Welcome to Protagonist
An experiment in design storytelling.
When a designer says “narrative” or “story,” what do you think of?
1 For a lot of creative types, a story is something that comes at the end of the project, to summarize a solution in an interesting way in order to explain it to the world. “Share the Story” is the fourth step in IDEO’s widely respected Design Thinking process, which argues that storytelling is crucial to getting buy-in from clients and users alike.
2 Other creative professionals think immediately of brand strategy when you mention stories. Every brand has a story to tell, they explain, and the successful ones put real effort into finding and shaping theirs, so that it reflects their values and resonates with customers. There are branding agencies whose entire approach and service offering revolves around storytelling, and more articles on the topic than I could possibly keep track of.
3 More recently, narrative can also mean content strategy. Content strategists are good at (among other things) breaking content down into modular units in order to systematize the process of creating and consuming it, and these units often correlate to elements of classical narrative: the character, the context, the challenge, and so on. So good content strategists tend to be good storytellers, because they understand the underlying structures that make stories work.
None of these is what we mean though.
This question, about the role of narrative in design, is something Victoria and I talk about an awful lot. We’re both design strategists and writers, and we tell stories a lot, usually about the problems people are facing, the aspirations that drive them, and the ways designers try to address them.
When we talk about “storytelling” in design, we mean it as a way of defining new services and user experiences in the first place, and a tool for aligning the design efforts that follow. It’s an approach that I’ve written about before, and one that both Victoria and I have used independently on numerous projects over the years.
It works quite well, but it still comes as a surprise to most of the designers and strategists we talk with, who tend to envision one of the three uses mentioned above. And that’s a real loss, because for many UX and service design agencies, alignment is an issue of increasing importance. As technology gets more intimately interwoven into our lives, and seamless connectivity becomes commonplace, the new experiences we get hired to design increasingly live on numerous platforms, all at once. And while we’ve gotten very adept at designing each moment of an experience (or touchpoint, or interaction, or however you choose to sort these things), keeping them all connected in a way that makes sense to the user gets ever more difficult.
So we’ve created this new publication. It’s a joint project, where we can republish old articles and write new ones that touch on the role of stories in creating better experiences.
Some of the topics we’ve already posted about:
- What makes playing the banjo more difficult than using Twitter or Spotify, and figuring out what we’re trying to get out of an interaction before deciding how easy it should be.
- A Samsung ad so touching that it moved people to tears, yet still failed to get people to understand its core message.
- The enormous burden of trust that “sharing economy” services like Uber, Airbnb and Etsy place on consumers, and how to respect it by being more transparent about their inner workings.
- The role that new services, designed with the user’s story in mind, must play in rekindling our trust in big banks.
If any of this sounds interesting, please enjoy what we’ve written, leave a comment, and share it with your colleagues and friends. There’s plenty more in the pipeline, because it’s a topic we can’t stop discussing — the stakes are simply too high. It may sound a little dramatic (or just plain weird) to say that we’re in a crisis of narrative, but as our lives become ever more distracted, dispersed and interconnected, these stories are what’s going to bind the fragmented interactions of daily life into a sensible whole. And we could all use a little more sense these days.
A little bit about the name.
This publication’s name, Protagonist, is a reference to the central character of any good story — the person we know the most about, the one faced with challenges to overcome, the one whose life will change in the most vivid way by the time to story is through. In UX design, the Protagonist isn’t the designer, or the artifact, or the brand, but the user…or more broadly, the human being who’s interacting with whatever’s been designed.
Given the hundreds of overlapping and sometimes conflicting considerations facing a design project, it’s easy to lose sight of this fact. To be sustainable, a design solution must meet the needs of business, work within the constraints of technology, and respond to the social and environmental currents around it. But ultimately it is the user who owns the story, regardless of who designed it.
Every story in this publication has a protagonist, and it’s not me or Victoria, or any of you doing the reading. It’s the people we ultimately work for, and that’s worth remembering. We really hope you enjoy it, and get some use out of it.