What’s wrong with people anyway? 

What’s wrong with people anyway? 


{Translator’s Note}: Well, when I say “What’s wrong with people, anyway,” what I am really saying is that people are not the way that I would like them to be. My being PO’d is also a case of people being what they are rather than the way they should be. 

I can’t understand why vandals could put their petty self-interest so far above the collective work that we are all engaged in — the work of trying to understand the history of our common ancestors and the many side branches that we’ve taken. It’s bad enough that people steal artifacts from real archaeological sites. Yeah, occasionally they find an arrowhead that they can sell to a private collector for a substantial amount of money. But there are still numerous ways on this earth to make money in legitimate pursuits that do not thwart science. Stealing from archaeological sites has literally been going on for centuries. That does not make it ethical. Nor is it ethical to buy from these people, no matter how rich you are. 


Of course, it isn’t everyone who is so greedy and thoughtless that they would subvert science for their own petty bragging rights to a Ming shard or a rare Roman coin. It is a definite and small minority. And, like Voldemort, they pay a heavy price. For the SHRUGS (Super Hyper Really Ultra Greedy Swindlers) who put their own interests ahead of humanity’s do not understand that they are just another twig on the great and varied tree of life. 

SHRUGS believe that the universe of importance is what begins and ends with the boundaries of their own skin. That skin, whether the SHRUGS are large or small, fat or thin; whether they are black, brown, white, or orange is a teeny part of the cosmos. Their lifespan, if they are lucky, might be 100 years. Life on earth, however, is 4.5 billion years old. Think globally and act locally to foster the tree of life. It will be here long after you or I. And, to one degree or another, most people do care about future generations. They care about advancing civilization as well as finding out about earlier ones. It is a small, soul-sick cancer upon the body politic who steal actual artifacts from actual archaeological digs. 

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Few enough artifacts from our past survive. Piecing these together and attempting to make sense of it all is an arduous and often dangerous task. And yet, it allows us to reconstruct our past and therefore to better understand the present. This understanding, in turn, means we can be more knowledgeable and make better decisions about our future. Our choices today impact our social evolution and even, eventually, our evolutionary direction. The ripples never stop.

More recently, however, the SHRUGS, along with their very petty den of thieves, have begun stealing even from mythological digs. In this case, there is zero real benefit to the SHRUGS. I suppose that, in some cases, the wanton cruelty is reward enough for SHRUGS. Sigh. 

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Most likely, SHRUGS never experienced unconditional love. Even if others did love them at some point, SHRUGS would not experience it as love.


What others would see as love, they would simply see as a ploy or a plot to win their money or their power. It’s a tragic state of affairs, whether they are born without empathy and love or whether these human qualities wither due to disuse, they can never make up for it with their addiction to greed and power. 

In any case, I am happy to report that, despite the many gratuitous and pointless efforts to steal crucial artifacts from the site of the Veritas, a critical reconstruction has succeeded. On that basis, we now have at least the outlines of the history and legends of the next epoch of the Veritas. Even as recently as two decades ago, it would have been impossible to reconstruct these stories. I have however, with a minimum number of free parameters, manage to run the Seldonistic Equations backwards and thereby reconstruct a very likely sequence of events. These will soon be recounted. 

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When this site was first discovered, everyone on the project was hopeful that one or more of the original “Rings of Empathy” would be recovered. A number of pieces of personal jewelry have been recovered, but so far, at least, none of these recovered pieces are the storied Rings. The archaeologists will keep digging, but the reconstructed history strongly suggests that these Rings no longer reside anywhere near the Lake of Reeds. 



The next telling begins as the last one ended – with a great feast to celebrate the circle of life. 


Author’s Page on Amazon

Story & Design: Day Five

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? 

Author Page on Amazon. 

Story & Design: Day Four

UCSD – DSGN 90 (John Thomas)

Day Four: Using stories to describe a product or service. Who uses? 


Further Comments on “Theory of Mind.” In story-writing, the author not only needs to keep in mind what they know (presumably, the “whole story”) and what the reader knows by now. They may also have to keep track of what characters A, B, C, D, and E know about the world of the story and about each other! The author also may present information in such a way as to induce the reader to “think” that X is true, while the author knows full well that actually ~X is true. 

The Law of Over-arching context: Any statement which seems true/false may be transformed to false/true by a larger context that is revealed later. 

“The moon is made of blue cheese.” 


Henry had heard that old saw so many times he was sick of it. But only tonight, after being fired, out here alone on the beach, did he really see how it did indeed look like blue cheese. He could make himself believe it. And, that insight led to his billion dollar idea.


Indeed, it had been ordered so by the planet-master’s wealthy sponsor, Zebo Bazeltoe. 


Since Laurie and Joe both loved the moon and had famously first met in astronaut training, both were astonished and delighted at the unusual wedding cake.

Lecture/Discussion about Other story strength elements: 45 minutes.

Avoid “feather dusting.” 

Example: The curtain opens with two maids dusting a Victorian living room: 

Maid one: “So, how long have the two of us been working for Doctor Watson now?”

Maid two: “Oh, my. It’s been ten years, eh?” 

Maid one: “Yes, indeed, and he’s never been the same since his wife Doris left him.”

Maid two: “No, I agree. Certainly not. We had good times when Doris was here.”
Maid one: “Yes, well, it’s no wonder she left him after only a year. Who’d want to be married to that nasty man?” 

Maid two: “Not me. Not for all the gold in China.” 

Maid one: “And, now he’s even nastier. I wonder where Doris went anyway.” 

Maid two: “Well, the way I heard it…”

These two maids have been working for Doctor Watson for ten years; Doris left nine years ago AND NOW THEY ARE FINALLY TALKING ABOUT IT? This is exposition with no motivation. Yes, it begins to give the audience information needed for them to understand what happens next, but it is completely and obviously artificial. 

Turn exposition into ammunition. Put a conflict in. 

Before the curtain opens, we hear the sound of something breaking. Now, the curtain opens. 

Maid one: “Oh, crap!” 

Maid two: “I keep telling you to be careful dusting those! But do you listen to me?”
Maid one: “It was an accident!” 

Maid two: “Yes, well, you’ll be lucky if Doctor Watson doesn’t fire you.” 

Maid one: “He won’t fire me. I’m the cute one.” [She curtseys and winks]. 

Maid two: “Yeah, maybe back in the days when you had Doris to protect you. But now? You might as well pack your bags.”

Maid one: “Oh, come on! Even the Doctor’s not that nasty! Fire me over one broken vase?”

Maid two: “Damned right he will! Fired the gardener after the snails ate all the tomatoes! Remember that?”

Maid one: “That was right after Doris left. He’s had another nine years to get over it. Besides the gardener’s wasn’t cute like me.”

Maid two: “Hah! He’ll be even worse once he finds out about Doris. The mailman says she married a socialist!”  

Main one: “Are you serious?! No way! Doris was fun but … really?” 

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Show, don’t tell. 

Henry didn’t like people. He was in an angry mood and impolite. 

Henry half placed, half slammed the key with its heavy awkward metal tag down on the wooden counter. Not so hard that he expected Claude to raise a fuss, which he calculated he wouldn’t have the rocks to do anyway. But not so soft that he isn’t going to wonder what’s going on. Let him wonder, the prig, thought Henry, noticing with pleasure the slight wince that flickered across Claude’s otherwise stoic face.

