How stories matter

People think that stories are shaped by people.
In fact, it’s the other way round.  – Terry Pratchett

When Salon@615 hosted Anne Lamott in conversation with author Ann Patchett, Lamott described reading as a form of religion, and said that the day she discovered chapter books was the first time she knew that she was saved. Even today, when Lamott get a new book, she knows that she is safe, moreorless, for as long as the book lasts. And wow, I know what she means.

Back when I began six rounds of chemotherapy, I picked up Man’s Search for Meaning which is Viktor Frankel’s account of his time in the concentration camps during WWII, and his theory of Logotherapy. A theory which states that the last of the human freedoms [is] to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, which is what Frankel did. In all the horror of the camps, Frankl learnt to comfort himself physically and mentally, by always carrying a scrap of bread in his pocket and, by imagining himself lecturing Logotherapy in America after the war.

Parts of Frankl’s story were so horrendous that I actually forgot where I was until I looked up and saw that I was on a drip in the chemo room. The NHS actually saved me with their wonderful staff and unbearable treatments but Frankl’s story saved me too. Frankl taught me to comfort myself physically with little gifts (I felt too sick to view food as comfort) and mentally with the dream of me lecturing again.

Stories transport us, away from the terrors of our lives and minds. They can also inspire us to take action big or small. Stories can restore our faith in this crazy life by showing us that things can change, nothing bad lasts forever, and when we have to endure, we can find a story to lose ourselves in. Even if it can’t make us feel better about a given situation, it can give us a break – some relief and release from our lives.

In Storytelling and Mythmaking, Frank McConnell says stories save our lives. He says that vicariously living through a hero’s story is the best form of self-help our civilisation has to offer. We learn to be a better version of ourselves inspired by heroes.

McConnell finds heroes in myths and movies from The Iliad to Taxi Driver, and using Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Northrop Frye‘s theories, McConnell outlines our expectations of a good story. Each story has a society, a hero, and a relationship between the two. Each society has rules – some written, some inherent- which our hero either wishes to enforce like a Samurai or a knight, or which make him bitter for he knows these rules are rotten, like the cynical private eye. Sometimes, our hero is a king and will rewrite the rules of society to form a brave new world. But wherever and whenever these heroes are, they experience one of the four seasons of life – the comedy of spring, the romance of summer, the tragedy of autumn, and the winter of irony and satire. These seasons are the cycle of life itself, and our ultimate quest for salvation – the hero’s quest or monomyth.

[N.B. it is the hero’s not heroine’s quest because Campbell said that women were too busy to sit around telling stories(!). We only find women in fairytales or in supporting stereotype roles in McConnell’s movies while men do the self-actualisation. Alas, women have been suppressed by poor plot lines for centuries.]

The monomyth was identified by comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, who said that when we hear a story we want it to give us a how not a why. We don’t always need to know why something has happened, we just need to know how to deal with it. Like me reading Frankl, he gave me a how to get through chemotherapy which I clung too because anytime I asked why I went a little bit crazy.

But, it is not just non-fiction where we can find a how. Fiction works just as well.

In his Masterclass, James Patterson says that he doesn’t really write realism, he is more interested in creating a great, emotional story. After all, life is often stranger than fiction, and much more unbelievable. Patterson is known as the world’s best selling author because he gets the emotional aspect right. He has been told many times by policemen that his characters feel so right even when the police procedure isn’t. Thanks to this emotional resonance, we trust Patterson’s characters and their stories. Instinctively we know that there are more things in heaven and on earth than we can ever explain. We don’t always need a why.

Emotional resonance often feels like truth, which is why when you share a story with someone, they often share one back, rather like Katie Hopkins’s #myfatstory in which she gained weight simply to demonstrate how easy it would be to lose it again. Luckily, she had a moment of vulnerability and empathy and finally understood that weight gain was more complex than just eating too many calories. Through this, she was able to connect to others and was touched when people were willing to share their stories with her. We all know a Hopkins, she is one of those meany friends who prides herself on giving out home truths and telling it like it is so, it was nice to see her vulnerable and human. Unfortunately, #myfatstory wasn’t a story of transformation as Hopkins turned back into her meany-usual self at the end.

Sharing stories, or mutual communication, helps advance humanity says organisational storyteller Thaler Pekar. For sharing a story, sparks a story and encourages everyone to find new solutions and because of this, content strategist, Contently says that even asking why stories matter, is like asking why we need to eat. Stories help us cope with say, being stuck, instead of panicking and having a pee in the lift.

