Design for Narrative Experience

this is a repost from Silvia Grimaldi’s blog


I finally finished my PhD! You can find the whole thing, in PDF, here.

This post is my attempt to summarise 300 pages of academic writing in a few pages of non-academic writing.

Design For Narrative Experience in Product Interactions


Objects used to be passed down through the generations, and they therefore came with a story that made sense with our identity. My grandparents had cookware that was passed down the generations and was rich with memories of the food their elders had cooked in it; their furniture was bought once, and lasted their whole life, it was around when their children and grandchildren were young, and through to their old age.

Nowadays objects are designed to be relatively disposable. Most people wouldn’t think twice of throwing away cookware or house objects and replacing them at the first sign of wear.

Engaging people emotionally with an object, for example through having that object prompt a story that the user is part of, helps people create an emotional and meaningful connection with the mundane object. For example, the washing machine you acquired broken and then spent a lot of time fixing is a source of pride — you have created a story around it in which you are a hero, who saves the day by wielding mad skills.

Objects that feature in the stories that people tell about themselves and their lives are less likely to be thoughtlessly replaced or disposed of, and more likely to be cared for, and mended when broken.

Is it possible for a designer to design objects that are more likely to feature in these stories? Is it possible to design objects that encourage you to tell stories about them? If so, how would a designer go about it? And what types of stories could be created?



There are as many definitions of stories and narratives as there are disciplines studying the topic. This is partly because each discipline and approach is interested in different aspects of stories. The focus can be on the elements that comprise stories and the sequences they come in (structuralist approach, taken often by literature scholars) or how people interpret stories to create meaning (cognitivist approach, taken often by psychologists), or why we tell stories and how stories interact with our identity and sense of self (approach taken by psychologists and neurologists), to name just a few.

In design, there are some common ways of using narratives and stories. Typically, there are stories that accompany objects, such as the stories in advertisements, or stories associated to past events, for example those memories of an object you inherited being used by a relative.

Then there are stories used in design research, those that are told in interviews or design ethnographies, and those created by the design team through some of the typical tools such as personas and storyboards, which help a team envision and empathise with users.

There are also stories that are prompted by the object itself, even though they are not specific to that object; for example when an object is ambiguous, such as a stick, and it is used in child play to represent something else, such as a horse or a witch’s broom.

Then there are those stories that we retell or remember of our interactions with an object, which are not usually particularly interesting or meaningful stories, but sometimes they might be surprising or engaging or resonate particularly with our identity. We might tell a story about using an unfamiliar car, or falling off a chair, or getting angry at a self–checkout machine. In these stories, we sometimes talk about the object as if it has a will, assigning it agency. For example, the remote control is naughty because it always hides, or the chair is annoying because it’s not very stable, and really it is trying to make us fall off of it. We interpret the object behaviour as if it were a character in the story.

But can these stories be designed into the objects themselves? Or better, can the designer put in clues and prompts in the experience of use of the object, so that it encourages users to remember and retell the experience as a meaningful story? Can we design in features and behaviours that foster a narrative interpretation?



To answer these questions, I researched narrative theory and design theory from product, interaction and experience design, and human computer interaction. From this I created the Narratives in Design Toolkit, that helps designers analyse the narratives in designed objects, and envision how their designs will be interpreted, what types of stories might be retold about these objects and our interactions with them, and how meaningful, interesting or entertaining these stories might be. This is done in two stages, firstly by mapping out the steps of use of an object, such as, for example in a desk phone, hearing it ring, picking up the receiver, talking, holding it under the shoulder, finishing the conversation and replacing the receiver on the base. And secondly looking at different narrative elements that could be prompted at different points.

Narratives in Design Toolkit

I used the Narratives in Design Toolkit to create four designs of kettles (yes, kettles, I did my PhD on kettles J. My 10-year-old finds it hilarious).

To design these I researched the steps of use of a kettle through design ethnographies, and mapped these out, including particular quirks of use, such as inspecting for limescale. I then crowdsourced examples of films in which kettles appeared in a significant role. Out of these examples, I picked four films, each in a different genre. I then analysed the kettle scenes to understand the role of the kettle, as well as its symbolic meanings, and from this material I created design briefs.

Combining the steps of use of the kettle with the roles and meanings and visual identity coming from the films, I created four kettle prototypes, each associated to one of the films.

Here are the 4 kettles:

Kettle 1: Secretary


Kettle 2: Tale of Two Sisters


Kettle 3: Wristcutters: A Love Story

Kettle 4: Vera Drake

I then asked volunteers to use the kettle prototypes, and sit down with tea and cake to tell me about their experiences with these kettles and with their own kettles, or kettles they used in the past. These conversations were surprisingly rich, but also showed that the stories people told about these kettles were different, and to a certain extent more interesting, than the ones they told about other kettles, unless the other kettles were associated with particular memories.

