Article critiques: scenarios, stories

This post discusses the following readings:

  • Go, K., & Carroll, J.M. (2004). The blind men and the elephant: Views of scenario-based system design. interactions, 11(6), 44-53.
  • Gruen, D., Rauch, T., Redpath, S., & Ruettinger, S. (2002). The use of stories in user experience design. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 14(3&4), 503-534.

I thought the best thing about the Go and Carroll article was their listing of differences between scenarios and specifications (though it would have worked better as a table than as text) and their review of the literature surrounding the techniques. I also liked the breakdown of strategy/requirements/HCI planning to year/day/moments. Apart from those squibs, I thought the article was unbelievably dry and unimaginative (which is odd, considering they're talking about the importance of imagination in creating scenarios); for one thing, they introduce the "blind men and the elephant" story in the lead without following it up in the rest of the article. Do scenarios help us see the elephant? Or do they only show us pieces? By the end of the article, we don't know and the authors haven't told us. (I wonder if the editor made them tack it on.)

The Gruen, et al., article by the IBMers I thought was more interesting and meaty; they seemed really in love with their new tool which seemed to have united disparate stakeholders within IBM as well as their clients. I also thought it was interesting how the stories could be decomposed for other audiences as well, down to the design, marketing, and documentation materials. They don't attempt to speculate as to *why* they think stories unite audiences with differing needs, but I'd guess that we're simply trained, from childhood onward, to think in terms of linear narrative. A page of prose describing someone solving a problem is easier to read and understand than a functional specification document, which requires a specialist to draft. Stories don't require specialists.

Their descriptions of its use made it seem like a silver bullet, and I would have liked to know what, if any, limitations they encountered. How do they control their stories, to keep them from becoming distended or unbalanced when descriptions get too specific?

I'd also say that what they're calling stories are not stories, but extended scenarios that use narrative devices like character, setting, plot, etc. The chief characteristic of a story is that the character is different at the end of the story than at the beginning. Their example scenarios don't have that quality; they're more like Star Trek problem stories: Picard is trapped on the holodeck--how do we get him out? No character in such stories really learns about himself or his life. The interest is mainly in seeing people spew technobabble and race against the clock.

Likewise, the IBM scenarios attempt to trap someone in a problem and watch them squirm to get out. The interest is in watching this particular character squirm (would a different character behave differently in the same situation?) and noting the details of what they do to solve their problem.