Storytelling is a powerful way to measure our understanding of our users and their experiences. But unfortunately, we don’t always get the story right. User experience rests more on listening to what the users want to tell us rather than the stories research teams and designers tell themselves within the confines of their organizations. Perhaps it’s time to first try story listening before recanting the tales.
In this episode, we hear a story from Mike Monteiro about design going wrong. Jared Spool then talks to Marc Rettig about how the team could employ a technique, the Collective Story Harvest, to take apart the problem and come to new insights. All by listening to a story.
Marc Rettig is joining us in San Diego, CA on April 18–20 for our UX Immersion: Interactions conference. He’s teaching a daylong workshop on research techniques for gaining deeper insights. For more information, visit uxi16.com.
Jared Spool: This is the UX Immersion Podcast. I’m Jared Spool.
Storytelling is a power tool for user experience professionals. We tell effective, convincing stories to help others connect to the people we’re designing for. We use our words to paint pictures about what frustrates our users and our customers and how we, as the agents of change, can make their lives better. Storytelling is an essential UX skill.
Another essential skill, one we don’t hear about, is story listening. Story listening is how we enhance our own understanding of what it’s like to be a person we’re designing for. It’s an important research technique. One that can push past the barriers of what we can only learn through observation or interviews, to get into situations that are tough to design for.
To explore how truly valuable story listening can be, I asked Mike Monteiro, who runs Mule Design in San Francisco, to share a story about what happens when design goes wrong. The story of Bobbi Duncan.
Mike Monteiro: The way the story goes is Bobbi Duncan was a freshman at UT Austin. She was interested in music. She played the piano. She sang. She got to school, and she decided that she wanted to join some groups, like you do, make new friends. She joined the queer chorus at UT Austin.
Bobbi is a lesbian, and she hadn’t come out to her parents. She used Facebook like everybody does, almost everybody.
She managed through some Herculean effort to actually tweak Facebook’s privacy settings to make sure that that happened, so that if she wanted to talk about something that hinted at her sexuality she would make sure that she would tag that in a way that her parents couldn’t see it.
When she joined the queer chorus at Austin, the president of the group, he had also set up a Facebook group for the chorus. He made it an open group.
Here’s the important part. Facebook made a design decision that when something was posted about you in an open group it overrode your own privacy settings. When he announced that Bobbi had joined the queer chorus at UT Austin, it got cross-posted to Bobbi’s wall automatically and overrode all of her own privacy settings.
That’s how her parents found out about her sexuality. Facebook told them. They were not happy. They disowned her. Her father disowned her. I hope that four years later, they’ve come to a reconciliation. I don’t know. But that’s where it was at the time when I read the article.
Jared: Facebook’s design team didn’t set out to destroy Bobbi’s relationship with her parents. They didn’t even know this had happened.
Bobbi had used the privacy settings the way the designers intended. The chorus president also used it the way they intended. The chorus president wasn’t trying to override Bobbi’s intentions. They were both using the system the way they thought it should work, believing the privacy system had their backs.
The interaction of the two settings combined to make a difficult situation. It took a while to understand how this all went down.
As a designer, listening to Mike tell Bobbi’s story shines a strong light on the complexity of Facebook’s privacy system. The story gives a deep background, while also showing where the edges of the problem come together. It’s at the edges that designers do their best work.
Now, Facebook has an excellent user research team. But Facebook’s team had never encountered a situation like this, because user research won’t easily identify this type of problem.
Marc Rettig: If a company is relying on its UX or design researchers to be its ears, to be its connection to what’s really going on in the lives of customers. That’s not a very sensitive ear.
My name is Marc Rettig. I am Principal of Fit Associates, a firm in Pittsburgh. I teach about creating in social complexity, the Carnegie Mellon School of Design and the School of Visual Arts in New York.
Jared: Delegating all the listening in an organization to a small team of researchers isn’t sensitive enough. Even a large research team, like Facebook has, is still limited, compared to the entire size of their organization.
Marc: In the bigger picture, we can talk about what it means for an organization to be listening, to open its sensors. So that its decision making, its strategy, its designs, its priorities are connected to what’s really going on out there as opposed to the stories that everybody tells themselves inside the walls. They repeat these same stories over and over to each other until we believe that’s what the world is like.