Over on Lithub, writer Lorrie Moore says that short stories are like life itself – surprising and not entirely invited. Reading a story allows us to find that we need to spend time in the company of people whose troubles we might ordinarily avoid, which allows us to step outside the constraints of our own beliefs and opinions. It might not answer any of our questions, instead it may just animate them in what Moore describes as a a lovely shock of mercy and democracy. And, if that leads us to question even one of our beliefs and to be kinder to our fellow humans or ourselves then that is a good thing.

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Writing a blog series

the word blog typed on paper in typewriter

I have been blogging here for about eight years, but hadn’t ever written a blog series until recently. By this, I mean a series of blog posts, on one topic – in this case, five blog posts on web design, which I planned out in advance, and published weekly.

Outlining the blog series

I had written the outline of the blog series back in December 2013 because I was thinking about teaching a course on web design. However, the opportunity came and went as opportunities do sometimes, so, I left the outline up, as it works perfectly well by itself, with the intention to come back and revisit it some day.

In September of this year, I was invited to give a presentation with the title: A good website is not necessarily a pretty one. This got me thinking anew about my outline on web design. So, I wrote up the presentation as a blog post (and changed the clunky title to What’s the story?) which became the first in my web design series and I gave it to my audience as a handout.

I had originally conceived this first blog post as one about infographics and visualisation, which would build on a visualisation blog post I wrote a while ago called Visualisation: Information is power – just avoid drowning in data, but as my presentation preparation and blogging went on, and inspired by Berner’s-Lee’s first website, I realised that it doesn’t matter how many beautiful pictures or infographics you have, it is not enough unless you have a clear underlying message for your website. If you have a clear message, it can be described in words, perhaps even in two minutes like the Hollywood elevator pitch, which can be accessed by a screen-reader as well as illustrated visually and served easily to your various users because your site is built according to web standards.

However, storytelling, narratives and infographics are big subjects which I decided as I was writing that I will come back to, because I find them endlessly fascinating. So, I concentrated on the subject of having a clear message, leaving out the lovely visuals, in the first blog post and then once it was published, I wrote four more blogs on other aspects of web design.

Linking the blog posts

Thanks to the original outline, I had a specific topic to cover in each blog post:

On publishing the new blog post each week, I would link to it from the outline blog post and then at the top of the new blog post I would link to the introduction blog post (the same outline post as it really is an introduction) and the previous week’s blog post (e.g., in part 2, at the top I put links to the intro and part 1), and at the bottom, I put a link to the next week’s post (e.g., in part 2, at the bottom I put a link to part 3).

One at a time or all at once

At, Darren Rowse recommends planning out the series by creating a draft of each blog post and then writing one a day. For him, this reflects his way of working, which contrasts with his colleague Eric’s approach of writing them all together before scheduling them for publishing, e.g,. one a day for a week.

Eric’s approach chimes with mine better, because in part one of my web design series called What’s the story? I had a section entitled No Lorum Ipsum about using a core information design approach described in a great article on by Ida Aalen. However, when I got to part three about content: Being content with your content, I realised that this section would fit better in this part so I cut it out and put it there instead, which would confuse anyone who was searching for it in part 1.

I would like to write a whole series and then publish it, but I know realistically that I would take months over it, and my site would not have any new content appearing until I had finished. At the moment I have a goal, which I rather like, of publishing something once a week, so even if I do have to go back and cut bits out because they fit better in another post, I still enjoy that sense of achievement of weekly publishing.

When is a series not a series

I have some other blog posts which I think of as a series, but I haven’t linked them because they were not written as such. Usually, when I write a blog post I do so because I want to think about a particular topic. For example, a while ago, I wanted to think about emerging technologies and so I wrote a blog post on the topic.  Once I had posted it, I realised that I wasn’t quite finished and wanted to think some more about emerging technologies and so I ended up writing two more blog posts. I have done the same with storytelling (three blogs) and also with social media (at least five posts and counting). Flicking back through these blogs, with a bit of shaping they could be linked together, but I like them as they are.

I tend to write super long blog posts like these: Digital Culture and Feeding the machine: the embodied user in a social media world because blogging is the best way for me to research a topic, think about it, and then, write it up. It is only once I have written a blog post that I feel I know what I am talking about. I guess at that point, before pressing publish, I should look at the text, turn it into a series, and schedule a series of posts like Eric, which would be good for me, as my site would then consist of smaller, easier to read blog posts. I definitely clarify my thinking while I type. Look out for my future smaller blog post series.