Build empathy for your protagonist by working from the outside in. 

  • Objective situation (New England winter storms are not always the slow accumulation of gentle flakes. On offer tonight: sharp spikes of frozen and freezing rain). 
  • Actions and sensations (Joe felt the icy sleet slice right through his thin coat. He tugged it tight about him, picking his way step by step to avoid a skull-splitting slip on the wet, icy sidewalk.)
  • Emotions (Joe worried that his hands might actually become frost-bitten. Damn her anyway, he thought). 
  • Inner conflict (Joe wondered, and not for the first time, why do I always let her talk me into these hare-brained schemes? It would serve her right if I did freeze to death. But still. She must have a good reason. Or, does she? Anyway, I was stupid not to bring gloves. Be prepared, say the Boy Scouts.)


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When writing, use “periodic sentences” — that is, put the most dramatic part last. 

“I’m going to slowly kill you right now if you don’t hand over the formula for the antidote to that poison and get in that room and then I will lock the door.” 

“The antidote. Hand over the formula now. Or die. Slowly.” 


“I love you. That’s the thing, Jules. I’ve been meaning to tell you that for a long time. I’ve just been waiting for the right moment and somehow it never came and so I should have told you a long time ago. But I didn’t. But now I did.” 

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you for a long time. I never found the right moment. Why wait? The simple fact is, Jules, I love you.” 


Use active and specific verbs. 

“John moved across the room with joy in his heart for he was finally happy.”

“John danced across the room.” 

“John moved across the room with a heavy heart for now he felt depressed.”

“John trudged across the room.”

“John moved across the room very quickly for he was in an angry mood.”

“Teeth clenched, fist balled, John tore across the room.”

A story generates more interest if the “surface” of the story hides at least one layer beneath. Text should not equal subtext. 

Compare: A scene where two people fall in love. 

Scene A: They go out for a romantic candlelit dinner and stare in each other’s eyes, each telling the other that they are beautiful, wonderful, intelligent — just what they always wanted.

Scene B: The two are opposing attorneys in a courtroom drama, fighting each other over every objection, what evidence can be admitted, etc. Yet, there are moments when they cannot help but admire the other’s cleverness. 

Compare: A scene where a local thug threatens a store owner to pay protection money and the store owner refuses.

Scene A: Thug: “Say listen, Frankie. Pay me protection money like everybody else or I’ll have my boys break your jaw.”

Frankie: “I don’t think so. The chief of police is a friend.” 

Thug: “Yeah, well some of that protection money goes to bribe him. He won’t protect you.”

Frankie: “I am pretty handy with my fist and with a gun.” 

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Scene B: Thug: “Say listen, Frankie. If you don’t want to be friends, no hard feelings. In fact, I’ll have my wife make you some of her home made cream of onion soup. You’ll love it.” 

Frankie: “Thanks for the offer Frankie. But I’m not much of a soup eater. I prefer steak. Rare. Very rare.” 

Thug: “I’m sure you do. Now. But you know, the soup would be in case of an accident. Sometimes those things happen. And soup is all you can manage. That’s what happened to Joey. Bad luck. He refused my friendship. Next thing you know, he fell or something. Broke his jaw. Poor guy. My wife’s soup was all he could eat for a month.” 

Frankie: “I make a pretty good soup myself. Maybe we should start a cooking show, you and me. I’ll cook and you clean. It’ll be great. I’m sure my friend the Chief of Police would love to be a guest chef on it. He’s great a great griller.” 

Thug: “Did you ever wonder how he could afford all those prime cuts of meat? You might want to give that some thought.” 

Frankie: “Thanks for the advice! I will definitely give that some thought tonight when I’m driving from my MMA class to the shooting range.”

Exercise in story improvement.  30 minutes. 

Take one of your stories; one that you elicited in Wednesday’s exercise or one that you created earlier and improve your story.  Includes in your story some invention, change, or innovation in product or service. The invention could be the protagonist in the story. Or, it could serve a role more like a magic talisman or a wise advisor to the hero. 

Using what you learned about how to make a story better as well as any feedback you received so far from your classmates. Improve the story. 

Story Improvement Feedback: 40 minutes. 

Work in pairs. Spend 20 minutes on each of the two stories. 

First, the author should read the story and then say something they like about what they did.

Then, the author should mention something that they would still like to improve more. 

The listener/reader should then say something additional that they really liked about the story. 

The listener/reader should then give some feedback about how to improve the story further. 

Remember to make your suggestion as specific and actionable as possible. 

Summary recap: 5 minutes.  (For next class, bring in an improved story to read or one of the optional homework assignments.)


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Story & Design: Day Three



Day Three: Soliciting Stories from Others. 

Any thoughts or reflections on yesterday or on trying to further improve your story? Anything that seems like an “insoluble” problem or dilemma that you want to share with the class?

Introduction: 15 minutes. 

Using stories for generating ideas for products. 

Wants and Needs. Cite George Furnas; we NEED oxygen but we WANT to avoid build up of Carbon Dioxide. We NEED healthy food but we WANT sugar. 


Go for needs whenever possible. Why? Your product or service will be more enduring. 

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Drug Dealers get shot or jailed. 

Cigarette companies get sued, fined. 

Even the best buggy whip manufacturers are likely to go out of business. If you focus people’s attention too much on what they like and dislike about their current situation, they are likely to focus on their wants: “I want a lighter buggy whip.” “I want a buggy whip that makes a snappier sound.” “I want a buggy whip that motivates the horse without injuring it.” 

Don’t be fooled by the words that the user/client/stakeholder uses. They may say, “I need a lighter buggy whip.” They are still talking about their wants. Merely using the word “need” doesn’t make it so. 

Theory of Mind. How does this relate to storytelling? How does it relate to eliciting stories from others? Using elements of empathy. Variant on heuristic evaluation: Have evaluators “imagine” using the product or service from the perspective of others. 


Guidelines for Interviewing (from Debbie Lawrence). 15 minutes

  • Prepare ahead of time. You may want to find out a bit about them, their role, the situation, and prepare some questions you would like to have answered, not as a strict sequential questionnaire for the person you’re interviewing but to remind yourself.    


  • Thank them for their time. Provide a “warm-up” period. 
    • Most people do not want to and will not launch into a story that is potentially embarrassing or reveals something negative about their company, a product they use, other people, etc. Of course, there are exceptions. 


  • Tell something personal and revealing about yourself; perhaps tell a story that is a model of the kind of story you’re looking for.


  • Observe an implicit contract of trust.O


  • Provide a motivation for the story — why it’s important. 
    • Say how they, or their colleagues, or people like them, or society as a whole may benefit. 
  • Accept the storyteller’s story and worldview.  Don’t resist the story.
    • Don’t problem solve for them. “Why didn’t you simply call the police?” “Why didn’t you read the manual first?” This approach can appear blaming, the word “simply” implies that this is the “obvious” solution. Let them tell the story with as few interruptions as possible. Later, if you want to probe for other actions that they considered, you might ask, “Let’s go back to the part where you broke the guitar over their head. Were there other actions you considered at the time?” 


  • Reveal who you are, how the story will be used, potential audience and goals, answer questions.