Jared: Marc believes that teams need to find a way to put aside the stories they keep telling themselves inside their organization’s walls. They need to listen to people who are having a true experience out in the world as they tell their own stories, just like Bobbi Duncan. This is how we get a richer picture of where the design opportunities truly are.
Marc: You can hear it in their voice. Often, when people are telling stories, they overhear themselves saying details that they may not have known they were going to remember until it was in the act of telling.
As they talk about what the story means, they may overhear themselves talking about beliefs or values that show up as they’re trying to let us know why that story is important to them, in a way that we wouldn’t have thought to ask.
Jared: For the Facebook team to truly get a handle on what happened to Bobbi, Marc recommends they reach out to a bunch of people who were involved in incident: The choir president, other choir members, Bobbi herself, and, if they were amenable, Bobbi’s parents. Maybe they bring in people from Facebook’s own customer service or others who were involved once the situation became a big deal. The team would listen to each person’s story.
However, Marc suggests this has to go beyond just Facebook’s researchers.
Marc: If only the researchers listen, then they have this asking too much of them, responsibility of translating what they’ve heard to other people in the organization.
If you can bring the security people, the web designers, executives, managers, people from across boundaries in the organization to listen to these people tell the stories, that will change the conversation that you have after your customers leave. It’s quite powerful.
Jared: This group of listeners participate in a deep research activity called a Collective Story Harvest. In a collective story harvest, you gather a bunch of people to tell their stories to a group of listeners, who will then harvest the stories they collect for the design insights.
Marc: In general, a collective story harvest, you can use it in lots of different ways. You can have a group of people listen to one or more stories in a way we’re talking about in the harvest of learning’s, and they ask how do we apply this.
Suppose now you’ve done that and now you’ve got a bunch of people from within your company, from within Facebook, and they’re wondering what to do about it. Now you can have internal story harvesting.
The security team can tell stories about the choices that they’ve made in the privacy settings. The executives can tell stories about conversations they’ve had with advertisers and the importance of real names or something like that. The developers can tell stories about their struggles with these issues.
Now, the organization is listening to itself and you can use the same method for that. There’s variations on it where you can listen to a lot of stories at once and compare what you’ve heard.
Jared: Hearing a story second hand invites the opportunity for personal experiences and biases to manipulate the original telling. It doesn’t even have to be in a malicious way. One person’s set of experiences to a point in their life will influence an interpretation of a story or event in a way another’s might not. Having more people hear the story directly allows for a better understanding through discussion.
Marc: I always feel that way, is one of our terrific systemic issues is that we leap to making and don’t leave time for, I would say two steps, listening. Then real reflection.
You think we’ve watered reflection down to grouping sticky notes on the wall, which is analysis, which is different than reflection. We’ve watered listening down to data collection.
Jared: What it boils down to is this: our users are people. They aren’t bits of data that we compile into a design. Each person is different, and they all have a story.
Marc: Story is really powerful. This is not a new idea. There’s been people talking about storytelling organizations for 30 or 40 years.
Jared: Story listening — truly listening to our users and their experiences — is an important way to really understand them. You don’t have to guess about their needs or wants. Acting on the information you get from listening, especially with a team of folks, requires patience and careful consideration. Knowing your users and their stories is one thing. Reflecting upon those stories and distilling them into something actionable that can help our users in meaningful ways is another.
The UX Immersion podcast is brought to you by the UX Immersion: Interactions conference, which will be April 18th to 20th in San Diego, California.
Marc will teach us how to conduct a Collective Story Harvest, by actually doing it in his full-day workshop, User Research Techniques for Uncovering Deeper Insights. He’ll also introduce other great techniques, like a World Café and Situational Modelling. These go way beyond the basic practice of usability testing and field interviews. I selected Marc for this program because spending a day with him will change the way you do research forever. We’ve put a detailed description of everything you’ll learn from Marc on the conference web site, uxi16.com.
The UX Immersion podcast is produced by myself and Sean Carmichael. You can find more information about the UX Immersion podcast on iTunes and at the UX Immersion: Interactions conference web site, uxi16.com.
We’d like to thank both Marc Rettig and Mike Monteiro for being a part of this episode.
You’ve been listening the UX Immersion Podcast, part of the growing UIE Podcast Network. Thanks for listening and for encouraging our behavior.