All entries from March 2011

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  1. Web Design as Narrative Architecture

    New Adventures Paper

    Stories are everywhere. When they don’t exist we make up the narrative — we join the dots. We make cognitive leaps and fill in the bits of a story that are implied or missing. The same goes for websites. We make quick judgements based on a glimpse. Then we delve deeper. The narrative unfolds, or we create one as we browse.

    Mark Bernstein penned Beyond Usability and Design: The Narrative Web for A List Apart in 2001. He wrote, ‘the reader’s journey through our site is a narrative experience’. I agreed wholeheartedly: Websites are narrative spaces where stories can be enacted, or emerge.

    Henry Jenkins, Director of Comparative Media Studies, and Professor of Literature at MIT, wrote Game Design as Narrative Architecture. He suggested we think of game designers, ‘less as storytellers than as narrative architects’. I agree, and I think web designers are narrative architects, too. (Along with all the multitude of other roles we assume.) Much of what Henry Jenkins wrote applies to modern web design. In particular, he describes two kinds of narratives in game design that are relevant to us:

    Enacted narratives are those where:

    […] the story itself may be structured around the character’s movement through space and the features of the environment may retard or accelerate that plot trajectory.

    Sites like Amazon, New Adventures, or your portfolio are enacted narrative spaces: Shops or service brochures that want the audience to move through the site towards a specific set of actions like buying something or initiating contact.

    Emergent narratives are those where:

    […] spaces are designed to be rich with narrative potential, enabling the story-constructing activity of players.

    Sites like Flickr, Twitter, or Dribbble are emergent narrative spaces: Web applications that encourage their audience use the tools at their disposal to tell their own story. The audience defines how they want to use the narrative space, often with surprising results.

    We often build both kinds of narrative spaces. Right now, my friends and I at Analog are working on Mapalong, a new maps-based app that’s just launched into private beta. At its heart Mapalong is about telling our stories. It’s one big map with a set of tools to view the world, add places, share them, and see the places others share. The aim is to help people tell their stories. We want to use three ideas to help you do that: Space (recording places, and annotating them), data (importing stuff we create elsewhere), and time (plotting our journeys, and recording all the places, people, and memories along the way). We know that people will find novel uses for the tools in Mapalong. In fact, we want them to because it will help us refine and build better tools. We work in an agile way because that’s the only way to design an emerging narrative space. Without realising it we’ve become architects of a narrative space, and you probably are, too.

    Many projects like shops or brochure sites have fixed costs and objectives. They want to guide the audience to a specific set of actions. The site needs to be an enacted narrative space. Ideally, designers would observe behaviour and iterate. Failing that, a healthy dose of empathy can serve. Every site seeks to teach, educate, or inform. So, a bit of knowledge about people’s learning styles can be useful. I once did a course in one to one and small group training with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. It introduced me to Peter Honey and Alan Mumford’s model which describes four different learning styles that are useful for us to know. I paraphrase:

    1. Activists like learning as they go; getting stuck in and working it out. They enjoy the here and now, and are happy to be dominated by immediate experiences. They are open-minded, not sceptical, and this tends to make them enthusiastic about anything new.
    2. Reflectors like being guided with time to take it all in and perhaps return later. They like to stand back to ponder experiences and observe them from many different perspectives. They collect data, both first hand and from others, and prefer to think about it thoroughly before coming to a conclusion.
    3. Theorists to understand and make logical sense of things before they leap in. They think problems through in a vertical, step-by-step logical way. They assimilate disparate facts into coherent theories.
    4. Pragmatists like practical applications of ideas, experiments, and results. They like trying out ideas, theories and techniques to see if they work in practice. They positively search out new ideas and take the first opportunity to experiment with applications.

    Usually people share two or more of these qualities. The weight of each can vary depending on the context. So how might learning styles manifest themselves in web browsing behaviour?