Be honest. If they are exposing themselves, they should know before they tell their story. If true, say that stories will all be anonymized (and make it so.) And anonymized means more than simply changing the name! For instance, a long time colleague of mine at IBM Research was Cathy Wolfe who got ALS and continued to work a IBM Research. If I told about someone at IBM Research who worked in Human Computer Interaction research despite ALS, it wouldn’t be an effective anonymization to simply change her name to Carole Walcott. 


  • Use questions to probe.  Sometimes, a totally “off the wall” question can create space for story to emerge.

This can be especially useful if it seems as though they have told the story many times before. They may be skipping over a recounting of their actual experience and instead recalling the story that they’ve already told. 

  • Empower the storyteller they are the expert in their experience!

Avoid statements that deny a person’s experience. “Surely, you didn’t really expect your brother to….” “But everyone knows that you can’t….” 

  • Avoid threat; don’t appear as an expert yourself.

“I wondered about her actions because I’m kind of an amateur psychologist and so…” “OH, really? I’m getting my degree in cognitive psychology from UCSD in just a few months.” (This may seem like an attempt to find common ground and build rapport; it might work with some people, but others will read it as you trying to “one up” them and to question them on how much of a psychologist they really could be. 

  • Listen with avid interest.

If possible, and if it doesn’t make the teller uncomfortable, it’s good to go with two interviewers and either record the interview or have another person take notes. When I was training as a Cognitive Behavior therapist, we recorded sessions as a matter of course. I explained what this was for (so I could review it and have my supervisory group review it for suggestions) and said, “Here’s the pause button. If you ever want to say anything and NOT have it recorded, feel free to just hit the pause button.  

  • Thank them again.

Go over your notes immediately, especially if you have not recorded it. 


Small Group Exercise: 3-4 people in the group. Interview each other to gain story. One interviews. One Records. One or two provide feedback for the interviewer. 60 minutes.

Take a moment before beginning to think about some unusual experience, situation, part-time job, summer job, vacation, that you had. Try to recall something that could have gone better – a time you were frustrated, scared, angry, anxious, depressed. Then, use this as a suggestion for what the interviewer asks about. It does not have to be a life-changing experience! Just getting lost on campus, buying a video game and then be frustrated with it, or getting an unfair traffic ticket is enough. Let the interviewer ask you questions about your experience. The interviewers long-term goal is to uncover one or more needs that might be addressed by better design. Of course, you probably won’t get that far in a short interview, but keep that goal in mind. 

The Feedback structure should proceed as follows: 

  • First, the Interviewer says one thing they liked about what they did in the interview and asks for feedback on how they could have done one thing better. 
  • Second, the observers each say one thing they liked about what the interviewer did and one thing that they thought could be improved for next time. 
  • Third, the interviewee says one thing that they liked about how the interviewer conducted the interview and provides one suggestion for improvement. 
  • Fourth, the group briefly discusses whether the interviewer was able to delve into underlying needs or whether it stayed at the want level. Also, discuss whether they interviewer was able to elicit any stories of experiences from the interviewee. 


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FB for these sessions. 

Each interviewer might tell story to larger group as well. 

Class discussion about story elicitation lessons learned. 20 minutes.

Review, summary, and preview of homework challenges: 5 minutes. 

Questions: 5 minutes.

Optional Homework Challenge: Design a high-level visual representation for one of the three major “dimensions” of story: Plot, Character, or Setting. Stories are written or told with words, but the underlying structure is hard to “see” by simply looking word by word. Representations can either make problem solving, including design problem solving much easier — or much more difficult. So, your goal is to provide a thinking tool for higher level design aspects of story. Prepare to give a ten minute talk to the class about your representation on Friday.

Speech analysis and waveform versus spectrograph. Use of “speech-flakes” by Cliff Pickover (which again shows that human beings are not just information processors).

Optional Homework Challenge: Look up the TRIZ method. This was developed by Genrich Altschuller for invention in the engineering domain. Find out his story. Prepare a ten minute explanation of the method for this class. At the end, speculate about how this method might be applied to the process of story design on Friday. 

Optional Homework Challenge: Find your own design problem related to story — and solve it. Prepare a ten minute class presentation that poses the design problem and then explains, shows, demonstrates your attempt to solve that problem. 


Examples: You do NOT have to choose one of these.

How could a computer program extract the value changes in a story. This could be used, e.g., to check whether every scene had at least one value change (love to not love; rich to penniless; sick to healthy; alive to dead). Or, it could be used if you wanted to search for stories that showed someone going from rich to penniless. 

How could you design a program to find stories in a large amount of text — part stories and part non-stories? 

How could you provide a tool that would change a story to modify it for different situations, different audiences, or different goals? 


Magic Portal into Other Worlds

Story & Design: Day Two


Day Two: What are the properties of Stories? What makes for a good story? Character & characterization. Who are some memorable characters? Why are they memorable? 


Another View of Story (lecture & discussion): 45 minutes.

Three-dimensional view of story: Plot, Character, Setting. 

But these three are not really independent dimensions. 

Levels of Conflict:  Intra-psychic, inter-personal, with larger forces: society, nature. 

Character is deep; revealed by choices under pressure. 

Characterization are surface features.


Characters are more interesting when their surface features play off against their character. James Bond is actually a patriot willing to “go to the end of the line” for his country — even though on the surface, he seems like a superficial playboy. Shawn Spencer in Psych is a complete charlatan posing as a psychic. But through his shenanigans and charades, he uncovers the truth and puts away the bad guys. Lady “screw your courage to the sticking point” MacBeth is hard as nails on the outside, but goes insane with guilt. 

Characters must have weaknesses, not just strengths. What three weaknesses does Superman have? What about other heroes or superheroes? What about ordinary protagonists? 


Characters often have a lie. This is basically an overgeneralization that they have made on the basis of a traumatic event. “Our father/mother left the family; men/women are not to be trusted!” In order to find love, the protagonist must learn to overcome this and “grow” to a more nuanced view. This lie, at least initially, is often unconscious. They may not know they have it. If they do know, they initially do not see it as an overgeneralization at all; they are simply being “realistic.” 

Characters often have a secret. While the lie may be unconscious, the character is quite aware of their secret. They are ashamed of something and try to keep others from finding out about it. Neither the Lone Ranger, nor Zorro, nor Superman wants others to know their “true” identity. Other secrets might be about their upbringing, a love child, a rape, a crime, etc. 

Characters we care about, are active, not passive. They don’t just have vague inarticulate desires (in the most common case of an ArchPlot) – they want to achieve or gain something quite specific. Frodo needs to destroy the “One Ring.” Harry Potter needs to destroy Voldemort (or “convert” him). And, both these heroes will do anything to reach their goals. We don’t really want heroes whose approach is: “Well, while I’m visiting Mordor, if I get a chance, I might drop by Mount Doom and destroy the ring.” Even in user stories about products or services, have your use really care about the outcome. Cf. “Joe wants to get to downtown San Diego as soon as possible” vs. “Joe’s wife fell and hit her head; he needs to get his wife to the emergency room as soon as possible to avoid permanent brain damage.” 


Exercise: Improving a story. Each small group of 3-4 people takes a story and improves it. People work in turn improving character, plot, and setting. Put emphasis on character.  45 minutes. 

