UCSD – DSGN 90 (John Thomas)

Day Five: Other uses of Story: Using scenarios to build a future or to explore an issue. Class Presentations. 

lecture/discussion: How to use stories throughout development?  How to use story elements? 


Problem Finding: 

Education focuses on teaching people to solve problems that others pose. An important skill in many situations is finding or seeing problems. Stories can be useful in uncovering such problems in yourself and others. Not only the best, but also the worst experiences can be the seeds for good stories. These stories can be fodder for you to identify problems to solve. In some cases, this can lead to invention. Alexander Graham Bell, for instance, was trying to develop an aid for the deaf when he invented the telephone. You can use the stories that others tell as inspiration for invention, or you can intentionally solicit and elicit stories from people. This may work especially well if you focus on underserved or unusual populations of people. 


Problem Formulation. 

The way you formulate a problem has a tremendous influence on how you solve or even whether you can solve it. Often people solving problems fixate on know ways of addressing problems based on superficial characteristics of a problem. Here’s an example: 

There are 435 people in the US House of Representatives. What is the probability that there are at least two people in the House of Representatives share a birthday?

If you have studied statistics or probability you may have run across the “birthday problem.” In a room with as few as 30 people, though it is counter-intuitive, the probability that at least two people share a birthday is greater than .5.  When people have heard this problem and then see the problem about the House of Representatives, they are likely to think: “Oh, wow. Well, the probability is already more than .5 with only 30 people so, with 435 it must be really high, .99 or even .999. Here’s the thing, these two problems look similar. In both cases, you are talking about birthdays, probabilities, sharing. But they are completely different. In the case of 30 people, or 31 people, or 55 people, or 100 people, you need to calculate the answer. In the case of 435 people, you don’t. The answer is 1.0 for all numbers at or above 366. 


Another example of being misled by surface features of a problem: 

If a chicken and half can lay and egg and a half in a day and a half, how long does it take ONE chicken to lay ONE egg? 

Most people will immediately jump to: “One egg.” That is incorrect. The correct answer is 1.5 days. Here’s a modification: 

If nine women can have nine babies in nine months, how long will it take ONE woman to have ONE baby? 

Obviously, the answer is not ONE month, but nine months. 

The point is that soliciting stories and eliciting stories can help you look at a problem from different viewpoints and this can help you try out different formulations. You need not be limited to stories from users (and other stakeholders). You can also create stories from other perspectives. If you are generating ideas for products in the transportation space, for instance, you need not limit your imagination to drivers and passengers. You can also imagine stories from the perspective of the car. Or, someone waiting for a passenger to arrive. Or, car thieves. Or, bus drivers. Or roadways. 


Preliminary testing of your ideas. 

Generally speaking, early in the design process, it is better to use rough and ready prototypes rather than beautiful, high resolution prototypes. Instead, as you work out basic ideas, vocabulary, sequences, options, and so on, use something that allows you to quickly test out your ideas. This has several advantages. 

First, the users are more likely to give you comments about the functions and concepts of the product or service. At this point, you don’t really want to have a host of comments about the precise icons, colors, screen layout etc. There will be time for those details later. 

Second, developers and management will not be misunderstanding that you are nearly done! 

Third, you yourself will not be prematurely wedded to your own prototype — which is much more likely to happen if you spend countless hours on the details of your early prototype. You can use paper prototypes, for instance.  

You can also use powerpoint prototypes — You can “set the scene” and keep bringing the user “back” to a mainline narrative. 

“Judy promised to spend the weekend helping her son Joe rehearse lines for his class play. Friday evening, after a long week at the office, she gets a call at home that one of her colleagues, Harry, has been in an accident and will not be able to give an important customer presentation on what her company is doing to ensure that their new AI technology will be used ethically. This is not Judy’s primary area of responsibility, but the presentation will be make or break for a substantial government contract. 

“Judy needs to come up to speed as quickly as possible so she can fulfill her commitment to her son and to her boss. So, she uses the Super-Duper-AI powered learning system. She’s never used the system before. 

“Imagine you are Judy and you log into the system and this is the first screen you see. What would you see here? What would you do first? 

“OK, well what Judy actually did was to click this icon which brought her to this screen. If you were Judy, what would you do next?”  

Avoid using prototypes that are too perfect too early. 

Generate multiple sequences, possibly using extreme characters, to generate ideas for testing. 


Don’t be satisfied with testing whether the functionality of a product works when it is used correctly! However obvious you think you are making your design, some folks will go off in a different direction. Someone on the development team needs to make sure this does not “break” the product or service. You might want to include as “extreme” users, someone who simply likes to “kick the tires” … even the spare tire! Include someone who has almost no memory. In real use, the user may have 12 interruptions between action A and action B. Even if they have a good memory, they may not recall what happened at point A when it comes to taking their action at point B. You may also want to include “bad actors.” Is it possible for people to “bring down” the system intentionally? 

Lecture/discussion: Using stories for marketing and sales. 

Next time you listen to a sporting event on TV, notice how the program attempts to use story elements to increase interest. One thing to notice is the emphasis on “The pressure narrative” in explaining what happens. There are a host of reasons why someone might win and someone might lose. Health, weather, training, luck, skill — all of these may play a role. But what we typically like in sports (and elsewhere) is a story about character. So, the announcers will have you believe that a match is determined by character. Who is willing to “go to the end of the line”? Which one is able to withstand the “pressure” of the final match? 


Another fairly recent innovation in broadcasting is to providing back-story to enhance interest. They don’t simply say, “The QB, who played at UCSD in college, has a lifetime average of 200 yards passing and 50 yards rushing.” No, they will tell you that the person almost flunked out and lost eligibility before they finally made a complete commitment to being the best QB they possibly could, or that they were born in Antarctica and swam to Southern Africa where they were mistreated by their adoptive parents and although they were a natural athlete, they didn’t even know what American football was until a week before the Super Bowl. [OK. That’s a slight exaggeration, but you get the point.]

lecture/discussion: Using stories from service calls as input to next round of development. 

{Anecdote about the unworkable heater.}

Final thoughts: Using stories beyond the development of new products and services. 

Stories can certainly be used to help share and build knowledge. This is something experts have been doing for thousands of years. 

Using stories to find and enhance common ground. 

We now live in a world where people must cooperate across vast distances in space, but also across various differences in culture, religion, parental philosophy, education, etc. Can stories be used as a way for people to learn how to better appreciate or understand those with different backgrounds and assumptions?

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Can we now tailor stories for small audiences or even audiences of one? 

One story or many? 

Surface story and underlying story. 

Mergers and Acquisitions: we developed a patent at IBM to find stories from two companies about to merge, find common values, construct stories that emphasize these common values, and re-inject them back into the two companies to help lay the groundwork for the merger. 

Stories can certainly be used to help foment war and increase divisions among people. 

Can stories also be used to heal divisions among people and promote peace? 


Have stories outlived their usefulness to humanity? 

Or, do we need them now, more than ever? 

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