What makes a great story?

What's the difference between story and narrative? How can we make our organizations more people-centered? What makes a successful community? How can we inspire people to change?

These are questions I wrestle with in my own journey as a designer, change agent and champion of customer experience.

And the more I learn about narrative (thanks to people like John Hagel and my colleague Deb Lavoy), the more I wonder whether narrative can serve as a lens through which to explore the connections between these questions.

Wrapping My Head Around Narrative

What is narrative? How is it different than story? Is it just a question of semantics or, if we can understand the relationship between narrative and story, can we increase our success as change agents shifting the way our organizations do business?

Think about narrative as an overarching theme, myth or controlling idea that defines your purpose or reason for being. A “big story within which many smaller stories find their place and meaning” according to this analysis of Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods. But the overarching story, the narrative, has no beginning and no end. It’s a wrapper inside which stories are constructed.


John Hagel defines narratives as:

stories that do not end -- they persist indefinitely. They invite, even demand, action by participants and they reach out to embrace as many participants as possible. They are continuously unfolding, being shaped and filled in by the participants. In this way, they amplify the dynamic component of stories, both in terms of time and scope of participation … the role of a narrative is ultimately to attract, engage, motivate and call people to more fully achieve their potential. Narratives represent a powerful pull mechanism that can shape the world around us.” 

Shape the world around us. As Dr. Olivier Oullier suggests “Narrative has to be considered in any long-term engagement, not only as the hook or the primer, but as a method of creating or inducing beliefs.”

This is a powerful concept. People have the power to shape the world through narrative. Groups of people, banding together into tribes, teams or communities, have the power to shape the world through a shared narrative.

After discovering the concept of possibility spaces in the world of game design, another way I like to think about narrative is as something that opens a possibility space. A possibility space that provides a context for a future we’re striving to bring into being.

So is narrative the framing of the possibility space from which stories can emerge? Identities can be shaped? Communities can be formed? Worlds can be transformed?

Community as a Narrative Space

I love the challenge that Wojtek Szumowski, EVP / group director planning for CP+B, sets for marketers in 2013:

To create new forms of interaction between brands, people, technology, and culture, we need to understand a product’s and brand’s ability to open up a rich narrative space where people can enter as protagonists, not just consumers. We need to think about people as protagonists in a narrative that brand and product can help inspire and co-prototype, rather than treating people as consumers of brand and product meaning. Today we find the emerging conditions to go beyond this holy paradigm of our industry.”

Who are some organizations that are rising to this challenge? Here are a few that I think are doing interesting experiments around narrative and community:

  • Harry Potter Alliance: The [Harry Potter Alliance] relies on an unfolding narrative to hook people. You're not just told a good story, you're part of one. You don't just donate or sign petitions, you're writing the next or last chapter of a powerful story.
  • Mac ‘n Cheese Productions: I work less to shape stories and more to shape environments that allow for the stories to surface in the first place.
  • Blizzard and Starcraft WCS: We wanted to take the next step and involve the StarCraft 2 ecosystem. The new system creates a single storyline that’s easier to follow… You build up a history over time, and I think that'll make the sport more accessible for people.
  • FAB: (Re)defining design. Helping people live better lives by design. The decision to buy is not transactional but aspirational… we aren’t trying to make people buy certain things, we want to guide them through a story. And now FAB’s disrupting design by providing a possibility space for the dreams of emerging designers to come true.
  • Nike+: You are no longer just buying a sneaker. You are joining the largest global running club… The overall direction in digital shifted. It is less about Nike and more about you, the athlete. Now the user is at the center and Nike is there to serve experiences to better them.
  • Etsy: a community of artists, creators, collectors, thinkers and doers. Craft Party is a celebration of meeting and making, of creativity and community. This year’s theme is Craft for Community. How can you use your creative powers to make your hometown even better?

For community to succeed, you need a space for people to come together and form relationships. For relationships to form, you need engagement. To create engagement, you need a compelling narrative. One which encourages people to contribute their own stories to the narrative.

So how do we improve our ability to design for community?

User-centered Design Limits our Ability to Design for Community

User-centered design puts users at the center of the design equation. But should individual users be center stage? A user-centered approach limits our ability to design for engagement in several ways:

  • Starts from where users are, not with who they want to become
  • Frame is the product, not the journey of transition and change
  • Focus is on individual user context, not the wider social context

What if, instead of users, we were to start thinking of people as protagonists?

By reframing a user as a protagonist, we shift from thinking about passive users or consumers to thinking about heroes on a journey. The context that shapes their journey, that both inspires them to begin their journey and transforms them along the way, is a compelling narrative. And as they transform themselves, they transform the world around them.


Image Source: How and Why Dramatica is Different from Six Other Story Paradigms

So a shift from user-centered design to community-centered design is a shift from a narrow focus on user to broader focus on narrative and of shaping the environment that supports the journey.

Think about the first day of retirement. It’s a significant transition point, the beginning of an entirely new phase in the narrative of life. Prudential’s Day One campaign tried to capture this concept in an award winning participative ad campaign, but failed in building a vibrant community because it failed to connect into a larger narrative, something Red Hat Society, dedicated to reshaping the way women are viewed in today's culture, excels at.

Once we make the design of context much more central, then we have a structure around which to wrap engagement.

Moving from User-Centric to Community-Centric Design

With community-centric design you’re a catalyst shaping culture, creating possibilities and building connection to a shared purpose.


Image Source: Matthew Muñoz

What might this look like in practice? Here’s my extension of an initial take of the difference in approach using a comparison table that I discovered in Matthew’s deck.

  User-centric Community-centric
Who are you designing for?
  • users
  • contributors
  • customers
  • clients
  • employees
  • buyers
  • leads
  • prospects
  • members
  • networks
  • groups
  • collaborators
  • tribes
  • teams
  • heroes
  • advocates
What are their goals?
  • tasks
  • activities
  • jobs
  • social exchange
  • co-creation
  • creativity in collaboration
  • build their reputation
  • build their network
  • build their status
What do they need?
  • efficiency
  • satisfaction
  • usability
  • effectiveness
  • enjoyability
  • meaning
  • shared purpose
  • shared narrative
  • shared identity
  • social belonging
  • to contribute
  • community interaction
  • connection
  • co-experience
  • privacy
What are the tools?
  • requirements
  • wireframes
  • user stories
  • scenarios
  • prototypes
  • conceptual models
  • narrative
  • identity
  • language
  • shared mental models
  • rituals
  • connections
  • shared space
  • values

 Adapted from Innovation in Online Communities: Towards Community-Centric Design

Successful community building means transforming how your organization thinks

Joseph Campbell, who first wrote about the hero’s journey, suggested that “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.”

To launch a successful community, the most important question you may have to ask yourself is whether your organization is ready to quit thinking about itself and its own self-preservation and undergo a heroic transformation of consciousness. A transformation which places people squarely at the center of its thinking. If not, don’t count on your community being a success.

Here are some questions to stimulate your thinking on designing for community:

My thinking here is a work in progress … I'd love to hear your critiques, examples and extensions.

Editor's Note: Interested in more from Joyce? Read her thoughts on employee engagement in What Does Your Employee Experience Look Like?