Writing a planned blog series was a bit of a different experience and a great one, which I enjoyed. I will definitely be doing it again and recommend it to all you bloggers out there.

How do you plan and write your blogs? Leave a comment below.

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Web design: Evaluation


A collaborative medium, a place where we all meet and read and write.
Tim Berners-Lee

[Part 5 of 5 in the web design series, intropart 1part 2, part 3, part 4]

Even though evaluation is the final part of this series, it should not be left to the end of any software project. Ideally, evaluation should be used throughout the life cycle of a project in order to assess the design and user experience, and to test system functionality and whether it meets user requirements without creating unexpected results or confusion.

Expert analysis

Expert (or Theoretical) analysis uses a detailed description of the design, which doesn’t have to be implemented. This creates a model of the user’s activity and then analysis is performed on that model.

It is one way of assessing whether a design has good usability principles. It cannot guarantee anything but can hopefully flag up any design flaws before time and money gets spent on implementation.

Expert analysis is best used during the design phase and experts can assess systems using:

Heuristics which are rules of thumb and not true usability guidelines. Usability expert Jakob Nielson developed 10 usability heuristics in 1995 and they are still widely used and quoted today.  Design consultant, Ari Weissman says that heuristics are better than no testing at all, but to say that they can replace getting to know your users and understanding them just silly. Researchers at the University of Nebraska found that heuristic evaluation and user testing complement each other and are both needed.

Review-based evaluation uses principles from experimental psychology and human-computer interaction (HCI) literature to provide evaluation criteria such as menu design, command names, icons and memory attributes to support/refute design decisions. Reviews may even use style guidelines provided by big companies such as Microsoft and Apple.

Model-based evaluation uses a model to evaluate software. This model might be taken from HCI literature such as Stuart Card’s GOMS and Ben Shneiderman’s Eight golden rules of dialog design.

Cognitive walkthroughs are step-by-step inspections which concentrate on what the user is thinking whilst learning to use the system. Alas, it is the analysts who act as the user and try to imitate what the user is thinking. Walkthroughs can be used to help develop user personas.

However, the main criticism is that novice users are often forgotten about because analysts have lots of experience and their pretending to be users can introduce all sorts of bias into your system. The advantages of this approach is that areas which are unclear in the system design can be easily flagged up and fixed cheaply and earlier on in the life cycle.

Using your user: user testing

The most informative types of evaluation always take place with the user. This can happen in the laboratory or in the field. In the laboratory, usability consultants have a script, such as this one by usability expert Steve Krug. The usability consultant asks the user to either do whatever they are drawn to do, or to perform a specific task,such as buying a product on the site, whilst talking aloud. This thinking aloud protocol not only identifies what the problem is, but also why. The best thing about usability testing is that clients can hear a user saying something which may be obvious to the consultant but not to the client and which the client might not believe if the consultant just told them. Co-operative evaluation is a very similar technique to usability testing.

Outside the laboratory, you can follow the user about and shadow them in the workplace, to see how the user interacts with your software, or the current software that your new software will hopefully improve upon. This is ethnography and a way of learning about the context in which your users work. It can be very expensive and time consuming to hire ethnographers to go into users’ workplaces.

A cheap and cheerful way of reproducing this shadowing is to get the users to keep a diary or blog, known as a cultural probe.  They are quick and easy to put together using open-ended questions which encourage users to say all the things they might not say during a testing session.

Empirical evaluation

Another relatively cheap and cheerful method is to get your user group to fill out a questionnaire or a survey in order to get their feedback.

The questionnaire needs to be designed very carefully, following these instructions, otherwise you can end up with a lot of information, but nothing tangible. The main advantage is that you get your users opinions and you can measure user satisfaction quite easily.

The disadvantage is it that is hard to capture certain types of information in a questionnaire such as the frequency of a system error, or the time taken to complete a task.


Computers can collect statistics of use, to tackle the sorts of questions like time taken and frequency of system errors.  Web stats are a great way of seeing this sort of information as well as which pages are the most attractive and most useful to users.  Eye-tracking software and click captures are also useful ways of collecting data. However, care needs to be taken not to introduce any bias in the interpretation of this data.

Informal evaluation

Informal evaluation methods can be useful, in the design stage for example, but are better suited in the context of performing research as they do not always yield usable results which can be used to guide design.

