Saturday, April 30, 2011

Designing Stories

Great web design is about re-organizing a story in a cool way - inventing a fresh narrative.

Today's influential design no longer begins with a dashboard. It's about designing a new kind of story. One that will evolve fast and immediately grow.

It's identity is a voice of voices, of a New Village. A New Village being used in many interesting ways to really get it.

A singular digital habit - the trademark of old school usability - no longer informs.

Instant familiarity with a new dashboard becomes a short-lived gratification. Easy come, easy go. "Villagers" will want more, fast. The "Villagers" are in fact part of the design. The evolution of their stories is the single most important aspect of design. The bottom line of a design's success will ultimately be: are the stories continually engaging? Worthy of posting more? Worthy of being followed more?

I'm going to try and write about a breakthrough design without citing - billable hours, requirements, scope, wireframes, look and feel and fee for service - the fixed narrative of marketing.

How can a creative process that stays the same be right?

This narrative is about building a great community - something that can last longer than the culture of a hit and run marketing campaign. Something crossing the boundaries and rules of a fixed state of mind.

That starts with how we imagine "Villagers" will be inspired to write in new plural ways. How words might be freshly packaged with photos, videos or links.

There is only one core feature: "Fill In The Blank."

Twitter is a Facebook status report. Design today is about defining a new kind of interactive sentence.

This new design movement starts when realizing every design is - as a result of posting something interesting - architected at point of input. So ultimately, it's a question of designing what someone might input. Something a leading New Villager might author five times a day.

Speed and convenience to publish these stories are the keys to this city. Any lull might mean someone else out there has a better destination. Like every F-1 pit crew knows, every design nuance for speed and convenience will count.

* * *

Today a design can change without changing one feature. Context can change the narrative.

The audience, for example, can change a narrative, when told to Facebook friends vs Twitter followers. The audience is part of a design - uniquely defining it.

Syntax can also change a design. Twitter authors can express themselves swiftly and briefly - in a way where each line can theoretically engage "@someone" interesting. Lines can be shared more "#productively."

That new narrative structure in essence, defines a new genre, a new design.

Often people will say they don't get a new design - feedback heard popularly at first with Facebook and Twitter. But keep in mind many folks don't get hip hop or jazz. Many still don't get the poetry of Twitter. Some folks weren't meant to sing certain songs (or hear things for which they are tone deaf). Not everyone gets a new style or culture right away. The trick is to know many will get it soon enough.

Miles Davis was criticized regularly for altering what critics knew best.

Andy Warhol took what people already saw in popular culture, changed its context and called it new way. (photos by brother in law).

For any new genre ("The Blank"), a New Villager has to push it beyond what was originally imagined, to really get it, to get even further.

We wanted more than just another status report.

But we found in early days many people didn't know how to fill in a new "Blank." Many folks couldn't readily write something inspiring or even identify a highlight. We had to invent what people could post that people would follow.

Though I've read Jacob Nielsen and follow many great design tweets, I had no formal training in web design to solve this problem. Tangentially, the only design trait I had in common with Steve Jobs was typography which I learned once for newspaper design. I knew making content look beautiful was key to any technology design.

I also knew from a project with Al Gore's Live Earth reaching 10 million people online that visual messages are key for impact - in videos or photos. They amplify your story.

Doesnt matter how small a visual- even a thumbnail can amplify.

I've hired many rock star designers but no one really showed me how to design a New World. By posting content heavily, nearly everyday I could feel the pain and reward of an Old World. I also found where a new narrative could go, pushing the envelope to find a New World. I experimented with cameraphones (see pan shots or spin cycles). I blogged to think different.

I saw how you could post the exact same line on Twitter and Facebook but it would be read differently. Context changed the narrative.

The design that really affected me was for the social network that started it all...MySpace. One day it went into a coma, killing the purpose of everything I've ever archived - about places I'd been, magical things I'd seen. Suddenly, that no longer mattered on MySpace.

After the nth redesign, stories were hard to post and view suddenly. All that volunteer work contributing to an eco-system of stories, gone. My analog archives had more value.

Lesson #1: Don't let outsiders start or destroy your community. You have to be part of the community to be part of the design.

We didn't want to design something perishable for disposable content.

Originally we wanted to create a storytelling community for donations. Not like Kickstarter, but one where you'd engage visionary followers, and ultimately meet them. A Craig's List - where you'd post a story - to generate patronage and get engaged. The goal was to give authors storytelling tools to inspire opportunities and gifts. A place to stay. Art commissioned or pre-paid. A gig. A job. A dinner or lunch. A ride. A retail gift. Or a donation - notably in cash or cheque - which most sites don't offer. This is the way it's already being done offline.

I walked into a New York music cafe and felt so many stories needed to be told but you'd only discover them if you probed someone who knew about them. Parallel universes had left so many untold stories, un-networked. So many missed opportunities.

We wanted to be able to go to this inspiring place and know the top stories there readily. Stories that would compel you to post something you experienced while there. A story followers could "elevate."

We wanted to induce more exploration - so that when you clicked on one story, you'd also explore a treasure map of connected stories. Somewhat like Wikipedia but live on location. Or even across multiple locations bridged by people with common stories.

We wanted to view the most interesting people who travelled this map.

Any user in this scenario could enrich this map by adding or connecting a story.

* * *

To design a new story - I needed a real story.

Real ingredients for "input."

The imagination could compute permutations of how these words could be architected and inputted. Inspiration could give it style, rhythm and flow.

The people attracted to these words would also define the narrative. If you see only meaningless posts from people who mean nothing to you, the design becomes meaningless.

We needed real people who could deeply relate to the story. We needed a story those people would find meaningful.

Our web project's co-founder tooled me to post HTML (no CSS), one story, one page at a time. I had no off-page navigation, no design framework beyond how to post one interactive sentence. I then engaged real people by tweeting it.

I knew a bit of HTML from blogging. I picked up a bit more. Over the course of the year, gathering real-time stories, I was able to publish 240+ stories to simulate where a new narrative could go.

Checking in stories (posting) at a location became the pattern, chronicling inspiration that happened there.

I got bored of FourSquare's narrative - checking in just to become Mayor. I wanted more.

She was looking for a place to paint, and then exhibit. At her locations stories were told.

The new narrative we evolved got coined "Elevate Spot" - a way to post and elevate a story at a spot, so others could see top stories at that spot.

Most venues only talk about themselves. We wanted to see the top stories of *people who were @spot. What were they #thinking or #discussing? Where were they headed in life?

These were stories at the venue, but not about the venue.

Stories @Moonshine_Cafe

A song you wrote there. A project or idea you discussed there. Observations that inspired you while there.

That way anyone who walked into that spot would know the most interesting stories happening there just by typing ""

We got stuck on designing this new narrative because most designers are from an old design movement where things are more "fixed." So we've decided to continue writing this narrative. One that looks at interactive sentences written on the spot.

Launched at (or

ElevateSpot Infographic (for website design) at Flickr link.

Next: A creative writing professor is helping with our next design experiment - getting people to annotate where their inspiration occurred.

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