off within two weeks. Even though he waters it every day, the whole bush loses all its leaves and dies soon after that. Peter is confused by this, but he’s smart: he concludes it’s because this particular bush just doesn’t grow well in his area. He decides to pick a bush that seems to be growing well in his neighbor’s yard. However, he doesn’t know what that plant is, and he feels reluctant to go up and knock on their front door and disturb them. So he decides to take a photo of the flower and take it to a nearby nursery. When he gets to the nursery, he feels a bit shy because of his lack of knowledge. Happily, the nursery person is warm and encouraging. Peter shows the photo and explains his intent, and the nursery person responds with a series of questions about the sun exposure, soil, and other plants in Peter’s front yard. That person also asks Peter what attracted him to this particular flower, and recommends other plants that might also work well for Peter’s preferences and yard conditions. Peter picks out several new plants, and they discuss the best way to plant them and keep them properly irrigated and fertilized. Peter returns home with his purchases, plants and sets up irrigation. Two weeks later, new flowers are blossoming. Two months later, Peter can see that the plants have grown and filled in a bit. He feels encouraged and much happier with his front yard. This new mobile application, Garden Answers, is the equivalent of Peter’s nursery person–it identifies a photo of a flower, asks about the yard conditions, and recommends where to buy the plant and others like it, locally.

Yes, it’s longer. But it’s also much more powerful because it generates an understanding of Peter’s inner thinking. It generates a little tension. By referencing the whole story, the final sentence more effectively describes the human support and business plan that the application embodies. Here are some of our comments from the episode, if you don’t have time to watch it.

Indi: Why did they want to know what the plants were? What is Peter after? How is Peter different than Kunyi or Lacey or someone else?

Kate: You gotta love the people that love the plants; you can’t just love the pattern-matching technology. What are they trying to do after they find out what plant it is? You can make people feel smart for asking.

And, this is just one story. There are others! What about DeeAnn, an avid hiker, whose cousin lives in a different part of the world? They are always comparing their environments, and lately they’ve been eager to show the most exotic things about where they live to each other. So when DeeAnn encounters an odd-looking conifer on her hike, she sends a picture to her cousin. But her cousin responds with a picture of her own similar conifer. Are they related species? A mystery! Neither of them finds the time to remember to look up identification information when they return home, though. Or what about Sam, who is a professional landscape designer, trying to take care of a disease problem in one of their clients’ established specimen trees? It takes time from their workday to verify a disease and communicate an effective treatment. Sam would rather spend this time working with clients and expanding their business.

Write several different stories and choose which one(s) to support for now. Making one solution to serve everyone in general always leads to mediocre experiences to about half the people. Imagine the long-tail graph. If you design your product to serve the people at the head of the graph where the numbers are great, you are not serving the rest of the graph where the numbers are smaller, but much longer–adding up to perhaps half the total people. If you can move your focus from the general to the specific, you can support people with nuance and richness that they deserve in different regions of the graph. Once established–or if your current path doesn’t lead to success–diversify.

The entrepreneur that presented that night was Alex Shaw. Here is his initial pitch.

People have an innate curiosity about the things that they see in their daily lives. For some of us it’s architecture. For some of us it’s art. Garden Answers is trying to help those who are interested in plants. One day my neighbor, Peter, comes over and says, “I was going for a walk and I saw all these wonderful plants in the neighborhood. But I don’t know what they are. Can you use image recognition to help me figure out what that plant is?”

That sounds like a story, right? It has a character, Peter, and a setting in a neighborhood. But the conflict is described as “curiosity,” and there is no resolution.

Instead, here’s a more memorable story:

Peter just bought his first house, but the front yard looks ratty. The yards of other houses of the neighborhood look nice, and he wants to transform his own yard. With excitement, he plants a bush with huge gorgeous flowers that he finds at Home Depot. But the flowers all fall off within two weeks. Even though he waters it every day, the whole bush loses all its leaves and dies soon after that. Peter is confused by this, but he’s smart: he concludes it’s because this particular bush just doesn’t grow well in his area. He decides to pick a bush that seems to be growing well in his neighbor’s yard. However, he doesn’t know what that plant is, and he feels reluctant to go up and knock on their front door and disturb them. So he decides to take a photo of the flower and take it to a nearby nursery. When he gets to the nursery, he feels a bit shy because of his lack of knowledge. Happily, the nursery person is warm and encouraging. Peter shows the photo and explains his intent, and the nursery person responds with a series of questions about the sun exposure, soil, and other plants in Peter’s front yard. That person also asks Peter what attracted him to this particular flower, and recommends other plants that might also work well for Peter’s preferences and yard conditions. Peter picks out several new plants, and they discuss the best way to plant them and keep them properly irrigated and fertilized. Peter returns home with his purchases, plants and sets up irrigation. Two weeks later, new flowers are blossoming. Two months later, Peter can see that the plants have grown and filled in a bit. He feels encouraged and much happier with his front yard. This new mobile application, Garden Answers, is the equivalent of Peter’s nursery person–it identifies a photo of a flower, asks about the yard conditions, and recommends where to buy the plant and others like it, locally.

