4 ways in which fiction is like interaction design

by Philip Webb on 15 October 2010

Fiction and interaction design are forms of communication involving a relationship between the reader/user and author/designer. The analogy might help describe the philosophy of user-centred design to those who remain skeptical. Here are 4 ways in which fiction and interaction design overlap:

1. Exposition and instructions

A good story often benefits from ‘showing’, rather than ‘telling’ or exposition. Exposition sounds like ‘Blackbeard was a menacing and dangerous man’. Showing that Blackbeard is menacing and dangerous by what he does and says is more elegant and powerful. In interaction design, the equivalent of telling is excessive instruction. A design that shows how a form is to be filled in through its structure, layout and clear labelling makes instructions redundant.

2. Writing for an audience/genre and user-centred design

Understanding the readership and in particular the rules surrounding various literary genres is key to the success of a piece of fiction. The rules are important because the fans of particular genres know and expect these to be adhered to as integral parts of their understanding and enjoyment. Crime fiction that doesn’t start with a crime to be solved in part by the reader is likely to fail. The user-centred design process involves researching the objectives and needs of users before design can even begin. Knowledge of best practice and design patterns are analogous to knowledge of the rules of genre. Without these basics, interactions are likely to baffle and frustrate users after a great deal of expensive and wasted development effort.

3. Narrative and case studies

Interactions may seem less about narrative than ‘doing something’ but we make sense of the world through stories and often interactions that have a narrative element make them easier to grasp i.e. a beginning, middle and end. Progress bars are useful in conveying the overall journey in a linear way, even if the actual journey is non-linear. This helps to set users’ expectations in advance and throughout the experience. Case study examples help to illustrate complex interactions and the benefits users would gain by invoking them. The video and storyboard that explains the Streetcar service on its website are powerful examples of the use of narrative.

4. A satisfying ending

Since readers invest considerable effort in the stories they choose to read, they have expectations that the ending will provide a pay-off. This doesn’t necessarily mean a happy ending but one that is satisfying according to the cues provided by the experience. Ecommerce interactions, for example, follow the same pattern. Filling out a checkout form isn’t going to be enjoyable (the way a novel might be). Rather it will be seen as an obstacle to the end goal of buying something. But it can set up positive anticipation and reassurance that the objective will be met. A long-winded process that gathers data not essential for the buying task is like introducing new characters and plotlines near the end of a book – ultimately jarring and unsatisfying. I’d be interested to hear any other narrative/interaction design examples you may have!

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