Focus groups: This is when you get a group of users together and they discuss subjects led by a moderator. Focus groups can be useful. However, they can lead to users telling you what they think they want, rather than what they need. As this 2002 paper asks: Are focus groups a wealth of information or a waste of resources?

Controlled experiments test a hypothesis like this great example: College students (population) type (task) faster (measurement) using iPad’s keyboard (feature) than using Kindle’s keyboard, by identifying independent and dependent variables that you can collect data on after testing in a simulation of real world situations such as in a college where iPads and Kindles are used.

No matter how great your website or software system is, it can always be improved by some method of evaluation. There are many methods involving users and experts to make your system as good as it can be throughout the whole lifecycle of your website or your software. Evaluation is the only way to identify and correct those design flaws.

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Web design: Sharing and caring on social media



A collaborative medium, a place where we all meet and read and write.
Tim Berners-Lee

[Part 4 of 5 in the web design series,
intropart 1part 2part 3]

Nowhere is Berners-Lee’s vision of the World Wide Web more true than on social media. We all have access to as many conversations as we want. We can instigate new conversation, listen to other people talking, and dip in and out of art, music, video, and other amazing creations.

Most of the articles on social media for web design is about content marketing and content marketing strategy, which is a way for businesses to raise their profiles and create brand awareness, generate new sales, new customers, and keep customers loyal.

The main way to do this is by creating targeted content which is valuable and useful to the user/customer who then trusts a company and is more likely to buy from them. Content marketing is big business, and getting bigger every year according to has published a best practices for social media marketing saying that before businesses promote their products and news, they must also build relationships with their customers so that they feel like they are part of a community. Sharing different types of content, not just information about their products and promotions, is one way of starting new conversation and creating new experiences with customers to encourage a trustworthy feeling.

Newspapers like the FT let their customers to do some of their marketing by providing tweetable quotes throughout their articles which link back to the news item on their website. This is a great way of using all the best content on your website.

A hierarchy of social media?

The types of information we share on social media fit nicely into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which I call Maslow’s hierarchy of social media.

Content marketers believe that the further down Maslow’s triangle you are, the more likely it is that you are fulfilling customers’ basic needs which may encourage customer loyalty. However, customer needs aside, the information type which is shared more than anything other on social media is surprising information in the form of stories, short videos, images. Apparently, we all seek that twist in the tale.

Alone together

Spiritual thinker Deepak Chopra believes we are connected and are raised up by social media. In contrast Sociologist Sherry Turkle feels that social media is changing us and not in a good way. Writers Jennifer Weiner and Jonathan Franzen both concur and believe that social media encourages the worst in us. Social media, of course, offers both experiences: enriching and depressing. It can be a feeding frenzy of attack but also an amazing way of augmenting humans with others’ talents and skills and knowledge.

Of course, the reality is that no one really knows how social media works, which is why companies spend billons each year trying to find better and faster ways of reaching their target market by tweeting, facebook, instagram and blogging.

A masterclass

One of the best brands online is OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. During Oprah Winfrey’s 25-year TV series, she created a community. Her message was: You are not alone, by which, Oprah tapped into one of our deepest needs – we all want to feel that we matter. We want to be included a community and to be heard in conversation. We want to feel connected, so that we can be open and participate in life with others.

Since ending her award winning show, Oprah and her network OWN have reached out to its audience via social media to give information and courses and communitas. They have given us all a masterclass in how these tools should be used to satisfy both the customer and the business, and they continue to go from strength to strength.

Social media is an exciting way of instantly connecting to your customers and creating community in order to direct people to your website. Done well you users will happily co-create alongside you on your website, enriching you in ways only Tim Berners-Lee had the vision to see.

[Part 5: Web design: Evaluation]

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Web design: Being content with your content


A collaborative medium, a place where we all meet and read and write.
Tim Berners-Lee

[Part 3 of 5 in the web design series, intropart 1part 2]

A website should be looked after and tended. It is not enough to create a great layout and visuals, you need to look after the content and have a strategy for keeping your website in great shape.

Content Curation

The terms curation and curating content are bandied about a lot. I like them because it emphasises that you have to take care of your website or app content, like a curator in a museum would.

In any exhibition, every artefact is linked and relates to the others so that a story is told as you work your way through the exhibition. The curator has spent a lot of time and effort creating an experience. And, so it is with the content strategist. Every piece of information on your website has to be relevant to your brand, message, themes, and communication plan, which all link back to the overall reason your website exists: What is your website for?