For each story, have the author pass out copies. Before reading the story, the author should say if there is anything in particular they want feedback on. 

After reading the story, one of the other members of the group acts as a shepherd. The shepherd, invites the author to listen to feedback. They should make a small group and have the author turn their back on the group, but be very close and listen to what is said. The author should be quiet, listen, and take notes. 

Each person, in turn, says one thing that they particularly like about the story in terms of plot, character, or setting. If anyone else in the group agrees, they simply say “ditto.” 

After each person, including the shepherd, has a had a chance to mention something they like, each one should offer a suggestion for improvement. Be as actionable and specific as possible in giving your feedback. If you agree with someone else’s suggestion for improvement, simply say, “ditto.” Rather than disagree, focus on giving your own positive suggestion when it’s your turn. It is not time to get into a debate about whether or not a suggestion is a good one or a bad one. Just give feedback to the author about the story and let them take it all in. 

When everyone has given feedback about the story, the shepherd invites the author back into the circle and then tells a short unrelated joke or anecdote.  

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Move on to another story and another as time permits and try to get through everyone’s story. 

Class Discussion: What did you learn from the exercise? What surprised you? 25 minutes. 

Summary Recap:  5 minutes. 

Exercise for next class: Consider the feedback you obtained from the group and improve your story. Bring it in to the next class. 


Author page on Amazon. 

The Use of Story in Design


Dear Faithful Readers and Students:

I have been preparing for the last few weeks to teach an intensive one-week course on stories and story-telling, DSGN 90,  at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). I will using this blog to post information relevant to that course. Non-student readers are also welcome to peruse this material. Next week, I will return to general blogging further about stories and storytelling. The mythical translators and archaeologists who are working on The Myths of the Veritas assure me that within a month or two, there will be sufficient material unearthed and analyzed to begin recounting more of their tales.

Meanwhile, here is a link to the class.

And here are is the class outline for Monday, January 28th.

Course Outline: DSGN 90 (Instructor: John Thomas)

Day One: Introduction, What Makes a Story? What Makes a Story Good? Uses of Stories, Storytelling, and Story Elements in Design.  

Hand out sheet: Name, E-Mail, Major, career goals if known, course goals, comments

Introductions and solicitations for reasons people are taking the course. Terse: One interesting thing about your background + goals. Ditto.  20 minutes

The “Story of Story” (How I got interested). Knowledge Management & Dr. Maciw. – 5 minutes


Overview of Course Content: 30 minutes; 

Two main goals: 

Learn some of the ways stories can be used in design, development, and other areas of life & work. 

Learn something about how to create or elicit stories more effectively. 

Focus on What a story is; why stories? – memorable and motivating; can be good for tacit as well as explicit knowledge. Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book. Here are the opening lines from various novel length stories. Read over these and see whether they “hook” you to want to find out more. Also think about what you have already learned about: 

The Story Genre or structure.

The character.

The setting.
The writer. 

The intended audience.


Common stories allow a group or community to easily reference a situation: Robin Williams in Aladdin and the robot in The Nutty Professor.  

Stories may be viewed in many ways. Each of them is useful. And all of them together are more useful than any of them singly. 

Stories can be seen as setting up a resonance on an emotionally charged roller coaster. Real Roller coasters have a property defined by gravity. The biggest changes occur at the beginning. Stories have properties defined by imagination. The biggest changes occur at the end.

roller coaster ride

Photo by Angie on Pexels.com


Stories explore the edges of human experience. What is true of our temporal and spatial sharpening across all our senses….putting more resource into processing those stimuli that change in space or time; true of sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, kinesthesia. We are also interested in the limits of things: what is the largest animal that ever lived on earth? What is the tiniest mammal? What is the age of the oldest person alive? How tall is the tallest mountain? And, just as our senses are influenced by expectation, so are our emotions. 

 {Anecdote about new cassette tape player that replaced AM radio in car.}

So too, an experience related in a story can be at the edge due to expectations set up for the reader by the writer. 

Because story looks at the edges of human experience, this has implications for character. We want our typical heroes to be out there in some way and be willing to go to the end of the line to achieve their goal. We want them to really care about their goal. 


Because story is supposed to explore the edges, it means that stories often tend to have something unusual in their setting too; Roman times, Medieval times, on Mt. Everest, on a space ship, during a war, in a magical world, in a world of monsters, etc. 

Good stories *can* be set in more normal situations, but then to get to the edges, the author will need to be put more emphasis on constructing the plot and giving characters a burning desire. The “edges of human experience” don’t always have to be the edges of all human experience. The “edges” can be of the edges, not of all human experience, but of that particular person’s experience. It’s not so much a way to learn what’s at the edge. After all, that will always be changing and is more the province of science than story. 

The dilemma of how we might respond to cruelty; to lost love; to overwhelming odds; what we will do about it — those are questions that are timeless. Those are the ones that allow us to identify with Odysseus, or Lady McBeth, or Bambi, or Frodo Baggins, or Jane Eyre. We have to feel how “on the edge” their decisions are for them in their world, not what they would be viewed as in our world. 

There is an important asymmetry to the knowledge exchange that’s possible in stories. We can learn from stories how we can deal better emotionally in some extremely bad circumstances. We hope we are never in such dire straights, but if we are, we are more emotionally prepared. For that reason, and because it’s more emotionally arousing, we the readers or viewers want the hero to “take it to the limit” — to risk everything to save…


In real life, we should avoid abandoned warehouses, wait for back up, and not yell out to the scores of hidden villains.  If you are the villain in real life, you don’t bother to “explain yourself” to the hero until help arrives! You would shoot them immediately! If a story is being used as a training manual for procedure, maybe you want the story to model the correct behavior. But the correct behavior is almost always more boring. Generally, the writer should put their heroes in pain, bad luck streaks, etc. This can be a sticking point for people who write. They identify with the hero and like their hero so they find they “can’t stand” having the hero they created lose their best friend, suffer an amputation, give in to an evil impulse, etc. 

Using Stories throughout problem finding, problem formulation, generating design ideas, user stories for coherence and to motivate, stories for sales and marketing, stories from users and service people. 

sunset beach people sunrise

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Creating a story outside in. Take any interesting object, person, fact, and dive into it. Expand historically, geographically. Immerse yourself in details and let the story come. (If Only; JFK). Of course, you can use this method to recount one of your personal experiences. But you can also elaborate on one of those, making sure to label it as fiction.  

Creating a story inside out. Look for strong feelings of anger, surprise, humiliation, or fear; e.g., what gave rise. Can change or alter circumstances to make for a better story. 

Exercise: Use one of these two methods (Outside In or Inside Out)  to generate a short short story (@250 words) ideally, but not necessarily, one that might be relevant to design potential (which isn’t all that restrictive really). 

Read your story to a partner. (If you didn’t finish writing, you can read the first part and create the rest on the fly). After reading/telling your story, have a short FB session. 

The author of the story should tell their partner one thing they liked about the story and THEN say one thing that they were not satisfied with or wanted to improve. 

Then, the listener should say one thing that they liked about the story and one suggestion for improvement. 

For feedback to be effective, it should be as specific as possible and as actionable as possible. 


