Deciphering Culture

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Shifting the “bottom line”: recognizing the power of storytelling

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Earlier this year, I wrote a short piece for the print newsletter of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center on the increased recognition of storytelling as a valuable methodology whose use is no longer limited to communication and marketing. I’m posting it on Deciphering Culture in hopes that the ideas contained in it get broader distribution and, hopefully, inspire dialogue. If it also introduces some people to the amazing work of Earthfire Institute, all the better.

 

DATA ADDS UP, STORIES RING TRUE

by Jeffrey Callen

 

During the last decade, storytelling has been enthusiastically embraced as a methodological framework by individuals working in endeavors as different from each other as technology, journalism, and social activism. Storytelling is no longer confined to the realms of communications and marketing but is seen as integral to the creation of “product” (now often reconceptualized and relabeled as “experience”). In the design process, calculations and quantifiable arguments are replaced by the creation of evocative experiences—the bottom line is no longer how the data adds up but whether the story rings true.

This change in methodologies implies a changing vision of the work itself. Unlike quantifiable methodologies, storytelling is an art and, like other art forms, its primary goal is to create a space of connection outside the flow of everyday life. In this “virtual” space, new possibilities (ideas, strategies, visions) and ways of being in the world can be tried on and experimented with that previously had only been imagined or, at best, partially realized. The criteria by which this experience is evaluated is the extent to which it rings true, authentic and genuine— it is also the primary determinant of the effect the experience has on the participants. The best contemporary uses of storytelling apply this template which hearkens back to the beginnings of human society.

Nearly as old as music, dance and drawing, early forms of oral storytelling were shared in settings of fellowship that transcended later boundaries created between the realms of spirituality, healing, philosophy, history–keeping, and entertainment. The same respectful disregard of disciplinary boundaries is a component of the storytelling work of Earthfire Institute. It is one of the many ways in which it returns to the roots of storytelling. Storytelling is an integral component of the work of Earthfire Institute. It is more than its chosen means of communicating the ideas and values that drive its mission to reintegrate humans into nature. Through stories, Earthfire experiences are shared and intimate, often transformational, human/animal interactions are evoked, creating a space of connection with the listener/viewer (one of the advantages of storytelling in the postmodern age is the easy availability of integrated presentations of sight, sound and movement). In each online video or blog post, more is communicated than is contained in the outlines of a single story. Each story adds to the totality of Earthfire Institute’s work and it is here that Earthfire presents its vision of a possible future in which man’s (and woman’s) connection to the natural world is restored.

Jeffrey Callen is a storyteller and ethnographer based in San Francisco. As a consultant, he has advised Earthfire Institute on storytelling and strategic development. He is also a cultural analyst and creative writer, whose work has appeared in numerous scholarly and popular publications.

Short takes: Design Storytelling & User Experience

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The widespread adoption of “design thinking” has included a reinsertion of storytelling into many aspects of business life. For a look at its use in product/service design, see, The Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley of IDEO; in crafting a business plan, see Business Model Generation (both influential books in spreading the design Gospel); in user experience research,  Storytelling for User Experience by Whitney Quesenbery & Kevin Brooks has been recommended to me but has not made it to my reading list yet (UX hs not been one of my areas of exploration – yet).

All this is by way of prologue to an interesting article posted on UX Matters by Traci Lepore, The CSS of Design Storytelling: Context, Spine and Structure that looks at the nuts-and-bolts of storytelling in UX work. A short excerpt:

Storytelling is important not only to theater. I agree with Tom Erickson, who says in his article “Design As Storytelling” that design is a social, collaborative activity. I believe a UX designer’s role is to bridge all of the pieces that bring a design to life—from product management, marketing, user research, and design all the way through development. If that is true, communication is critical. Stories become an essential communication vehicle in the user experience world. Every day, we talk to users, bring back their stories, and co-create with them.

Major parts of our work are building personas, creating scenarios, and creating and using prototypes in usability testing—all of which connect our work to real users. Of course, we must also talk with various people within our organization to understand the case for a product’s business value, as well as relevant technical constraints, and negotiate a balance between all of these factors. But, in the end, to get buy in, we need to tell a compelling and engaging story about our design and its value. And we need to evangelize that story. To be successful in design, as well as theater, it makes sense to spend some time on the CSS—the Context, Spine, and Structure.


Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 28, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Short takes: Derek Silvers “Anything You Want”

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I’m a little wary of touting the work of “success gurus” (I can’t help flashing on the Chris Farley SNL motivational speaker character Matt Foley) but I make a few exceptions — Derek Silvers is one of those and he has a great trailer for his new book, “Anything You Want” published by fellow guru Seth Godin’s Domino Project.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

June 29, 2011 at 11:25 am

Short takes: different types of “creative metropoles”

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Interesting project winding up in September 2011 looks at the different strategies taken by eleven European cities to develop and support their creative industries. The Creative Metropoles project is based on a premise I share and would like to see shared in the U.S.: “a facilitator of innovation, creative industries are essential for the development of other sectors.” The cities (as different as Berlin and Riga, Amsterdam & Warsaw) will each identify their own best practices and learn from each other’s experiences — “the ambition is not only to present the good practices but also deal with current problem issues and generate new knowledge and approaches.” The project is working in 5 policy areas:

1. structure of the public support for creative industries

2. business capacity and internationalisation of creative industries

3. space for activities by creative industries and creative city districts as creative incubators

4. funding schemes for creative industries

5. demand for the outputs of creative industries, including municipalities in the role of consumers.