    • Activists like to explore, learn as they go, and wander the site working it out. They need good in-context navigation to keep exploring. For example, signposts to related information are optimal for activists. They can just keep going, and going, and exploring until sated.
    • Reflectors are patient and thoughtful. They like to ponder, read, reflect, then decide. Guided tours to orientate them in emergent sites can be a great help. Saving shopping baskets for later, and remembering sessions in enacted sites can also help them.
    • Theorists want logic. Documentation. An understanding of what the site is, and what they might get from it. Clear, detailed information helps a theorist, whatever the space they’re in.
    • Pragmatists get stuck in like activists, but evaluate quickly, and test their assumptions. They are quick, and can be helped by uncluttered concise information, and contextual, logical tools.

    An understanding of interactive narrative types and a bit of knowledge about learning styles can be useful concepts for us to bear in mind. I also think they warrant inclusion as part of an articulate designer’s language of web design. If Henry Jenkins is right about games designers, I think he could also be right about web designers: we are narrative architects, designing spaces where stories are told.

    The original version of this article first appeared as ‘Jack A Nory’ alongside other, infinitely more excellent articles, in the New Adventures paper of January 2011. It is reproduced with the kind permission of the irrepressible Simon Collison. For a short time, the paper is still available as a PDF!

    —∞—

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  2. Ides of March

    My friend and colleague, Chris, has shared a spiffing idea, the Ideas of March. He suggests: ‘If we all blog a little more than we normally would this month, maybe we can be reminded of all of the reasons blogs are great.’

    But wait, this post is called the Ides of March? Right. As soon as I read what Chris had posted, a twist on the phrase echoed in my memory. The Ides of March is a Roman festival dedicated to the god of war, Mars. Some say it’s on the 15th of March (today). I can’t find a reference that this is accurate relative to the Julian or current Gregorian calendars, so I will use the first full moon instead. This year it will be on Saturday, 19th of March, in four days time. Wikipedia has more:

    The Ides of March was a festive day dedicated to the god Mars and a military parade was usually held. In modern times, the term Ides of March is best known as the date that Julius Caesar was killed in 44 B.C.

    Dramatic stuff. Appropriate in these times, too. Mars may have been the god of war, based on the anarchistic Greek god, Ares, but he represented the pursuit of peace through military strength. A thoroghly debunked method if you ask me, but a pretty neat rationalisation still used today. The military pursues Gaddafi’s version of peace in Libya. Mubarak tried it, and failed, in Egypt. The Ben Ali regime collapsed under protests in Tunisia. Saleh is on his way in Yemen. Right now, Saudi soldiers are deployed in Bahrain to quell protestors fighting for democratic freedom.

    Whatever you think about the current strife, one thing is true: Tyrants never last. I’ve been an advocate of Twitter, and its ambient intimacy for almost four years. In that time I’ve seen it buoyed by the innovations of its users. Smart folks using @replies, and retweets that became a part of the fabric, coded into links and threads (sort-of). Other smart people building clients with new ways of looking at the graph. I’ve seen Twitter take the good ideas and do good things with them. Yet now, Twitter isn’t just the platform any longer, it wants to be the clients too. From URL shortening and tracking, to changes in who can make clients, and how they work. People don’t like it. The same kind of smart people who helped it be successful. The same kind of people who permit benevolent dictators to exist until they become tyrants.

    I’m still a fan of the idea of short messages. They are neat, by their nature, but lest Twitter forgets, they also exist elsewhere, too. They’re a snack between meals. Signposts to feasts. The real banquets are blog posts, though. I’ve learnt more from them in the last ten years than I ever will from 140 characters. That’s why blogs are something to be treasured. Blogs and RSS may be dead according to some, but I like that I disagree. After all, even with this rambling post, you’ve probably learnt something, just like I have writing it. Thanks for the prompt, Chris.

    Don’t procrastinate, fire up your editor and share your own ideas of March. Drew, Lorna, and Sean already have. Go on, you know it’s been far too long!

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