In her book Content Strategy, Erin Kissane advises using detailed written recommendations, a content style guide and templates, for each page and wireframe within an information architecture. This is so the people involved in generating or curating the content can do so in a way which produces:

  • A site wide consistent tone of voice.
  • A clear strategy for cross linking content site wide.
  • Integrated content.
  • Skillfully used social and community input.
  • Accessible and usable multi-media content.

Years ago when I was in charge of my first website (‘Hello World!’), I asked someone if they would write a page or two for new arrivals to our lab. The resulting information was good and useful, but I rewrote some of it to keep the tone of the site consistent.

The person who had produced the original information, was so offended, she didn’t speak to me for a while, and there was bad feeling all round. Now I see that I was just curating my site. Had I been wiser and more experienced I could have offered some guidelines in the way newspapers and magazines have an in-house style guide. Little did I know.

Wikipedia, has got to be the largest example of great content co-creation. Anyone in the world can contribute but the end result is one of a specific style and layout. A user can land on any page and feel that it is consistent and written in a similar way. There are several pages of instructions to ensure this look and feel, so that Wikipedia doesn’t ever feel like a hodge-podge.

Interestingly enough, if you land on page when the content guide has not been followed, say for example that the page is missing secondary links, then a banner at the top of the page will flag this deficiency up. This immediately allows the user to make a decision as to whether or not to use that information, and this leads the user to feel that the page is a work-in-progress. Overall it is does not impact on the reputation of Wikipedia. The user still trusts Wikipedia.

Responsive Content

Looking at content and studying each word, is for those wordsmiths who love words. It requires good editorial attention. Therefore, it is worth hiring someone who can work from the beginning with information architects and stakeholders to work out taxonomies and structure so that the content guidelines and recommendations fit together beautifully.

Karen McGrane states quite clearly on A List Apart, that responsive design won’t fix your content. She has seen many a project fall apart at the end when people create beautiful fast responsive websites which serve up the same old content. No one has evaluated and redesigned the content and thought about how it will look on various devices.

Indeed usability guru, Jakob Nielson, feels the same way and in his mobile design course advises the designer to cut features and content, so that information and word which are not core to the mobile use case can be cut and all that secondary information can be deferred.  If the user wants an in depth conversation, they know that they can go to the desktop version for all the extras.

Best Practices for Meaningful Content provides a content strategy best practices list that you can use to question each piece of content. Does it:

  • Reflect your organisation’s goals and user’s needs and overall business message?
  • Use the same words as your users?
  • Stay on message, up-to-date and and factual?
  • Allow everyone to access it?
  • Following style guides?
  • Allow itself to be easily found internally and externally?

Persuading the user

Ultimately, with content, what we are trying to do is to persuade the user to buy our product, or take some action, like donate money. We can’t afford to bore our users and waffle on. We carefully craft our conversation and entertain them.

Colleen Jones in her book Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content says that this has always been done with rhetoric, which is now a bit of a lost art which we need to regain. For, ultimately, rhetoric is the study of  human communication.

We are communicating our message, our story, and we so we need to make sure, as Kissane says, that we: Define a clear, specific purpose for each piece of content.

We need to get to the core of our message.

No Lorum Ipsum

In a great article on, Ida Aalen talks about getting to know what the core information is of a site and then designing around that. She uses the example below, taken from the Norwegian Cancer Society’s lung cancer webpage to demonstrate that there is a lot less needed on a page than stakeholders think. She calls this designing around the core, and if you design around core content and message rather than all the bits and pieces everyone feels should be mentioned on the homepage or elsewhere, then the design itself is very easy to do.


With the content in place, no one is designing pages full of the Lorum Ipsum or Hello World text and decisions are made as to where and when each piece of information is put and links to the next.

Aalen has found that designing this way has led to increased user (or audience) engagement and increased revenue generation. This is because the audience can do things more easily and quickly. There is no extraneous content distracting them from their goals and the business goals, and content becomes a business asset.

Content Marketing Strategy 

Once you have all your sharp content, it becomes easier to create a content marketing strategy, which is a different process to your content strategy.  This was one is solely concerned with encouraging your audience to engage. Social media is a wonderful tool, but no one really knows how it works, which is why you need a good marketing plan.

Well crafted content is too good not to be shared.

[Part 4: Web design: Sharing and caring on social media]

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