June 13, 2016
Reading fiction, and even more so, writing fiction, has been one of the greatest things I’ve done to better understand how to design for others. In the design community we talk a lot about the importance of writing. In general, it's a great thing. There's a wealth of great resources on the recommended reading for designers, and there's plenty of designers putting out great content on a regular basis, too, but much of it tends to be on usability, psychology, user research, testing, should designers code, design leadership, and other kinds of technical writing. But it's not enough.
The act of reading and writing fiction requires the author to imagine a reality that is not and never will be her own. It means imagining and coming to an understanding that the people in these stories have lives and experiences equally as complex as hers, and that whoever conceived of these stories has (or had) a life and motivations that are wholly different from her own life and experiences. And when we write fiction, we're asked to create realities that are not prototypical, but specific, and then to understand the implications of those realities for the people that inhabit that imagined space. How do two people with differing value sets perceive the world differently, and how do they interact together?
All fiction is a design problem, that is to say that fiction seeks to organize the world for a specific purpose. And while the world in which novelists organize and create meaning and just happens to be imagined, that imagined world is valid, and real, and informed and strengthened by the reality that surrounds it.
The act of fiction goes far beyond something like writing personas. While personas tend to be constructed to be a single, concrete figure, that persona is intended to stand as proxy for an entire user group. This is the difference between persona and character. Persona is often too reductive to ever be more than a ghost of a person inside of a work of fiction. It's through a combination of persona, user journey, and storyboarding that we as designers only begin to scratch the surface of what it means to be the personas we imagine, validate, and ultimately design for. What the very best fiction does so well is examines character through the lenses of change and time. It finds nuanced differences in character's moods, behaviors, belief systems, needs, goals, etc between what was and what is. And the very best writers consider you, the reader, too. Your thoughts and your emotion and the experience of you as person sitting and reading the scene and comparing it in your mind to your entire worldview.
The more we read stories and the more we try to write our own, the better a language we have to understand the people whom we design for, and the better context we have to understand ourselves.
Some of the most important things I may need to convey in a design can only be really talked about anecdotally, through some metaphor, image, or story. It’s through story that my thoughts are condensed and transfigured. These stories become easier to understand or draw correlations between because we’re all so used to them. Every single one of us tells stories. Anthropologists have identified that storytelling exists in every country and every culture in the world, and stories have existed in some form or another, oral, written, or visual, for thousands of years. Our entire civilization has been built on our ability to communicate with and understand one another effectively.
When I tell you a story, it's because I need to tell you something about the way I think or the way that I feel. I tell stories when something is funny, or interesting, or profound, or beautiful, or inspiring. When we tell stories we assume our telling will communicate something to the recipient about who we are and what we think and value.
"Is this what I think? And is this all I have to say? And am I making myself understood?"
And herein lays the key problem: the words I write can only sketch the outline of what it is I mean to say. But then I present these words as a tangible artifact of who I am and what I think.
As a designer, my understanding of the person whom I design for can only ever be a sketch of who I think they might be, not who they are. It helps to practice healthy skepticism:
“Health Approach presupposes that truth is objective at least in the minimal sense that believing something does not make it so, that something‘s being true does not mean we believe it, and that we are capable of making mistakes.”
– (pg. 90) LE MORVAN, Pierre. "Healthy Skepticism and Practical Wisdom"
It behooves me to be as skilled as I can be at creating such a weak representation of real life, and to be always conscious of the fact that no matter how true I believe the facts to be, it’s always possible that I may be wrong every time. And that — that is incredibly humbling.