For example, if you say, “Wow, that was a really good story.” it isn’t all that helpful. If you say, “Really good story. What I especially liked was your detailed description of the morgue” that’s better. If you say, “That’s a really good story. I liked that detailed description of the morgue, especially the way you used tactile imagery, smell, and the sound of the place.” That’s quite good. Similarly, if you say, “I don’t know. I didn’t really like that story.” it’s not very useful.  

Of course, feedback generally works best when it’s accurate as well. And all three of these guidelines apply equally well to the feedback you provide users in almost any system (games & CAI can have exceptions). FB needs to be:




Explain Writing & FB Exercise: 5 minutes

Explain Rules for FB on exercise: 10 minutes

The Formula for critiquing. FB should be specific and actionable. 

FB in therapy session. 

FB in OOPSLA Pattern Workshops. 

Actually Performing the Writing and Feedback Exercise: 30-40 minutes.

Review, summary, and preview: 5 minutes. 

Questions: 5 minutes.

Writing Assignment: Bring in four copies of a written story of your own (250-1000 words) to class for Tuesday. 

It could be fiction, anecdote, a user story illustrating a problem, or a solution. 

Main criterion is that it’s something you’d like feedback on.  

Author Page on Amazon. 


The Story of Story 4: Character

The Story of Story 4: Character


Character is revealed by choices under pressure. Character is one of the three main dimensions of story. Often people who write fiction — or developers who write “user stories” add details about the people in an effort to make their characters (or personas) more “interesting.” Adding irrelevant details in something as long as a novel might help the reader get a clearer image of the character. Even in a long novel though, it’s better to add details that relate to something else in the story. In something as short and “to the point” as a “user story” it is worse than pointless. 

Consider these descriptive details: 

“Jill had beautiful blue eyes.” 

“Jill had beautiful brown eyes.” 

“Jill had beautiful green eyes.” 

So what? 

It might be relevant to some story. For example, if Jill were a slave on an antebellum plantation, her having blue eyes might relate to her mother being raped by a white overseer. Maybe Jill finds out and exacts revenge. In that case, her blue eyes might be meaningful. Or, in another story, Jack might insist on dating only blue-eyed blonds. That is part of his “ideal beauty.” Jack pursues Jill because of her striking blue eyes. He shares information all the time about his “conquests” with his best friend, Judy, a woman with black hair and dark eyes. If it’s a romantic comedy, we will know, long before Jack will, that he is falling in love with Judy. The physical characteristics of the women serve to reveal Jack’s true character, which turns out to be deeper than we at first surmised. 


But suppose the story is about how someone might use an Uber app? Is it really going to matter what color her eyes are? Will it matter to someone playing a video game? 

Irrelevant details only seek to distract the reader (or the developer). These details sometimes go by the title “characterization” rather than character. Character should be reserved for deeper things. Sometimes, characterization can be interesting in the way it contrasts with character. In Psych for instance, Sean Spencer pretends every week to be a psychic helping the Santa Barbara police. His aim is to get to the truth. But in the service of getting to the truth, and putting the bad folks in jail, he runs this scam where he pretends to be psychic. 


In the James Bond movies, the character of James Bond is revealed by his choices under pressure. He will give up everything and anything in the service of his country. But on the surface, he seems like a playboy. He drinks martinis. Yet, he is highly disciplined. He wants things his way. Even in his instructions for his martini, his meticulous attention to detail comes out. 

Spock, on Star Trek, plays a character who reminds us time and again about how “rational” he is and how he can control his emotions. Of course, what makes this interesting is precisely because he isn’t always rational and in fact, sometimes has more violent emotions than the humans he critiques for their emotionality. 


If “character is revealed by choices under pressure,” it’s also good to remember that character should be coherently related to setting and plot. Plot advances through conflicts. In The Sound of Music, for instance, Maria has an internal conflict. She wants to be “good” and “follow the rules” of the convent (and later those of the Captain’s household), but she likes joy and music and spontaneity. She also finds herself in love with the Captain. Conflict. She also has inter-personal conflicts with the authorities at the convent, with the children, with the Captain, and with the Countess. She also has conflicts with larger forces in the world – notably Nazism. None of these conflicts is random; they arise quite naturally from the setting that she’s in — and from her own character. 


James Frey, in How to Write a Damned Good Novel, suggests a sequence of increasingly intimate reveals about character that allows the reader to care about the character. First, you say something about the objective, external world that the character exists in. Second, you reveal what the character perceives and does about the situation. Then, you reveal how the character feels about what is happening. Finally, you let the reader “tune in” to the internal conflicts of the character by showing their internal dialogue. Consider: 


“The snow began to fall. The wind began to howl. The “snow” morphed into sharp little knives of ice.”

“Joe began to shiver and pulled his coat tight about him, crossing his arms across his chest.” 

“Damn it! I want to be in a nice warm bed. Grrr.”

“Why do I always let Sally talk me into these half-baked schemes?” 

For me, this order “works” – I am now curious to see what this particular half-baked scheme is and what sort of power Sally has over Joe. Read the lines in the reverse order and it makes only a little sense. It also puts a greater memory load on the reader. 

In some stories, character stays fairly constant and the world (and others) change because of the character’s choices. In the “Hero Saves the World” plot, this is the main emphasis. In the “Growing Up” plot, on the other hand, the most important action is how the character “changes” over time. I put “changes” in quotes because sometimes the “change” is really that the character simply acknowledges their underlying character. For instance, in Sweet Home Alabama, Melanie never really stops being in love with her husband (or Alabama) but consciously, she claims to want a divorce and go back to NY to be a “success.” As always, character is revealed under pressure <spoiler alert> and she “forgets” to sign the divorce papers. In many of the best stories, the character changes (or saves) the world and the world also changes or matures the character. </spoiler alert>.

city man person people

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This may all make sense when it applies to fiction, but how does it impact how we write stories in a business context? This is often tricky because in many business contexts, only the founder or CEO is even allowed to have character. Everyone else is basically supposed to behave the same way: put the company first; follow the rules; do a great job; work together cooperatively; be loyal to the company. As a result, official company stories are bland and two-dimensional. They are basically nothing more than procedures. “If this happens, do that.” Implicitly, this says, “If this happens, do that” regardless of your internal character. 


If you’ve done an excellent job of observing and interviewing potential users of a product or service, you have hopefully discovered some interesting internal conflicts and some related aspects of character that can become a logical part of user journeys. Initially, your target user may be reluctant to use your product. 

Users may be reluctant to use on-line banking, for instance, because of the possibility of hacking or fraud. If this is a genuine concern of 1% of your potential customers, you probably don’t want to make it a concern to the rest, unless it is something they really should worry about. On the other hand, if it’s a genuine concern of 99% of your potential customers, sweeping it under the rug won’t do. The user in your user stories can be portrayed with this concern including internal conflicts and then you can show them overcoming the concern, if and only if it really can be ameliorated through various actions like two-factor verification, password choices, etc. Telling a lie about how safe on-line banking is, will ultimately undo you no matter how well told the story is. But character and characterization of these users should be designed around conflicts that actually are relevant to the product or service. 

