How Designers Tell a Story

Ever wonder what Chaucer has to do with call centers?

I hadn’t either — that is, until a few months ago. I was working with IDEO–New York’s Alex Gallafent and Erika Lee to reimagine what a contact center could be, both for callers and the agents tasked with helping them. During the research phase, we’d learned that folks often call in at low moments. They’re angry. They’re confused. They can feel pretty disempowered. We also observed that the agents stuck to their script no matter what, which made the conversations seem one-sided and forced callers to play defense. The agents weren’t getting much satisfaction from the calls either, so they too felt frustrated and anxious.

Wrapping our arms around these and other insights, we prototyped a comprehensive suite of tools and training modules to support healthy, productive conversations — at both ends of the line. There are sensitive moments in a call, for example, when agents need approved language they can trust and that callers can understand. To address these moments, we sat down with the agents themselves to co-design a series of “conversation anchors.” The idea was to craft simple, clear language that allowed them to express empathy in a natural rather than mandated way. When we live-prototyped calls using the conversation anchors, the agents were able to navigate complex processes and volatile solutions, and the callers we’d recruited were able to take in thorny, potentially frustrating information — and that made everybody feel more confident.

Along with our client team, we were excited about where we’d landed. But it was a big shift, with big implications, and we knew that for our overall strategy to take root in the larger organization we’d need to think carefully about how to share it. What kind of end-of-project interventions would invite people to understand and feel the work? Probably not a slide presentation.

In New York’s Makespace, Alex Gallafent pretends not to be playing Jenga.

One morning two weeks before our final share, Alex came in and told Erika and me he’d had a vision in the shower. He said our project, which had these multiple players and story threads, had something in common with The Canterbury Tales. In Chaucer’s poem, after all, pilgrims from very different backgrounds — a nun, a knight — find themselves at an inn, a place where they’re equal.

We do a lot of thinking in front of each other at IDEO, and sometimes we play to think. By stoking a collective spirit of play we get to good ideas faster.

Now, thanks to Alex, we had a useful prompt: Write the tale of each player in our project’s journey, and figure out where and how they intersect. That’s what we’d worked to locate all along, the points of mutual empathy. We’d just figured out a way to map them onto a story.

The day of generating Chaucerian tales eventually led us to design an installation the size of a conference room. First we mocked it up in the Makespace using wood blocks and Post-its. Then we made it for real, creating an experience out of scaffolding and sound, posters and prototypes. We wrote a bigger, simpler story — building it word by word — and vinyl-lettered it onto curtains. The final installation nudged visitors along a journey from dark to light, revealing how all the pieces might fit together — and those stakeholders are now empowered and excited to implement our work within their organization.

Our process at IDEO puts me in mind of a schoolyard where kids invent new games every day. The elaboration of rules depends on whichever personalities show up. Sometimes a game’s rules feel revelatory, sometimes ridiculous, but either way we get to try them out just by playing. The revelatory are remembered, the ridiculous revised. Like a schoolyard or like Chaucer’s democratic way-stop, IDEO is a place where everyone will help you chase a wild idea if only you invite them. Tinkering alongside the right collaborators, I’ve noticed, you can sometimes think yourself into a new universe.

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