Story Research

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Making scenarios more worthwhile: Orienting to design story work

A summary of research conducted in support of a doctoral thesis completed in 2020 at Northumbria University.


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)

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;

• personal experiences and those of others,
• events in the present and those that are distant, and
• people's motivations and the consequences of taking particular actions.

For Wujek and Muscat (2002: 56),

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

However, stories are not simple things. They are complex assemblages of narrative and discourse that involve people, objects, actions, happenings and settings, all embroiled in a series of major and minor events. Stories are political in that they always take up a particular stance or espouse a particular viewpoint. For example, they can be used to persuade and 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 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 and expertise, and the right kinds of 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 my search for ways to support design story work was to understand the worth and limitations of the theory and practices of 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

Figure 3. Research Framework

With regard to views of reality, the research took up an epistemological stance that 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 research’s dominant theoretical perspective. Holding to some of the principal tenets of pragmatism (Baert, 2009:24) and constructivism, perspectivism – a philosophical stance introduced by Friedrich Nietzsche – ‘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

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:
• 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 below 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 colleagues 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).

workPlay: A design for an ideation and sketching tool