Tools and Technologies to Facilitate and Improve Design

XVII.2 March + April 2010
Page: 24
Digital Citation

Mobilizing attention

Jeffrey Kim, Arnie Lund, Caroline Dombrowski

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Recently, BMW launched a U.S. campaign for Minis, aimed at vampires. The slogan "Feel the wind in your fangs" ran alongside a photo of the car. Gillette and Harley-Davidson had similar vampire-themed ads, and if a consumer follows up on the ads, eventually a trail of URLs leads to the website for HBO's "True Blood," a television show based on the premise that vampires exist and have come out of hiding. The American League of Vampires, arguing for vampire rights, faces off against another group, the Fellowship of the Sun, which wants to take back the Earth for humans. Other related sites include an online-dating service for humans and self-identified vampires. This elaborate marketing campaign enhances and develops the storyline from the TV show. Reactions have been mixed, but the campaign itself has gotten significant attention for acting as if the storyline were entirely true. By extending the television story into Web space, the show attracted new audiences and expanded potential participation by viewers.

Humans seem hardwired to process information in the form of stories. Throughout human history, whether by oral tradition, writing, or dance, humans have shared information, co-experienced different lives, and cemented relationships through stories. Stories are sticky, they persist, and they can be magnetic, attracting people and interest. How can stories and storytelling be used to inspire creative ideas, encourage constructive partnerships, and increase the pace of innovation? We propose that stories focus people's attention on particular topics, aligning their interest and acting as the invisible driving force behind innovation.

Innovation is the collective process of creating new ideas with business value [1]. It is the holy grail for many industries, as consistent innovation leads to increasing product and revenue streams. Yet innovation is a messy process that is difficult to teach, measure, and quantify. The processes are murky, and predicting who will innovate and when is still a dream. Increasing the odds of innovation, however, is much more possible.

During storytelling, knowledge is co-constructed. Unlike case studies and scenarios, stories allow for ambiguity and representation of the unknown. Storytelling is an articulation process that acknowledges the potentially conflicting interests of different stakeholders and their differing points of view. Because stories are natural communication vehicles, teams can escape established roles and procedures through storytelling, thus finding new approaches and products.

The Grameen Foundation, a nonprofit working in low-technology, economically poor regions around the world, has broadened its initial goal of microfinancing and added a new story to its mission—using available technology to improve information access, and thus economic access. This story has been very powerful, leading to the Foundation's AppLab, which develops and deploys low-tech solutions to information problems. For instance, farmers can text a central source to find out the summer weather forecast, or text another for personalized health advice. Migrant workers can send money home to their families with the click of a button. By focusing on the now, the possible and the doable, Grameen's story has mobilized people around the world and has had dramatic positive economic benefits.

Most companies kill too many creative ideas in the name of effective management. One reason is the view that the innovation process can be divided and broken down into individual pieces. According to that view, the individual pieces can be worked on systematically, one by one. Often, this ends up isolating key players and reducing the effectiveness of new processes (i.e., midwifery in the U.K. [2]). Procedures and the need for confirmed results can strangle innovation

A different approach is to use organic, natural processes to synthesize different ideas, approaches, and interests into something many stakeholders will make sense of and be satisfied with. How can organizations pick up creative ideas and make co-construction of creative ideas fun and effective?

Exploratory play. Stories can be (and often are) key to the area of design play—the invention of new experiences, new features, and new products. Stories become mental models that groups can manipulate to see how necessity implied by the stories turns into invention. Stories are themselves a kind of prototype that can be manipulated to explore what might or might not work with users. Stories become an anchor to test other aspects of the design process against. By definition, stories have an arc that reveals change. That change can take many forms, from development of values by a character to environmental shifts that create new opportunities. Frequently, user scenarios and case studies paint static portraits of unchanging customers. When there is a storyline, it often follows the exact same arc: A product revolutionizes customers' lives. How can story-based exploratory play shake up expectations and lead to innovation?

In 1994 the Body Shop began selling goods on a platform of consumer and corporate ecological responsibility. It followed ingredients to the source and documented safe, ethical practices and marketed its products as good for your body and the world. At the time, following the ingredient chain was a relatively new practice; consumers connected strongly, launching the Body Shop to an impressive national status.

When a story is told, listeners must make sense of the information conveyed. For American consumers in 1994, valuing the source ingredients in a product was new, unfamiliar territory. By definition, a narrative about innovation will depart from existing understanding to some degree or another. Because listeners must take in the story and make it coherent within their own framework of understanding, that very integration acts as a simulation or play encounter that lets listeners explore the idea mentally. Although not as laden with sensory details as a physical experience, listening to a narrative provides an experiential context in which to explore new ideas.