Yes, it’s longer. But it’s also much more powerful because it generates an understanding of Peter’s inner thinking. It generates a little tension. By referencing the whole story, the final sentence more effectively describes the human support and business plan that the application embodies. Here are some of our comments from the episode, if you don’t have time to watch it.

Indi: Why did they want to know what the plants were? What is Peter after? How is Peter different than Kunyi or Lacey or someone else?

Kate: You gotta love the people that love the plants; you can’t just love the pattern-matching technology. What are they trying to do after they find out what plant it is? You can make people feel smart for asking.

And, this is just one story. There are others! What about DeeAnn, an avid hiker, whose cousin lives in a different part of the world? They are always comparing their environments, and lately they’ve been eager to show the most exotic things about where they live to each other. So when DeeAnn encounters an odd-looking conifer on her hike, she sends a picture to her cousin. But her cousin responds with a picture of her own similar conifer. Are they related species? A mystery! Neither of them finds the time to remember to look up identification information when they return home, though. Or what about Sam, who is a professional landscape designer, trying to take care of a disease problem in one of their clients’ established specimen trees? It takes time from their workday to verify a disease and communicate an effective treatment. Sam would rather spend this time working with clients and expanding their business.

Write several different stories and choose which one(s) to support for now. Making one solution to serve everyone in general always leads to mediocre experiences to about half the people. Imagine the long-tail graph. If you design your product to serve the people at the head of the graph where the numbers are great, you are not serving the rest of the graph where the numbers are smaller, but much longer–adding up to perhaps half the total people. If you can move your focus from the general to the specific, you can support people with nuance and richness that they deserve in different regions of the graph. Once established–or if your current path doesn’t lead to success–diversify.

Kate: What is the job this tool is going to be used for? Pick one and double down on it. If it doesn’t work out, try another one.

Pabini: You could use this technology for multiple applications. Choose one and then you can add extra functionality that would give them just what they need, like diagnosing disease to gardeners or finding where to buy it locally.

Indi: Use the same code base and a bunch of different front ends. It’s branched.


Expose UX is a show that was created by Richard Brevig for developers. He saw a need for developers to learn the benefits of spending time on interaction design and experience strategy. He told me that many developers are focused on disrupting markets and that they need to learn how to teach users the advantages of these disruptions by telegraphing it through the user experience. This interpretation of the word “disruption” by the industry upsets me–I call it arrogant. “Disrupt” is a word that applies to a market/economy, not to a person. When you look at developing apps, they all serve a purpose or intent that people already have, which people already fulfill in different ways. “Epiphany” is the word that applies to a person, and epiphanies usually come from within a person’s own mind, catalyzed by something a person sees/hears/feels. I’m trying to help folks respect the others around them and the humans they are trying to support. Part of this respect involves developing awareness of the phrases that get thrown around in the tech industry, understanding how hurtful some of those can be, and how hierarchical or position-defining they can be.


More reading about the power of stories:

Strategic Storytelling by Leah Buley

Story First: Crafting Products That Engage by Donna Lichaw

Storytelling That Is Actionable and Accountable by Jeffrey Eisenberg


Thought Provoking

“It’s not just Facebook. It’s time for our industry to pause & take a moment to think” Silicon Valley Has an Empathy Vacuum by Om Malik

“Triangulation is the ability to develop multiple viewpoints–in order to compare them and get a better understanding before you make decisions.” Liminal Thinking by Dave Gray

“When we say politics is the mind-killer, it’s because these social rewards completely dominate the pragmatic rewards, and thus we have almost no incentive to get at the truth.” Crony Beliefs by Kevin Simler

“Do you yearn to defend your own beliefs or do you yearn to see the world as clearly as you possibly can?” TED talk Why you think you’re right—even if you’re wrong by Julia Galef

“As one Chief Medical Officer described, ‘I’ve realized that much of my stress is self-inflicted from years of being hard on myself. Now that I know the problems it causes for me, I can talk myself out of the non-stop pressure.'” Why Some People Get Burned Out and Others Don’t by Kandi Wiens and Annie McKee (via Daniel Szuc)

“Even if we are just reading an unpleasant email, it initiates physiological changes such as increased muscle tension and accelerated breathing. This association becomes so strong that we take the body’s reaction as evidence of danger.” A Simple Way to Stay Grounded in Stressful Moments by Leah Weiss (via Daniel Szuc)

“We rush into action without fully considering the effects … rather, assume a more balanced posture.” Posture and mindset by Alex Wright @alexgrantwright

“The goal was never to be a strategist, but to put things out in the world, you need to have somewhat of a strategic bent.” Peter Merholz delved further into strategy when he began using mental models with his colleague Indi Young to understand users.” UXStrat 2015 Conference Highlights by Pabini Gabriel-Petit and Krispian Emert


Workshops

Possible workshops: I’m in discussion with hosts to conduct the Practical Empathy workshops in Los Angeles, Portland, and Research Triangle. These workshops focus on defining this type of research and the specifics of listening sessions. I’ve also given the workshop as a remote instructor to groups gathered in Sydney and in New York City. Contact me if you’d like to organize a workshop in your area.

(Also note: My book Practical Empathy is now available on Audible! If you have wanted to read it, but not had the time, you can download and listen while you are doing something else.)

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