Story Research

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Doctoral study

Making scenarios more worthwhile: Orienting to design story work.
Research into scenarios and design story work: A summarised doctoral thesis completed in 2020.


• Gilbert Cockton (primary).
• Mark Blythe (secondary).


Creative designers have turned to story and narrative in response to the burgeoning challenges they face
in a world where rapid change and increased complexity have become the norm.

Figure 1. ‘Stories are basic to all human culture, the primary means by which we structure, share, and make sense of our common experience.’ :(Jenkins, 2006: 120/121)

Most designers implicitly know what stories are and have a good grasp of how stories help them understand, explore and explain connections between such diverse things as;

• our own experiences and those of others,
• present events and distant happenings, and
• motivates and consequences of actions.

For Wujek and Muscat,

‘[t]he search for meaning through the invention of stories is hard-wired into our brains.’
(2002: 56).

However, stories are not simple things. They are complex assemblages of narrative and discourse that involve people, objects, actions, happenings and settings engaged in a series of major and minor events. Stories are political in that they always take up a particular stance or espouse a particular perspective, and they can be used to persuade and deceive as easily as they can be used to determine facts and truths. They are an integral part of social interaction and as such play a role in language and communication. For designers, authoring stories that help them design can be challenging. Co-authoring good stories, i.e., ones that either inform or invigorate design work, requires specialised skills, expertise and resources.
The largest body of knowledge on the use and efficacy of story and narrative in design is to be found in research conducted over the past 50 Years into Scenario Planning and Scenario-Based Design. The first step that I took in the search for ways to support design story work was to understand the worth and limitations of design scenarios practice and theory.


• To make scenarios and storyboards more worthwhile.


• Understand the current use and limitations of scenarios and storyboards.
• Co-design approaches and resources to design story work.
• Empirically test and refine approaches and resources.
• Put practical knowledge and tools directly into the hands of designers.

What the research is about (ontology)

• Story and narrative; their makeup and role in understanding lived experience.
• How designers build a ‘world of meaning’ through the language, terminology and objects they use.
• Human discourse and communication.
• Interpretations, perceptions, motivations and ideas.

Research questions

Figure 2. Matrix of four key research questions

Two complementary lines of inquiry were taken up to help answer research questions.
Understanding Practice concerned itself with how designers work with story, narrative and narrative resources (Figure 2; A & C), while
Building Theory concerned itself with how story, narrative and narrative resources work for designers (Figure 2; B & D; see matrix above).

Findings from the literature

• Lack of tool and method support in areas of story work that are conceptually challenging.
• Lack of unifying theory for design story work based on pragmatist/humanist principles that view experience in narrative and holistic terms.
• Failings: Scenarios do not always work as expected.
• Long-standing misconceptions that view scenarios as no more than material artefacts often expressed in written text.

Research framework: Positions taken up

Figure 3. Research Framework

The research takes up epistemological positions rooted in constructivist traditions (right), and theoretical stances that adhere to pragmatism’s phenomenological view of experience whereby, for Clandinin and Rosiek (2007:39)

‘representations arise from experience and must return to that experience for their validation’.

Arguments for worth embrace a Research through Design methodology where inquiry into design seeks to achieve worthwhile outcomes for design.

Narrative inquiry
Forms of data Representations that recreate past events, including:

• Preparatory and planning materials.
• Working and development materials.
• Reflective materials.

Forms of expression that give accounts of participant experiences with resource-supported design story work, including;

• Gestures.
• Utterances.
• Interactions.

Claims for contributions to knowledge

Design practice
1. Specialised tool support by the provision of a suite of narrative resources.
2. Method innovation through guidance to support independent development of narrative resources.
Design theory
3. Revision in the way resources are viewed and theorised.
4. Advancement of theory supporting a view of design as storytelling.
Research practice
5. Provision of two novel, empirically evaluated visualisation techniques that serve as aids to narrative analysis.
6. Furthering methods of analysis.

Claim 1: A suite of narrative resources

Narrative resources fall into three categories, Content Exemplars, Discourse Prompts, and Narrative Fugitives.

Content exemplars

Figure 4. Content Exemplars

Content exemplars are narrative resources that underpin development of story content. Discourse Prompts

Figure 5. Discourse Prompts

Resources that concern themselves with the expression, manifestation and structuring of discourse.
Narrative Fugitives
Narrative fugitives are resources that fulfil multiple roles to support design teams when they are navigating the liminal space where story and discourse intertwine.




A design for an ideation