January 2011

Jack A Nory

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 agree wholeheartedly: Websites are narrative spaces where stories can be enacted, or emerge.

Henry Jenkins, Director of Com- parative Media Studies, and Professor of Literature at MIT, wrote Game Design as Narrative Architecture. He suggested we think of game design- ers, ‘less as storytellers than as narrative architects’. 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 such as 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, Tumblr, or Dribbble are emergent narrative spaces: Web applications that encourage their audience to 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 Personal 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:

  1. Activists like learning as they go; getting stuck in and working it out:
    ‘Activists involve themselves fully and without bias in new experiences. 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:
    ‘Reflectors 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:
    ‘Theorists adapt and integrate observations into complex but logi- cally sound theories. They think problems through in a vertical, step- by-step logical way. They assimi- late disparate facts into coherent theories.’

  4. Pragmatists like practical applications of ideas, experiments, and results:
    ‘Pragmatists are keen on 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 experi- ment with applications.’

Usually people share two or more of these qualities. The weight of each can vary depending on the context.

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.

I hope you find these ideas useful enough to bear in mind. If Henry Jenkins is right about games designers, I think he could also be right about all designers: we are narrative architects, designing spaces where stories will be told.


Jon Tan

Jon designs products and services and lead teams making durable, inclusive, aesthetic design for screens, hands, and paper.


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