CX Insights

Why We Need Better Tools to Tell Stories With

6 min read

Once in a while, I come across an immersive, beautiful piece of interactive storytelling in my browser. It uses the capabilities of the Internet to create an experience that cannot be created on any other medium.

But I don’t see them often. They’re mostly called an experiment. Interactive stories are being passed on to me by enthusiastic nerds who say that it ‘demonstrates so well what technology X is capable off’, without much attention for the story itself.

Is it too hard to tell stories on the Internet? Or do we enjoy storytelling more when it’s a TV series, movie or book?

The media theorist Marshall McLuhann proposed that every new medium suffers from a horse carriage effect. It means that a new medium takes on the form of its predecessor before people will find their way with its new possibilities. The first automobiles looked liked horse carriages. People didn’t know what else to do with it. To quote an old chestnut attributed to Henry Ford: “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have asked for a faster horse.”1

The web has awesome capabilities of storytelling, that are only just unfolding. I think that a lot of the time, we tell stories on the web in the spirit of it’s predecessors, like newspapers, magazines, and television. Media became more available (book press), got faster in terms of delivery (telephone lines), and got to address multiple senses (radio and television). What does the Internet has to add? I would say interactivity, and complete connectedness. The Internet lets us communicate with each other with no fixed protocols, and allows a page or program to pull data from almost every other page or program. Content has the ability to be tinkered with. It can react to your choices, exist in multiple forms, and change depending on the one who is interacting with it.

How It Should Be Done

Of course, there are some examples of well executed storytelling. One that crosses my mind is Spent, an online game that is designed to show how it feels like surviving on a low income in the US. While playing the game, you constantly have to choose what to do with the little money you have. A lot of these dilemma’s are devilish catch-22’s, that have severe medical or social consequences, no matter what choice you make.

Spent: An Interactive Story

You see what decisions you have to make when you are poor. Every choice you make has immediate consequences. Because this is such an emotional ride, it’s really hard not to make a donation when you are being asked to at the end. Furthermore, the game uses recent data (which can be updated to reflected changes in the economy) and sharing mechanisms (you can save money in the game by asking for help on your real Facebook account).

Another good example is the interactive experience that serves as a videoclip for the Arcade Fire song ‘We Used to Wait’. Most people feel bouts of nostalgia when they look at pictures of their old home and neighbourhood, and the experience makes clever use of that fact.

After you fill in the street you grew up in, you start the show. Using Google Street View, images of your old hood are interjected into the experience.

That's my old home on the right
That's my old home on the right

What I like so much about this is how it all fits the concept of Arcade Fire’s song and album so well. Nostalgia, growing up, and memories of the past (both good and bad) are the main themes of the album, and you get to relate to those themes with the your old home as the subject. While the exact feelings can differ highly from person to person, I bet everyone feels a mixture of the themes mentioned while sitting through this experience2.

A quite different example of what modern storytelling can be is the active document Ten Brighter Ideas, by Bret Victor. It contains ten proposals on how to save energy (turning of your TV instead of putting it on standby, for instance). Each claim can be played with by tinkering with the numbers and percentages, not only to see if it’s true, but also if it’s significant. In Victor’s words:

As you explore this document, imagine a world where we expect every claim to be accompanied by an explorable analysis, and every statistic to be linked to a primary source. Imagine collecting data and designing analyses in a collaborative wiki-like manner.

Adjust the hypothesis, and the surrounding information changes with it.
Adjust the hypothesis, and the surrounding information changes with it.

This example is not a story being told from beginning to end. But it does show how the connectedness and interactive nature of the Internet can not only give us multimedia experiences, but also change the way we interact with text, our most basic manner of communicating after speech. I totally agree with Bret Victor on this: “People currently think of text as information to be consumed. I want text to be an environment to think in“.

If reactive documents create an environment to think in, the first two examples create an environment to feel in. Both achieve this by making use of the infinite connections and interactive interface the Internet provides.

But Why Isn’t There More of This Stuff?

I gave Spent as an example to show how an interactive story can let you feel what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes, perhaps better than a written story or documentary can. Although it is simulated that you are in a different environment, you have to make your own choices in it. Slowly but surely, you start to feel what it must be like to make these choices in the real world, day after day.

Why don’t more charities use this mechanism? Wouldn’t we create more understanding by having the ability to understand the choices people from all walks of life have to make?

Relative costs could be a factor, I’m sure. It’s expensive to create interactive content. But it’s not only expensive because it is labor intensive, but also because it is hard. And as UX designers and programmers, we need to find ways to make interactive storytelling easier. Just like we made it easier for people to blog, to upload pictures, to talk to each other and to find information.

The javascript library Bret Victor wrote to support his reactive documents is a ‘bootstrapped beginning’, but a great example of technology designed to deepen and strengthen the stories we tell. Let’s start talking about how we can create more frameworks, applications and other solutions that lets us create more compelling stories. We have been on this faster horse for too long now.

I’m curious about your ideas, either here, on Hacker News, or anywhere you can find me. Let’s get this ball rolling.

Update: In the video below, Bret Victor gives a demonstration of some mindblowing tools that make creating stories, programs and games amazingly more intuitive. This is exactly what I am hoping for to see available for all of us soon.

  1. According to these good people on Quora, there is no evidence that Henry Ford actually said this. 
  2. For more information about the technology and concept behind the Arcade Fire ‘clip’, check out the making of
Jurian Baas
Interested in usability, UX, philosophy, cognitive psychology and the social implications of modern science and technology. I love going to indie concerts and movies.