July 22, 2010

Storytelling as a Key to Systems Development

The stakeholders in IT projects often speak in such different terminologies that communication can seem like lucky happenstance. Engineers speak engineer, users speak user, and business people speak their own language too.

The work of Rosio Alvarez, currently the Chief Information Officer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, approaches this communication divide by looking at the role of narrative in IT projects.  Her 2002 article, “Discourse Analysis of Requirements and Knowledge Elicitation Interviews” is enlightening – software users often try to explain their experience through stories about themselves as users.  Based on her observation of requirements analysis interviews, Alvarez concluded that the information embedded in this subjective presentation can be missed by analysts, who are likely to want to sidestep the experiential fluff and get to the facts.

The use of Alvarez’ insight extends far beyond IT.  Anyone who uses interviews or less formal encounters to gather information would likely be well served by slowing down, rather than speeding up, when interviewees veer into narrative anecdote about “the time when …” the system worked or didn’t work a particular way for them, as the basis for how they would like to see a future iteration.   Among other things, an interviewer can learn:

  • The context in which use takes place.  What is the setting of the narrative, and how does the setting –physical and social–inform the ability of the user to function effectively?
  • How does the interviewee represent him or herself in their narrative? What kind of identity do they have? This may suggest to the analyst how some users want to perceive themselves, and feel, when they are interacting with the technology
  • What is the dramatic action of the narrative.  A user in this context is likely to tell a story in order to illuminate a particular concern.
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