Tell Me a Story: Storytelling as a Research Framework
“I want to know the story.”
This was the last thing the manager of patient placement told me before our interview was cut short by an urgent staff request. I was on-site at a large hospital observing and interviewing her staff in an effort to understand the chaotic world of transferring patients in and out of a health system.
Her comment stuck with me and back at the office, it would often resurface during design workshops, roadmap planning and brainstorming sessions:
“We should tell the story of the patient’s journey to receive care.”
“What’s the client’s story? Do we understand their motivations and challenges?”
“Do we know our corporate story? Where have we been and where are we going?”
We all want to hear a good story. It’s a big part of what makes us human. Whether it’s a riveting movie, a great book, or an emotional play, stories allow us to learn about others and experience situations we might never encounter. We can go further into the mundane and discover dimensions of beauty and challenges of everyday life that aren’t always clear.
Stories educate, inspire and bring people together. When we take the elements of a story and apply them to our research, we can uncover deep truths and meaning. Sharing those discoveries with others in the same format helps us find commonality, spark creativity, and foster empathy. These elements relate to almost every situation in our work lives from targeting a new market to designing a game-changing product.
So, let’s go write a story…
The 5 elements of a story
Every good story is made up of five foundational elements. These elements are essential for a well-rounded, meaningful, and complete story. They also translate nicely into the very types of information to gather during any research phase:
The setting describes the location of where the story takes place. An author should describe the immediate and general surroundings of the setting with enough detail for a reader to picture the scene. This helps portray how characters interact in the setting and how they relate to their environment.
The characters are the focus of the story. Typically, a story will revolve around the main characters and any supporting characters. When writing about your characters, it’s important to include detailed information so that a reader can visualize them: personality traits, motivations, physical attributes, and any relevant experiences that shape how they view the world.
The plot is a series of events that make up a story. It is the cause and effect relationship of these events that describe the meaning behind why certain actions and thought processes arise.
Conflict in a story happens when a problem or challenge arises. The characters must face and ultimately resolve conflict in order for them to achieve their initial goals. Sometimes, conflict can’t be resolved. When this happens, the characters often learn new lessons, formulate new goals and create new solutions.
Resolution of conflict allows characters to solve their problems before the story ends. It is a necessary story element to provide the reader with closure.
Let’s use the story elements to illustrate storytelling as a research framework.
Here’s the setup:
Your company’s main product is an application that helps teachers communicate student information to parents called Progress U. Teachers set up student profiles, update the profiles with grade reports, and authorize parents to view the information via a browser based account. Ever since the roll-out, your company has received good feedback about how the application enables parents to become more active in their children’s education goals.
However, reports have been coming in that a new competitor, TeacherConnect has introduced a similar product to the market. Their product has all of the same features that Progress U does plus additional flexibility like a streamlined mobile app and a direct texting feature so that parents can chat with teachers. You have been tasked to research some clients to see how they can use these features in an effort to make Progress U more competitive with TeacherConnect.
You create a research plan that incorporates the 5 elements of a story and then use it to guide your observations and interviews with teachers at client schools and some parents who use Progress U. I’ll focus on how this might look using one school.
Let’s pretend that your research plan has already been underway for a while. When you first started out, you outlined the 5 main elements of a story in your notebook. Read below to see how your story begins to form after gathering data during your research trips.
North Village Elementary is a large public school that educates around 2,000 students in grades K-5. The school is located in North Village, a suburban area 5 miles outside of a major city called Riverdale. North Village also borders a vast rural area on one side called Northway.
50% of the teachers at North Village Elementary are between 35–45 years old, 30% are under 35 years old and the remaining 20% are over 45 years old. Most are comfortable with modern technology such as social media, online collaboration tools and mobile apps. However, many of the older teachers (45+ years) do not own a modern smartphone or use social media regularly.
Due to the overcrowding and resource issues at the school, most teachers are overworked. They must manage large classes of students from extremely diverse backgrounds, work together to fill in for a class when a teacher is absent, and make do with limited materials. Many teachers claim that they feel depleted at the end of the day.
North Village Elementary students come from varied backgrounds. A large portion (about 50%) live in the suburb of North Village while the other half of the population is split between students who live in either the city or the rural area around North Village.
There is a large disparity between student educational needs and the ability to provide sufficient staff coverage. With such a large school population, many students require additional help. Unfortunately, some students are frustrated with the lack of support in these areas, which contributes to frequent educational and behavioral issues.
School parents span a large array of different backgrounds and socio-economic situations. Many households include two parents working full time jobs (70%), but a large number of households have either one parent working either full time (20%) or part time (10%.)
Most parents mentioned that they have a hard time getting information from the school, mostly due to their busy schedules and/or unavailability due to work obligations. A large percentage complained of not knowing how to help their child when they are having academic problems. Parents often call the school in an effort to find out more about their children’s status.
The school implemented Progress U two years ago and has had mixed results. Originally, the decision was made to use Progress U after a large group of parents complained that they wanted to know more about how their children were doing. The application roll-out had some success because it gave teachers a centralized place to put student information. However, school officials are looking into the competitor’s app because it offers more functionality.
When Progress U was implemented, North Village Elementary was already growing exponentially and this contributed to a lot of overcrowding. Some classes take place in trailers on school property due to lack of space. Classes tend to be very large and there is also a shortage of teachers in some areas due to budget cuts. This problem has become worse over the past year.
Since teachers are overburdened, they don’t update student profiles with grade information in Progress U very often. Parents who have created accounts in the system become frustrated by the lack of information and will often resort to calling the school. Since the school is experiencing an extreme drain on resources, calls aren’t returned in a timely fashion, which causes more issues.
The overburdened teachers at North Village Elementary need an easy way to communicate student information to parents. The solution needs to take their overworked schedules into account and allow timely, on-demand information access.
A chat feature might not be the best answer in this situation, because teachers are not available enough to consistently use it. A mobile friendly version of the application has potential, because it allows access on the fly. The recommendation is to look into an upfront collection of student progress data before it hits Progress U. All teachers have to update a system for school records, so making a connection from that to Progress U eliminates the need to have to remember to update a second application.
So, the story of North Village Elementary wraps up with some interesting findings. At the beginning of this research project, you were tasked with finding out how a chat feature would benefit the school. It was already assumed that your company would be adding chat functionality to Progress U so it would match your competitor’s solution. But, your actual research reveals a strong argument for not investing too much in that type of feature.
This is where the multidimensional framework of storytelling brings so much value. By taking all 5 story elements into account, you uncover a fuller, richer view of the subject matter. Of course, if this were a real project, you’d want to repeat this exercise with multiple schools in order to get a larger sample for better analysis. But, this small example still demonstrates how wrong we can be when we assume first and research later. Especially when we don’t take the time to research thoroughly.
What else can you do with a story? Present it to your clients and read it back to them. Invite them to author it with you. Create one about your organization and discover new ways to improve processes. Use it to help different people relate to each other better. There are so many ways to use the story paradigm to foster communication, empathize, seek collaboration, and foster innovation.
I’d love to hear from a story you’ve written or plan to write. Let me know in the comments!