Drafting scenarios and stories

This post discusses the following readings:

  • 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.
  • Head, A. J. (2003). Personas: setting the stage for building usable information sites. Online, 27(4), 14-21.

<<In class, we wrote sample story/scenarios, and I refer to a great story written by a classmate about a guy at a party who is covertly listening to his music while grudgingly assisting his wife with hosting a house party.>>

I thought the story about the guy at the party trying to hide the earphone was great--it worked as a complete vignette, the character had a secret (which puts the reader on his side), and it has a nice curlicue at the end. It's complete in itself but could fit nicely inside a larger story about this character.

OK, now *that* I would consider a story, more so than the scenarios we read in the IBMers' paper.

I've been writing short stories off and on since college and did a couple of NaNoWriMo stints, so here's what I think about the narrative devices used to create stories that could be used for scenarios.

CHARACTERS. Some of the best ways to create a character include starting with an archetype (the Scrooge type, the strong and silent type, the talkative type, the Type A type), someone you know, or a fictional character you know really well. As you write and spend time with the character, you'll get to know them better and their own personality emerges, especially as you put them in difficult situations.

You can create an amalgam character or persona, but one person that has many different kinds of tags (like the primary persona in the Personas article we read) can seem a little unreal to me, very manufactured. At that point, I think you're checking stuff off a list rather than creating an imaginary character that *seems* real, which is the goal of fiction. I'd suggest starting simple and then adding stuff as it feels right.

One of the age-old questions to ask about a character to get your imagination primed, is to ask yourself what the character eats for breakfast. This is also a good opening question to loosen up interview subjects, BTW.

PLOT. The IBMers don't talk about the mechanics of plotting, which is one of the toughest jobs in story-writing. A story's theme is what the story's about; the story's plot is this happened, then that happened, then this other thing happened.

Samuel R. Delany has a technique he calls "thickening the plot," in which the writer describes the setting in detail and gets the character interacting with it. So in the party story, we see the character moving around the house, taking things to the kitchen, anything to disengage himself from the party. People trying to talk to him, him turning to hide the earpiece, all help to thicken the plot and ratchet the tension that he'll be discovered.

RACHETING THE TENSION. In the party story, the tension is, "Will he be discovered?" There's no such tension in the IBM stories because, really, what's at stake for the characters? Nothing much. Particularly, that last story iteration they did was all Star Trek technobabble, there were too many characters (so no one person a reader could care about), and there was really no tension or emotion. (I'd say this is a danger of stories in the IBM method, in which lots of people start using the story as a dumping ground for their ideas and you start losing the main thread.)

But tugging on heartstrings isn't what scenarios are supposed to do; they're mainly of use to engage your imagination so you see the whole problem space, not just a little piece of it. (The other advantage being they get the picture and expectations from inside your head into someone else's head.)

The best IBM story was the one where the guy was installing software at 3 a.m. because the workers would be coming to do their jobs in a few hours. A ticking-bomb deadline is tried and true. I'd say that even the Madeline scenario <<a scenario provided by the professor, of someone using a health-care information system>> could use a ticking-bomb urgency, if the waiting room is crowded, people are being processed quickly, and the subject needs to hurry up so he can get back to work.

GOALS AND OBSTACLES. This is plot. An interesting character in an interesting situation creates the plot naturally without too much intervention. In the case of scenarios, we could introduce massive power failures, ice storms, zombies, etc. but they don't really help us with our purpose, which is to design a good user experience. (Another case where stories diverge from scenarios.) I would call scenarios not stories but soap operas: just one damn thing after another, until the fadeout.

That said, yes, the protagonist wants something and is frustrated by a stupid UI, a deadline, ice storm, zombies, etc. which means that something has to be at stake for him or her, and there have to be consequences for failure. In the party story, the husband gambled with multiple consequences of being discovered, which is what made it entertaining (another difference from scenarios: scenarios don't have to be entertaining, though they're more fun to read if they are). In the Madeline scenario, what are the consequences of not understanding the UI? Will I feel sorry for that character if they can't get the video working?

Here endeth another of my verbose postings. Carry on.