“Mary had put all her life savings and all her energy into her small company. Her time had become gold. She was on a path to hire more people, but that took time. Now the bank was offering lower fees if she would switch to on-line banking. She had always wanted to be a soccer player but she knew she wasn’t coordinated enough.” 

action activity balls day

Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com


Yes, that may be something that came out in an interview with a real Mary. And it may even be part of an interesting story. But not this story! The naturally occurring conflict here is Mary’s desire to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible — and yet also to be as safe as possible. Mary may initially see these in conflict, but you may have a legitimate way for her to avoid or rethink the conflict. Mary’s character might be made more intense by having her see her budding business as a legacy she wants eventually to hand off to her daughters. But it doesn’t really matter whether she has blue eyes or brown eyes. You could instead intensify Mary’s desires by making her a success-oriented second generation immigrant whose own parents spent countless hours of hard work so she could get through college. The family still cares about every dollar. It doesn’t matter whether she lives in a small flat in Brooklyn, Chicago, or LA. It does matter that she wasn’t gifted 10 million dollars to start a business by her billionaire parents who live in a mansion in Manhattan. 


It doesn’t matter whether she likes her martinis shaken or stirred either, unless you are making the point, e.g., that she is a fanatic for having things her way and that your software allows more customization than does that of your competitors. In that case, you can introduce a detail that shows, rather than tells, this fact about her character.


Author Page on Amazon.


The Story of Story: Part 3

The Story of Story: Part 3 – Good Story, Well Told.

Often in my English classes, (and yours?) we talked about the mechanisms of writing: spelling, grammar, word usage, punctuation, paragraph construction, metaphor, rhythm, and rhyme scheme, for instance. We talked very little about how to tell a story well. And we talked zero about what makes for a good story. 

In the last article, I described some guidelines for soliciting stories from users and other stakeholders. From these, one may gain insight into potential problems that a product or service might solve, ameliorate, bypass, or avoid. Later, I will describe more about how stories may be used in the design and development process. Before getting into that, however, I want to describe more about what makes for a good story. In the following articles, I will also suggest ways to make the story well told. 

What Makes for a Good Story?

You might find it helpful to write down a short list of 5-10 novels, short stories, movies, or TV shows that you really liked. It doesn’t have to be your all time ten best; just something good that springs to mind. Then put that list aside. Read through the criteria I propose and then check back after you’re done reading to see whether or not most of these criteria were met. I’m betting that they mostly were met. 


The Story Cube. 

Imagine a cube of some really nice material that you like; e.g., polished wood, lead ore, malachite, silver. This cube has three dimensions: height, width, and depth. It must have all three dimensions. In the case of a story, there are also three dimensions in this sense: Plot, Setting, and Character. If a story lacks any of these three, it will be “flat” (not so interesting). For example, if you spent time working in a large company or government agency, you were probably given training materials about how you’re not supposed to do unethical things like steal from your company. They may have provided you with scenarios and asked what you would do or what was the “right” response. These stories tend to have people in situations making decisions. The problem with these stories is that, in order for them to be “efficient”, they spend almost zero time on character development.  “Joe wants to impress his boss and make his quota for the fourth quarter so he puts down as sold this-quarter things he is sure he will sell early in January. After all, he rationalizes, calendars are arbitrary.” Of course, the answer is no Joe should not be lying on his sales report. But we really don’t know much about Joe. We don’t know enough about him to really care much about him. Of course, he shouldn’t lie. If he does, it’s pretty hard to feel anything but contempt for Joe. It should have been obvious to him that he shouldn’t lie on a sales report and if he does lie, he should be fired. Good riddance. Let’s replace Joe with someone who follows the rules. 


This story is so flat that it seems to me that the story is constructed, not so much to really educate, but more to prove that you were shown that it’s wrong to lie on sales forms so that, should the court case arise, you will not be to argue effectively that it was a mere technicality that you didn’t know about. If you really wanted to change someone’s mind about what was right, knowing about Joe’s character could make you empathize much more. Maybe he came from a Mafia-type crime family and no-one would bat any eye about lying on a sales report. They would expect him to lie on the report. Maybe even now, he is looked down upon by everyone else in his family for being such a chump and working for “the man” instead of being “the man.” 


Or, perhaps Joe just found out that his wife has serious cancer and is understandably but severely depressed. He desperately wants to bring her some good news. If we reveal, not only what situation Joe is in but also, how he sees that situation, how he feels about it and what conflicts he faces, we will begin to have real empathy for Joe. His choices become real, rather than predetermined.  

TV commercials, like corporate training videos, are typically pretty flat too. But in some cases, the ad agency has gone out of their way to introduce you to some character that is recognizable and re-appears in commercial after commercial. Each time, just a little bit of character is revealed and eventually you find yourself watching the commercial largely because you start to care about the character. In a similar way, one might be able to make the corporate training stories more intriguing & educational if there were a cast of characters that persisted over time. 


Two Paths Diverged in a Yellow Wood…

Typically (but not invariably) the author knows how the story will turn out before he starts writing. But for the reader (or viewer), it is not at all obvious how the story will turn out. For compelling stories, the reader must be convinced to “play along with” the uncertainty of the outcome even if they are sure ‘the good guys will win.’ In good stories, bad things happen to the protagonist, but he or she is not a cork tossed on the ocean waves. The protagonist must want something; they must have a goal that is overwhelmingly important to them. They must react to changing circumstances, overcome the obstacles that are thrown at them. Characters are engaged in battles! Battles test them. If winning the battles is easy or inevitable, the character isn’t someone we can really relate to. 



Superman is basically super-human and invulnerable! But watching someone who is invulnerable and has super-powers win battle after battle is boring. Superman has to have weaknesses. To make it more interesting and allow for more plot variation, he actually had three original weaknesses: kryptonite, friends, secret identity. In one episode, someone will have some kryptonite while in the next, someone will kidnap one of his friends. Recent movies have added a fourth weakness: other super-human and invulnerable beings.  

Whatever the story, your character must have weaknesses. Otherwise, no-one will “believe” the character and you as the writer will be stymied when you try to develop an interesting plot. The weaknesses can be physical, moral, social, intellectual, situational, and so on. But they should not be merely irrelevant weaknesses. Imagine a story where Sue is the main character. She’s tone deaf. She’s also brilliant, hard-working, imaginative, driven to succeed. And, indeed, she becomes a very successful trial lawyer. Eventually, she is made partner. OK. Isn’t this exactly what we’d expect to happen? What does being tone deaf have to do with anything? 


Imagine instead, that Sue was inspired at the age of four when she went to the opera. It was her life-long dream to become an opera singer. Indeed, she was blessed with a beautiful voice. She was also brilliant, hard-working, imaginative and driven to succeed. Unfortunately, she was tone deaf. Now, the weakness becomes interesting. Perhaps she will fail and kill herself. Perhaps she will fail but find another goal that is even more important to her and succeed at that. Perhaps she will fail time after time but eventually develop a career as an improvisational opera singer. She will ask people in the audience to name five things and then and there, she will create a beautiful aria that weaves a tale of some considerable interest about the five things. No-one knows that she is singing out of tune because she is composing on the spot. 

The more improbable the odds and the more horrendous the journey, the more challenge you give yourself to make it work! Blind at birth but wants to be an artist? Surely, that’s just stupid. It’s impossible. But is it? What if feedback were provided in such a way that it influenced her to make unique and beautiful paintings? What if genetic engineering allows her to grow new neural pathways? What if she can be equipped with artificial eyes? If it’s fiction, a magic spell can do the trick. Even if your ultimate goal is a real product for the real world, imagining a magical solution may lead you to a new (and real) path, previously hidden by your own expectations. 