The final report, particularly the appendices (Good Practices from European Cities) offers an interesting view of the diversity of approaches to developing creative industries that have had significant success and point to the need to both localize (i.e., collaboration for mutual benefit among Berlin) and reach across national boundaries (i.e., relationship building between artisans and designers in Fes, Morocco and Amsterdam). There’s a lot of material and I’ve just been browsing but my first impression is there’s a lot to learn.c

Short Takes: Ethnographic Fiction

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One of my fascinations is the ongoing development of ethnographic fiction as a means of capturing qualitative research that is more evocative and significantly meaningful than typical ethnographic prose. I noticed that there is an interesting workshop coming up down under on ethnographic fiction & speculative design. Outside the bounds of my travel budget but well worth checking out:

Ethnographic Fiction and Speculative Design is a full-day workshop at the 5th International Conference on Communities & Technologies–C&T 2011, in Brisbane, Australia, 29 June-2 July, 2011.

Goals of the Workshop

This full-day workshop aims to explore how grounded ethnographic and action research methods can be transformed into fictional and speculative designs that provide people the kinds of experiences and tools that can lead to direct community action in the development and implementation of new pervasive technologies.

And added to my reading  list is After Life: An Ethnographic Novel by anthropologist Tobias Hecht. From the blurb by Duke University Press:

Bruna Veríssimo, a youth from the hardscrabble streets of Recife, in Northeast Brazil, spoke with Tobias Hecht over the course of many years, reliving her early childhood in a raging and destitute home, her initiation into the world of prostitution at a time when her contemporaries had scarcely started school, and her coming of age against all odds.

Hecht had originally intended to write a biography of Veríssimo. But with interviews ultimately spanning a decade, he couldn’t ignore that much of what he had been told wasn’t, strictly speaking, true. In Veríssimo’s recounting of her life, a sister who had never been born died tragically, while the very same rape that shattered the body and mind of an acquaintance occurred a second time, only with a different victim and several years later. At night, with the anthropologist’s tape recorder in hand, she became her own ethnographer, inventing informants, interviewing herself, and answering in distinct voices.

With truth impossible to disentangle from invention, Hecht followed the lead of Veríssimo, his would-be informant, creating characters, rendering a tale that didn’t happen but that might have, probing at what it means to translate a life into words.

A call and response of truth and invention, mental illness and yearning, After Life is a tribute to and reinterpretation of the Latin American testimonio genre. Desire, melancholy, longing, regret, and the hunger to live beyond the confines of past and future meet in this debut novel by Tobias Hecht.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

April 22, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Short takes: Ethnography in a business setting

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On the value of ethnography in a business setting (from very different perspectives)

(1) part of a series on the PARC blog last year)

Ethnography in industry: Objectives?

27 April 2010 | Victoria Bellotti

I – and I imagine you – have encountered a lot of confusion, and misconceptions, about ethnography. Especially relative to the many methods that can be used to inform technology design. This post is the first of a series intended to clarify a few things about this methodology.

What is ethnography?

First: there are some helpful definitions that can be found through a simple search.

In case you’re in a hurry, I’ll also summarize it (albeit inadequately, no doubt) for you: a holistic, in-person, and qualitative approach to the study of human behavior and interaction in natural settings.

But rather than expound on the semantic aspects of ethnography in my very first blog post here, I’d really rather respond to the obvious and eminently reasonable question I often hear in my work as a researcher in the field of user-centered technology innovation:

“What’s it good for, in my business?”

Ethnography adapted for industry

In today’s hard-nosed and often economically trying times, ethnography can be seen as a tactical weapon enabling companies to gather new insights and thus gain advantage over their competition.

Traditional ethnographic studies were conducted at a relatively leisurely pace. They had, at least as far as I can tell, no particular useful or focused objectives other than to uncover as much as possible about a culture or practice of interest in an unfettered manner. (Indeed, having an explicit agenda was considered to be rather bad form and was liable to get you kicked out of polite ethnographic circles…wherever those might have been.)

Out of the academic Garden of Eden, modern ethnographers have been driven to move and produce compelling results faster, while operating within a number of budgetary constraints and oft-conflicting business demands.

Ethnographers’ data collection and analysis methods have therefore been condensed, recombined, adapted – both systematically and as-needed – to meet these business demands. We’ll describe the methods to this madness in our next post, but in this post (below) I categorized some of the commercial objectives for which these methods are applied. (for the rest)

Ethnography & Design Thinking

While conducting research for my next presentation (as part of Module 2), I am becoming intrigued and interested (REALLY interested) in Ethnography and then on a separate note, Design Thinking.

The following excites me in relation to ethnography:

-’ its a tool for better design’…..’informs design by revraling a deep understanding of people and how they make sense of their world.’…….’a research method based on observing people in their natural environment rather than in a formal research setting.’……’helps…create more compelling soloutions’…’it lets us see beyond our preconceptions and immerse ourselves in the world of others.’…….’allows us to discover meaning, understand norms…make communications powerful…be worldy….observe reality….identify barriers….’

In a previous job, I had a boss who would say things like “We’re great, sure everyone on the street is talking about us, they all want to come here, people tell me all the time.” Getting Increasingly frustrated by this (and his lies) I eventually said “How do we know? What research have we conducted? The only facts we have is the amount of profit at the end of the year! Why don’t we just get out there and ask questions?”

If anything, adpoting a ethnographic model of research will help me understand the group / community of interest I eventually end up collaborating with. The following diagram, recently sourced also intrigues me and brought the areas of ethnography and design thinking to my forefront and attention. (for the rest)

Written by Jeffrey Callen

March 30, 2011 at 11:15 am

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