Story Research

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Making scenarios more worthwhile: Orienting to design story work

A summary of research conducted in completion of a doctoral thesis at Northumbria University, UK (2020).

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


Design has turned to story and narrative in response to challenges that designers 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)

Story and narrative have long been used in design (Don, 1990; Laurel, 1991; Carroll, 1995; Erickson, 1996; Muller, 1999; Grimaldi, Fokkinga & Ocnarescu, 2013). Most designers have a pretty good idea of what stories are and have a good grasp of how stories help them represent, explain, understand and comprehend lived experience (Cochran, 1990:73, in Moller, 2013:28).

For Erickson (1996), who has made a strong case for design as storytelling, stories benefit designers in a number of ways; they are memorable, informal yet concrete, persuasive and informative.

Yet, stories are complex assemblages of narrative and discourse. They consist of people, objects, actions, happenings, settings and events (Chatman, 1980). They are also political and potentially persuasive in that they always take a particular stance or espouse a particular point of view. For example, they can be used to deceive as easily as they can be used to express views of shared or individual truths, facts or realities. They are an integral part of social interaction and as such are intertwined with 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 and expertise, and the right kinds of resources.
Research conducted over the past 50 Years into Scenario Planning and Scenario-Based Design represents the largest body of knowledge on the use and efficacy of story and narrative in design. The first step taken in search of ways to support design story work looked at the worth and limitations of theory and practice in design scenarios and storyboards.


• To make scenario and storyboard use more worthwhile.


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

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).

Findings from the literature

• A lack of unifying theory to deal with design story work as a whole.
• Gaps in tool and method support in areas of story work that are conceptually challenging.
• Failings in practice; scenarios do not always work as expected.
• Design story work can be visually represented and analysed to gain insights into how designers tell stories.
• Using appropriate supportive resources, design workers can learn to recognise 'keystone ideas' essential to design while engaging in story-based strategic conversations.

Research framework

With regard to views of reality (epistemology), the research followed constructivist principles. Constructivism, in this sense, takes up a middle-ground between objectivism and subjectivism (Fig. 3). For Given (2008:116) 'constructivism [...] disallow[s] the existence of an external objective reality independent of an individual from which knowledge may be collected or gained. Instead, each individual constructs knowledge and his or her experience through social interaction'.

Theoretical perspectives
Pragmatism was taken up as the primary theoretical perspective. Holding to some of the principal tenets of pragmatism (Baert, 2009:24) and constructivism, perspectivism was taken up as a secondary theoretical perspective. For Nietzsche, perspectivism is a philosophical stance that ‘rejects the idea of objective or absolute truth and argues that there are multiple ways to view the same phenomenon or object’ (Given, 2008:481).

Social constructionism, with its concern for the co-construction of meaning through mindful engagement with the world, provided a theoretical lens through which to view and analyse story work.

The methodology can be summarised as Research into Design, for Software, Interaction and Experience Design, through Graphic Design.

Methods used to conduct qualitative research drew on the principles of ethnography and narrative inquiry. Narrative resources were conceptualised through ideation and sketching exercises, and further refined and developed through a series of tests and self-reflective experiments. Interrogation of how the narrative resource worked in design practice was achieved by conducting seven co-creation workshops. These took place in an 18-Month period from 2012 to 2013. Protocol analysis was used to analyse the data.
Forms of data included representations that recreate past events, drawn from;

• preparatory and planning materials,
• working and development materials, and
• reflective materials,

as well as forms of expression, such as;

• gestures,
• utterances, and
• interactions.

Claims for contributions to knowledge

In the area of 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.
In the area of Design theory
3. Revision in the way resources are viewed and theorised.
4. Advancement of theory supporting a view of design as storytelling.
In the area of Research practice
5. Provision of two novel, empirically evaluated visualisation techniques that serve as aids to narrative analysis:
• storyboard transcription, and
Resource journeys.
6. Furthering methods of analysis.

Resource Journeys

Resource journey map

Resource Journeys are graphical representations of collaborative story work that
place narrative resources at the centre of human action. The arrangement of
visual elements was inspired by a form of dance notation called labanotation.
The example (right) describes the journey of narrative resources that came into
play in the course of conducting two, two-day Innovation Workshops.
The first workshop took place in Delft, the Netherlands, with two design research
olleagues from Northumbria University and a team of three design researchers
from TU Delft who were investigating a challenging question:

Is it possible to design a boundary object?

No narrative resources came into play at the Delft workshop, and very little
progress was made in answering the research question. However, a wiki website,
as well as shared notes and recordings helped bridge the time and distance gap
until the second workshop, which took place in Newcastle, England approximately
6-Weeks later. There, supported by a number of narrative resources designed to
help designers tell good stories, a predominantly story-based approach to design
was adopted to help answer the Delft Teams research question. Contextual
information needed to help answer the question was drawn from two sources;
storyboard transcriptions made from video recordings of the Delft workshop, and
a role play activity guided by a narrative resources called "20-Questions".
Once everyone was well primed with background and contextual information the
two teams engaged in Storienteering; story-spinning with Dial-a-Plot,
Event Cards and an Annotated Event Map (later renamed 'Visual Plot-line).


Baert, P. (2009), Neo-Pragmatism and Phenomenology: A Proposal, European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy, 3 (2). pp. 24–40.
Carroll, J. M. (1995), Scenario-Based Design: Envisioning Work and Technology in System Development. 1st Edn. John Wiley & Sons.
Chatman, S. (1980), Story and discourse: narrative structure in fiction and film. Cornell University Press.
Cochran, L. R. (1990), Narrative as a paradigm for career research. In Young, R. A. & Borgan, W. A. (eds.) A methodological approaches to the study of career. New York: Praeger Publishers.
Don, A. (1990), Narrative and the interface. In The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Erickson, T. (1996), Design as storytelling, Interactions, 3. pp. 30–35.
Given, L. M. (2008), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. SAGE Publications.
Grimaldi, S., Fokkinga, S. & Ocnarescu, I. (2013), Narratives in design: a study of the types, applications and functions of narratives in design practice. In Proceedings of: the 6th International Conference on Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces. Apr 27- May 2. pp. 201–210.
Laurel, B. (1991), Computer as Theatre. New York: Addison-Wesley.
Moller, L. (2013), Creating Shared Understanding in Product Development Teams. PhD Thesis.
Muller, M. J. (1999), Catalogue of scenario-based methods and methodologies. Cambridge: IBM Watson Research Center.

workPlay: A design for an ideation and sketching tool