It is easy for a writer to identify with their hero. And that is potentially quite a problem. After all, if you were superman, you sure as heck would not go out of your way to go near kryptonite. You’d quite sensibly stay away from the stuff! But if you are writing about superman, you need to get him near the deadly stuff every third or fourth episode! The “weaknesses” in the character generate interest. The failures, injuries, betrayals, and conflicts of your protagonist provide materiel that allows you to architect a more interesting plot. 


A Garden of Delights, Flashy Sights, or Sword Fights?

Three dimensions of story is a weak metaphor only. The three dimensions of a cube can be manipulated independently. This is not generally true for the three dimensions of story. The character makes a decision, the decision determines the next step of the plot. That will influence the setting for the next scene. In addition, the actions of the protagonist may also change state of the underlying and cross-cutting conflicts. 


 two rival gangs fighting for urban turf and maybe sex,

 two gardeners in a fierce competition for sex with the town “catch” as well as the blue ribbon, 

two rival secret agents vying for victory and maybe sex,

two life long friends now vying for #1 in their Harvard Law class, and maybe sex.

The structure of the underlying plot might look quite similar, but the specifics will depend a lot on how the character is developing. If they develop from ego-centric to altruistic, then they will tend to make different decisions near the beginning than near the end of the story. In addition, the setting will have to be consistently portrayed. 

The four descriptions above would most naturally lead to a lot of the setting for the stories respectively in urban settings, garden settings, foreign settings & dangerous situations, mainly Law School and campus settings. Of course, you could violate expectations in a way that increases interest. Imagine that rather than have another garden scene–

The rival gardeners arrive at an urban parking lot dressed in expensive gowns, fully jeweled in their finest, both fully knowing that they will win first prize (but secretly fearing that they might not). These life-long friends now exchange icy greetings, make back-handed compliments about each other’s appearances. The verbal exchange escalates. Precisely because they know each other so well, they know exactly how the other person’s escalator functions. Soon, they are rolling around on the parking lot in their fancy gear; ruining each other’s clothes and hairdos. At this point, they hear in the distance, the loudspeaker and the chairman about to announce the Blue Ribbon Winner!  In their trashed and ripped clothing, they sneak in together to hear the awards, hanging out together in the shadows so as not to be seen in their tattered clothes. “And the blue ribbon goes to” {drumroll}: 

someone else entirely. 

At this, the two life long friends look at each other, laugh uproariously, hug each other, and then become even more intimate friends than they were before their fight in the urban parking lot. 

The fact that there are “expected” relations among various dimensions of story is wonderful. For every such expectation, you can decide to follow, bend, or break that expectation. The more expectations people develop, the greater the number of variations for creative exploration. One valid reason for the choice of setting is really where you want to spend your time. That goes for an author — but it also goes for any designer or business person or User Experience expert. What kind of setting do you want to be in? What kind of customers do you want to serve? Do you really want to make their life better or just get them to buy more product? What sorts of application areas are really cool to you? Of course, I understand people need to eat and often there is a conflict within us all about what to do. That’s what a good story is really about.


The reason that stories resonate is that, regardless of setting, people face the same kind of dilemmas. We all do. And, how we handle those dilemmas? In life, as in story, 

character is revealed by choices under pressure… 


Author Page on Amazon

The Story of Story, Part 2


This is the second in a series about using stories and storytelling in the design, development, and the deployment of products and services. In each post, I will weave in some advice about what makes for a good story as well as how to use stories. In this first case, the emphasis is on using stories to help uncover customer needs and wants. Needs and wants are not quite the same thing. For an extremely worthwhile discussion on the difference, check out this classic article by George Furnas. 

We Human Beings are not just Information Processors; we are also Energy Processors.


I had just attended a conference on “knowledge management” co-sponsored by IBM consultants and IBM Research. On the plane ride back, after finishing the crossword, I turned the page to find a full page color ad by an IBM competitor that proclaimed: “Knowledge Management is simply [sic] providing the right information to the right person at the right time.” Color me skeptical, I thought. It isn’t simple to do those things. Beyond that, the formulation seemed simplistic even in its formulation.

The image of one of my undergraduate professors flashed into my brain. Professor MacCaw, (as we will call him), taught advanced German, a language which he had learned in a Russian prison camp, which might explain his approach to testing. At semester’s end, he asked, “Who in class wants A?!” 


All two dozen of us raised our hands, of course. At this point, he proceeded to — there is no other word — attack one of the students in the class who had had four years of German in high school and had also lived in Germany for two years. The contents of his questions were not really that difficult, but the manner in which he demanded the answers was horrid. He would ask, for instance, “In first story, main character went where?” (He would always ask the questions in English). 

And she would begin to answer (necessarily in German), “Er geht…” And after a couple words were out of her mouth, he would scream, “Please to conjugate!” This meant that she would have to think back to the last verb she uttered and then conjugate it. “Ich gehe, Sie gehen, …” Then, he would interrupt again and scream a completely different and unrelated question in English. She would begin to answer; he would interrupt after she uttered only a few words: “Please to decline!” This meant, that she would have to give the various forms of the last noun she spoke according to the case. But once again, she could not finish but only begin declining the noun when he would once again interrupt. After 40 minutes, she was in tears and he looked menacingly around the room and asked, “NOW! Who in class STILL wants A?” 


I have zero desire to go hang gliding or sky diving. But when it comes to the danger of mere social humiliation, I say, “Screw it. Been there. Done that.” I was one of only two of the remaining students who raised their hand. This act won me the next turn on the chopping block. He proceeded the same whip-saw questioning fest with me. The two-period class was almost over when he finished with me and began questioning “Mr. Lepke.” The bell rang and everyone else in the class left. Later that evening, I chanced to see Professor MacCaw in the Student Union. He walked up to me, eyes blazing. “Ha! I had Mr. Lepke after class for two hours! Finally, he said to me, ‘No, No, Dr. MacCaw, no more, I beg you. No more!’” 

This oral exam was difficult (even with my “screw it” attitude). It was much “harder” than my dissertation defense, for example. Again, it was not the information requested but the manner of questioning that made it difficult. People are not emotionless robots, as it turns out.


The next semester, not surprisingly, only about half the class returned. One day in class, as Dr. MacCaw began one of his lengthy digressions on Eastern European history, he stopped himself in mid-sentence to say, “What is THIS!? Someone is passing notes in my class! I will take note and read in front of entire class!” He snatched the note, unfolded it, and indeed read the note in his loud ringing voice: “Doctor MacCaw: your zipper is down.” And, indeed it was. He had meant to humiliate someone in front of the entire class — and he had succeeded. He had the necessary information delivered at the right time to the right person, but — thanks to his own actions — it had not been done in the best manner — at least not the best manner for him. 

Human beings are not just information processors. We are living things and as such, the emotions, the vibes, the manner, the intensity of presentation — these are all vital to how we will react at the time and also how we will feel about the people involved and what we will recall years later. And this fact also means that the atmosphere you create when you interact with various stakeholders will vastly impact the quality of the insights and stories that you receive. If you really care about the people and are really committed to doing something to making people’s lives better; if you are truly open to hear and take in something unexpected or even disruptive to the project; and if you allow your informant to feel that truth about you, you will obtain the gold ring. 

