One of the most significant changes that I have seen in IT projects and software development in recent years is the adoption of a new language and paradigm of stories and storytelling.
(Ed. New! You humans have been telling stories since your pre-historic ancestors created cave paintings and had tribal pow-wows)
Here are some examples:
User Stories are a very simple structured template used to state requirements as a narrative from the perspective of a User or other beneficiary.
So, a computer system, feature or product exists explicitly to meet an express[ed] need, and not, as you might imagine, as a unknowable complex and frustrating cyber monster!
These narratives can be extrapolated upwards to explain why organizations exist. Such business narratives are used variously to:
- Identify a typical or perfect Customer
- Inform marketing strategy and messages/copy
- Influence product or service design
- Lead to corporate mission statements, aims and values etc.
- Validate, and possibly prioritise, development work*
*For example, a company that wants to educate and inform, like IT elementary school should focus as much effort, money and other resources on doing just that. Of course in hard-edged commercial environments other things, like making money, being efficient and beating the competition may subvert or modify these aspirations.
When trying to understand and articulate what a system (computer-based or otherwise) does, or should do, it is sometimes useful to think in terms of personas or Actors. These techniques replace real people with role-players or fictitious individuals.
Actors may play a role in a scenario, which essentially plays out a story, or scene, if I extend the film-making metaphor.
Storyboards are a way to graphically represent a process, a Customer interaction, or the design of a website, a business application or game play. This should come as no surprise, isn’t a Customer journey when stripped-down of all the superfluous details essentially a story?
It doesn’t need to be a sophisticated animation; simple pictograms that illustrate people (role-players) and real-world artefacts and activities are used to create a richer visual representation.
Lastly, sometimes a marketing proposition or brand can have a carefully developed back-story to help build and develop the context and engage staff and Customers alike. One recent brand-led company that has exploited such rich storytelling is Compare the Market/Compare the Meerkat (www.comparethemeerkat.com), which provides an object lesson in how to turn a relatively new product area with, let’s face-it, an image problem (insurance aggregation) into something interesting. What marketers call sticky. And this story was (is) equally important to the IT systems and information workers, not just the marketers – I know, because I worked there!
(Ed. program code can sometimes be referred to as a script, but I’m not sure if that has a film or theatre influence)
But stories are just made up, aren’t they?
Yes they are, but then most of what we do in this industry is about imagining the future, based on some stated needs or wishes or a design of how things might be.
If truth be told the line between fact and fiction is – has always been – blurred. Some of the best non-fiction including documentaries, histories, biography, even popular science writing uses storytelling techniques, including speculations, prose and fancy. You don’t need to take my word for it:
All history is fabulation (Julian Barnes)
All fiction is fantasy (Terry Pratchett)
And from the brilliant book Sapiens, the author Yuval Noah Harari recognises a critical point in the human cognitive revolution when we first created imagined realities, including abstract concepts such as states, religions, strategy and organizations. The journey that starts with seeing a hole in a cliff face and naming it a ‘cave’ to thinking of, designing and building a house involves imagination and a story about living a different existence.
To redress the balance slightly, a word about facts and the present reality, surely these aren’t fictions?
There are techniques that consultants, Business Analysts and others use to document the current situation, to capture existing business processes, business rules and operational procedures. If required all the above techniques can still be used, for example, to produce interesting visuals and engaging user guides or other training material.
You don’t have to be a creative to be creative!
However, the imperative to automate and computerize existing manual processes is less valuable than, say, re-engineering, improving and enhancing the same…we come back to imagined realities again. The task of simply (sometimes it isn’t simple!) documenting the current situation can become a much more creative task of exploration, elaboration and illustration.
What has changed, is it just about dumbing-down?
There are many drivers for this storytelling explosion; some technical, some socio-economic, and some, to be honest, are about fashion and following market leads and successful models.
Here are a few reasons:
– As alluded to earlier, telling stories is a basic human need and great leveler in terms of language and culture. To tell a story that everyone understands is potentially more powerful than producing a lengthy technical document that people may never read.
– The ‘everyone’ above is increasingly colleagues and partners from many disciplines, backgrounds, countries and cultures. You may use English as the business and IT language of choice, but stories, pictures and other non-verbal communications are universal.
– OK yes, sometimes there is a simplification involved. That’s a good thing. Using stories and pictures to replace or complement all those words. You remember, the ones that people may not read or understand.
– Stories work well in fast-moving markets, new products or channels, when there isn’t the time or inclination to translate everything at every stage into formal traditional documents. It is often better to build and test (inspect and adapt approach) something that moves progressively closer to the desired outcome; stories, storyboards, mock-ups and prototypes all help.
– The Agile movement and the expectation of less documentation, or the least the minimum that is useful and appropriate.
What does the future look like?
Interestingly, IT professionals have previously inhabited other metaphorical worlds and adapted the language and practices of design, engineering and publishing, as well as physical processes in commerce and industry.
Now that we have established that [technology] fact follows fiction, what next? With my highly speculative crystal ball I predict the following may start to influence our thinking about what software and computers are and what they do, and the language we use to describe the same.
- 3D immersive technologies, virtual reality and augmented reality
- Social media channels with more multimedia, game-playing, customisation and personalisation
- All things mobile (of course), in the sense that people will continue to interact with technology but in different ways, at times and in places that suit the Customer not the supplier
- Exotic technologies and applications that start to come out of AI research, neural computers, nanotechnology and nanofabrication.
Not ‘The End’, there are more beginnings and more stories yet to be written or even imagined.
© 2016 The IT elementary school