Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Feeding our pleasure zone: Evolving digital products from storytelling to story experience

Product design starts with solid storytelling, but the goal is to have it evolve into an immersive story experience.

Feed me
I love a good story. Whether reading a juicy novel, watching a nail-biting film, listening to an animated reporter recount the events of a disaster, or keeping tabs on real life courtroom drama, we're clearly captivated by the experience enough to keep us coming back.


No, actually it's more than that. It COMPELS us to seek out more because we CRAVE the effect. It feeds the pleasure center of the brain. Yes, it has the same effect as taking a drug!

Why? Maybe it's the edge of the seat suspense. Perhaps it's the lure of gambling with predictions. It could simply be it reflects what we're feeling or going through at the time. Whatever the reason, the elements that move us from passive observation to immersive experience are the same no matter the source or medium.

Elements of good storytelling
Traci Lepore noted in the article The CSS of Design Storytelling the three essential elements of storytelling: Context, Spine, and Structure. Lepore does a good job walking the reader through the steps of integrating the art of storytelling into interaction design, but I'm going to try push it further with this post with moving from storytelling to story experience.

Using the elements of story writing in product and interaction design is not new. We create personas, use cases, user interaction flows, and thought experiments to push our thinking outside the box. Context feeds good stories and solid interactive experiences and creates relevance, feeds a mood, and stirs the us on a deep level.


Ensuring there's a storyline (plot) that connects the beginning with  the end through all the points in between is crucial to its endurance otherwise the lack of cohesion will make it fall flat. Finally, the mind loves familiarity and patterns. It has low tolerance for too much variance in an experience because it has to work too hard to understand. Little pleasure is derived from working so hard which means its quick to ditch what's not easy to grasp.

Getting your flow on
Beyond using the principles of storytelling, how do we design and develop digital experiences that are immersive? Well, immersion is state Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls Flow. It's when your skills and the challenge you've taken on are well matched. This allows us to get lost in the experience to the point where we lose sense of time, place, even body. This tends to occur more frequently in active experiences like engaging in a favorite hobby, talking with friends, and even when working with colleagues. It's least likely to happen when were doing passive things like watching television or just hanging out. As a matter of fact, apathy is most likely to set in when we are doing passive things.

Here's a TED video where Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  talks about creativity and flow and living a fulfilling life:


Creating story experience
To be fair this is subjective. If you don't have some emotional connection, interest, and skill with what you're doing, the chances of transforming passive observation to immersive experience will be probably be fairly low.

Moving from passive to immersive starts with the capacity of our nervous system which can only process about 110 bits of information per second. It takes about 50-60 bits per second to hear what someone is saying which means at best you can only process what two people are saying at one time.

What's this got to do with immersive experiences? Awareness of self is temporarily suspended in order to be present with what we're processing. We forget about what we're feeling and thinking when we're focused and immersed in a meaningful activity. We have no awareness of appetite. In that time we simply don't have any awareness of our own existence. This is the Holy Grail of the story experience.

Never-ending experiences
Think back to when you were a kid. When I was a child I could play for h-o-u-r-s by myself or with  friends. If it was hot and sticky, no one seemed to notice. If we were hungry, that would probably hit us about dinner time. We were simply so involved in the incredible stories and activities to care about all that other stuff.

An example of a digital experience of this is when skilled users play multi-player online games. My daughter loves World of Warcraft and can play for hours with barely moving. She didn't start out that way, of course. As her skill level grew she became more immersed in the experience. The ramp to this level was short because of the intuitive design.

Making the leap
What are the elements of an immersive story experience? We can start with the following:

  • Automatic, intuitive (there are a lot of things that go into this that I'll cover in another post)
  • Spontaneous
  • Familiarity mixed with something new
  • Challenge level matches skill
  • Effortless, simple
  • Focused, goal directed
  • Has obvious value (even Angry Birds gives us something - cognitive disruption and reward for little effort)
  • Meaningful to the user's current state or situation
  • Immediately engaging & easy to follow
  • Intense but not too difficult
  • Get immediate feedback
  • Creates a feeling of being part of something larger
  • Intrinsic 
  • Stimulating, arousing - pushes us to learn

More than just a list
Okay, I know a list is great and all, but how do you do it? First, I think it starts with the following:

- Knowing your audience (target market)
- Understanding the medium and method that works best for them
- Being clear about the goal, objectives, and what you would like them to FEEL in response.


Wrapping up for the moment
This is such a deep subject, and it deserves more time that I don't have at the moment because I have some pressing projects in the queue. Stay tuned!

What draws you into a story experience in any medium?

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