Stakeholder Stories Solicited at their Sites. 

If you use a mechanical method and a mechanical tone and a mechanical manner to ask your users and other stakeholders about their needs and wants, what you will uncover are the most mundane, most rudimentary, most superficial and socially acceptable needs and wants. You can indeed use this information to design a product or service, and you may even have a product or service that succeeds in the marketplace. It will likely be, however, a rather short-lived “win.” Why? Because you are designing to fulfill wants that are subject to the wild winds of passing fashion rather than to catch the fire of an underlying passion. 


What I found for myself was that it typically took about an hour of talking with a stakeholder, and most importantly, listening attentively, before they began to tell me their real stories. Your mileage may differ according to culture, context, power relations, your personality, and so on. I like to use a semi-structured interview. In this type of interview, there are known questions that I want to ask. But I also schedule plenty of time to let them elaborate, tell me what’s what behind the scenes. I know that in the corporate world, there is an ever-present push for being “efficient” and getting the job done as quickly as possible. So, it’s tempting to get the informant “back on track.” I always prefer to interview an informant in their workplace. This seems like common courtesy; it puts them more at ease; and it sometimes reveals their use of other people, references, private notes, etc. as well as what they are dealing with in terms of atmosphere, noise levels, interruptions, desk space, etc. 

John Whiteside, who ran the Usability group for Digital Equipment Corporation for a time, recounts running various usability studies and gathering data in various ways about a product they were designing for manuscript centers (places where human beings, historically almost always women, transcribed the dictation of others into text on a computer so that it could be edited, re-written, stored, etc.). The first time that they visited their users in the field, they discovered that they spent about seven hours a day typing and a considerable amount of time every day counting up, by hand, the number of lines they had typed. So, in one instant, they realized a feature that would improve productivity significantly. 

Guidelines for Soliciting Stakeholder Stories. 

When I managed the storytelling project at IBM Research, I was fortunate enough to hire Deborah Lawrence to help with the project. She thought it would be a cool idea to interview experts in a number of fields whose job, in one way or another, involves soliciting stories. So, she went out and did just that. I believe that her interviewees included medical doctors, policeman, reporters, social workers, and psychotherapists. These various practitioners had very similar guidelines. 

Story Elicitation Guidelines:

  • Provide a “warm-up” period.
  • Tell something personal and revealing about yourself; perhaps tell a story that is a model of the kind of story you’re looking for.
  • Observe an implicit contract of trust.
  • Provide a motivation for the story — why it’s important.
  • Accept the storyteller’s story and worldview.  Don’t resist the story.
  • Reveal who you are, how the story will be used, potential audience and goals, answer questions.
  • Use questions to probe.  Sometimes, a totally “off the wall” question can create space for story to emerge.
  • Empower the storyteller — they are the expert.
  • Avoid threat; don’t appear as an expert yourself.
  • Listen with avid interest.

These may seem fairly obvious such as does a lot of the advice in the book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. (Come to think of it, that might be the single best book you can read if you want a career in HCI/UX). However — back to the guidelines. I think they seem obvious once pointed out, in much the same way that once someone points out the “pig in the clouds” (or the face in the tree) you cannot not see it. 


The above list is not, of course, meant to be the definitive such list. This was based on one study. If you have additional guidelines or disagreements, please let me know. 

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The Story of Story, Part 1

The Story of Story, Part 1



Right around the turn of the century, I managed a research project at IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Center on the business uses of stories and story-telling. The project was part of a larger effort on “knowledge management.” One of IBM’s major reasons for being interested arose from their increasing revenue stream from services. However, services such as consulting required a lot of labor; it was competitive. Therefore, the margins on this business were not so high as, for instance, in hardware or system software. IBM has invested a lot in tools so that they can make hardware very cheaply and effectively using relatively little labor. The company wanted to be able to something similar with consulting services. The idea was that we could use knowledge management so that the knowledge assets of top-level consultants could be, captured, organized, and then re-used by more junior (and less expensive) people thus rendering higher margins for the company. The success of this approach was fairly limited partly because the knowledge management methods were geared toward explicit rule-based knowledge and specific facts. Much of what experts “know”, including IBM’s top-level business consultants was tacit knowledge. Stories provided a natural way to capture tacit knowledge. Thus, the story project began. 


My simplistic initial idea was to build a story platform that would enable consultants to write stories about their experiences. After all, sharing stories orally is what experts naturally do anyway. Since I enjoy writing stories, I failed to realize initially all the reasons consultants would not want to share their experiences by writing stories. Writing stories is not so natural or fun for most folks. Partly because of the medium and partly because of higher expectations, it also takes more time. Perhaps, even more importantly, it takes extra time. When consultants share stories, they are often traveling, eating dinner, having drinks together and sharing stories is something done in a friendly off-hand way, but importantly, it does not take extra time in the way that using a computer system to write a story would. Besides, when a consultant says something out loud it is not typically recorded. So, if they misspoke or said something untoward, they have plausible deniability. When someone tells a story live, they also can sense how the story is being received in real time. If the listeners are “into it” the teller can draw things out and make it more vivid. On the other hand, if they are starting to play “Candy Crush” on their phones, you can cut it short. In writing, typically, first you write and then you get feedback. Of course, professional writers often improve things considerably with the help of a copy editor and proofreader. Anyway, over the course of time, we did develop a feasible way to have people tell stories and from those stories, provide information of use to other knowledge workers. 


Three Patterns for using stories. 

Narrative Insight Method describes techniques for gather valuable knowledge from experts through the use of storytelling.

Fostering Group Cohesion through Common Narratives is another storytelling technique: in this case, one focuses on building and disseminating stories that illustrate common values.

Fostering Community Learning via Transformed Narratives. This helps solve a dilemma. For organizational learning, it’s crucial to learn from people’s mistakes. Ordinarily though, mistakes are not just used for learning but to bar one from advancement, raises, and the esteem of one’s colleagues.

Here, however, I want to describe some of the things I found interesting about stories from personal observations and, to a lesser extent by reading. Here are just a few examples of interesting aspects of stories.

  • Good story writing is not magic. It’s craft. Mastery is is life-long quest, but one can quickly learn a few important things that will help you to write better, but also to enjoy more thoroughly the stories you see or read.
  • Stories are memorable and motivating. If you watch people telling stories, they are animated and engaged in a way that is rare when people are discussing facts, pronouncements, or pleasantries. 
  • Business-speak is grey, toneless, neutral, abstract and speaks to the intersection of people’s experiences. Stories on the other hand, can be colorful, concrete, emotional, and speak to the union of people’s experiences.  
  • Although stories are generally presented in a linear sequence, beneath that, the story actually has a hierarchical structure. Most stage plays have three acts. Within each act, there are a number of sequences. Within each sequence, there are scenes. Within each scene, there are “beats.” 
  • The three major dimensions of story are setting (where, when), plot structure (what happens), and character (the people; what they are like and what they want).  
  • Story lives on conflict; it explores the edges of human experience; it’s takes us on an empathic roller coaster ride.

In the next essay, we will begin to see more specifically how to use stories to help us discover problems and issues that a well-designed solution might solve. 


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