Filtering. Proposed stories serve as models, and we can explore the implications of alternative designs on the stories and see where/how the stories no longer ring true as a guide for ruling out some alternatives. New designs can be tested against the story by engaging listeners' empathy and agreement with the story's values. If listeners do not connect to the story, an idea is not yet ready for development. Informal pitches are an example of this. Storytelling provides a means by which to funnel effort and maintain momentum, encouraging innovation within certain useful parameters.

For example, the nonprofit Ashoka uses a database of information problems and information solutions. Ashoka reaches out to social entrepreneurs around the world, encouraging them to join its network and receive support. Members tell their stories to Ashoka volunteers and employees, who then go into the database and seek similar stories. This provides a mechanism by which to "match" solutions from around the world. This filtering is possible because very complex, localized phenomena (like difficulty navigating mountainous terrain with delicate berries loaded on uncaring llamas) are told as stories, creating a universal link (such as transport of delicate items with specific tools, like insulated medicinal vials).

In this sense, stories provide a social mechanism by which new and untried ideas can be listened to and filtered by different groups with different priorities. Stories are low-cost, high-impact ways to present information to groups regardless of their orientation, technical background or available resources. In this way, stories help to cross boundaries and spark discussion that can lead to radical changes or the recombination of existing ideas or processes.

Storytelling takes designers through the stages of conflict, resolution, and closure. It lets them live through stories in various contexts. Storytelling is also an effective mechanism to align the interests of people from different disciplines. It allows people to test ideas without requiring individuals to have a wide array of multidisciplinary domain knowledge. Experts bring their domain-specific mental models of how to think about problems. When they collaborate with people from other fields, they all come with knowledge embedded in long disciplinary and intellectual histories. Visual design and ethnography are two well-known examples of such long history. Storytelling expects different perspectives and reveals tension in different stories told by people of diverse training and mental models. It is meant to create the synthesis of ideas, not homogeneity in perspectives.

Future-thinking applications. Stories connect designers, users, and technology. Stories come to define where technology and users mismatch. Stories arise around new situations. Political, economic, and even weather changes result in new stories. Technological change also creates new stories, as well as new avenues for creating and sharing stories. Technology adoption can be heavily influenced by the stories told during the time of initial deployment. Designers need to consider the contexts and goals of potential users to create their stories, narrative scenarios that describe how target consumers move through their lives to accomplish their goals, along with the challenges they face. Proposed, hypothetical services can then be evaluated as helpful, transformational, or unlikely. After a reasonable set of stories has been crafted, the essence of each story, or the core plot concept, can act as a title. This provides shorthand for referencing it and talking about it in an innovation-team environment. The expectation is that these stories can serve as a model that will allow the context to be manipulated to explore alternative designs and their impact on potential outcomes.

When stories prepare people for the use of the technology, adoption and use can be easier, increasing sales. This can create a self-reinforcing loop for technological success. If one can tell compelling stories around technologies, successful adoption by those who listen or participate in the story is more likely. Highly innovative firms treasure and share their stories, especially those that encourage innovation in the face of company procedures or norms [3].

The anecdotes presented here demonstrate the ability of stories to effectively focus people's attention onto a given topic and mobilize effort. Consciously using stories as the driving force behind innovation and funneling group effort into useful, self-sustaining initiatives allows for long-term innovation.

back to top  References

1. Hargadon, A.B., Bechky, B.A. "When Collections of Creatives Become Creative Collectives: A Field Study of Problem Solving at Work." Organization Science 17, 4 (2006): 484–500.

2. Halliday, S.V. "The Power of Myth in Impeding Service Innovation." Journal of Management Inquiry 17, 1 (2008): 44–55.

3. Buckler, S. and Zien, K.A. "The Spirituality of Innovation: Learning from stories." Journal of Prod Innovation Management 13 (1996): 391–405.

back to top  Authors

Jeffrey Kim (Ph.D.) has studied technology innovations in engineering and digital games. He has been faculty at the University of Washington for nine years, and his latest research focuses on the role of storytelling in innovation and collective problem solving, as demonstrated through digital games.

Arnold Lund (Ph.D.) has been at Microsoft for seven years, innovating and conducting research in areas such as natural user interfaces and creating personal experiences. His work on innovation and storytelling began at Bell Labs and continued with inventing and incubating new product concepts at Ameritech, US West Advanced Technologies, and Sapient.

Caroline Dombrowski (MLIS, M.Phil) predicts that digital-game designers will be the gurus of interactive online experience in the next few years. She has been a research project manager at the University of Washington for a year. Her background is in nonprofits, health care, and proteomics

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©2010 ACM  1072-5220/10/0300  $10.00

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