Not only did the kettle prototypes delight the volunteers, but they engaged with the kettles emotionally: they felt frightened by them, or intrigued by them, or had to continuously check on them because they didn’t trust the noise they were making. The protoypes prompted reflections about their identity, for example a kettle that changed as the water boiled made people more impatient than they normally are, because it emphasized the element of time.

People thought of the kettle prototypes as having agency, and felt empathy for them: many thought the fish in the Wristcutters Kettle were exciting and delightful, but several people also felt bad for the fish being boiled (no real fish were harmed!).

The prototypes also prompted memories and storyworlds, for example through the whistle of a kettle reminding someone of his mother making tea, or the rumble of water boiling reminding someone of an air conditioning unit in a cheap hotel in Ibiza.

In particular, though, the prototypes were able to give some storylike structure to the steps of use of the kettles. Some said it made the experience of waiting for the kettle to boil longer, because they could see something slowly happening on the outside; one volunteer said he normally meditates when boiling a kettle, and this kettle gave him more material to focus his meditation on, others talked about the suspense of knowing the fish were going to do something, but not knowing what, till they started swimming around when the water boils.



The way we interact with an object can be thought of as a story. This can be the story we use to interpret the object, or the story we tell when we talk to other people about it, or the story we remember later on. Thinking of this interaction as a story can help designers to envision not only the functional aspects in the sequences of using an object, but also to envision the meanings and emotions that are formed in this interaction and how people might interpret these as a story. Stories help designers to focus on an interaction with an object as being something that happens over time, and to design for things happening in particular sequences throughout this time.

In my experiments above, not only did the prototypes prompt many different types of stories than standard kettles, but some of the qualities of the films I used as source material showed up in the stories that people told about the kettles, for example many people found the kettle based on a horror film scary and unsettling, and thought it would start doing something on its own.

This is important, because it shows that prompts for stories can be built into objects and experiences, and even though not everyone will interpret these prompts as intended, some of it will filter through to a number of people.

When we look at the impact of mass production and standardisation on how we think of objects, if we can design prompts for stories that are discovered through interacting with an object, this might make these objects acquire more meaning and value for us. Creating experiences with objects that become interesting stories, with meanings, emotions, conflicts and climaxes, can make us more attached to these objects, and therefore can make us value them more, with clear impacts for sustainability.

But stories attached to objects can also have an impact in other fields.

We remember stories much better than plain sequences of facts, so we should remember how to use an object with a story better than one without a story. There could be benefits in designing in this way for people with dementia or other cognitive impairments, who might find it easier to remember the story of how to use the object if this is a more meaningful and more “storylike” story.

We know stories are used in branding and advertising, but rarely are these stories reflected into or built into the user experience of the object. This could be an additional approach to branding, that builds stories of use that reinforce the brand values and the customer’s identity.

Stories built into an experience of an object can also encourage people to reflect more on the object they are using, to notice different aspects of it or to reflect on their relationship with the object, or their relationship with society through the object. This is a strategy that is used in critical and speculative design, and the resulting objects are usually intended to be experienced in museums. Building stories into the use of everyday objects could be a way to bring this reflection out of the museum and into everyday life.

And finally, there are interesting implications for teaching design, and in particular product design and service design. Students are usually very good at envisioning what their design does, and what the practical function is. It is more difficult to envision what the meaning behind the design is, and how the design might be interpreted, remembered and what stories might be told about it. Using narrative techniques can help students envision how their designs will be interpreted, remembered and retold.



Links: Full PhD download


To know more about specific bits:

On narratives for designers: See the PhD Chapters 1 and 2, and this paper:
Grimaldi, S., Fokkinga, S. and Ocnarescu, I. (2013) ‘Narratives in Design: A Study of the Types, Applications and Functions of Narratives in Design Practice’, in Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces. New York, NY, USA: ACM (DPPI ’13), pp. 201–210. doi: 10.1145/2513506.2513528.
available here:

On methodology: See the PhD Chapter 3, and this book chapter:
Grimaldi, S. (2014) ‘Narrativity of Object Interaction Experiences: A Framework for Designing Products as Narrative Experiences’, in Benz, P. (ed.) Experience Design: Concepts and Case Studies. London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 57–68. Available at:
available here:

On the Narratives in Design Toolkit: See PhD Section 4.2, or a paper that is forthcoming, please get in touch for a draft copy.

On possible applications: see this paper:
Jordan, P. W. et al. (2017) ‘Design for Subjective Wellbeing: Towards a Design Framework for Constructing Narrative’, The Design Journal, 20(sup1), pp. S4292–S4306. doi: 10.1080/14606925.2017.1352926.
and this paper:
Ali, H., Grimaldi, S. and Biagioli, M. (2017) ‘Service Design pedagogy and effective student engagement: Generative Tools and Methods’, The Design Journal, 20(sup1), pp. S1304–S1322. doi: 10.1080/14606925.2017.1352659.


Academic Abstract to the PhD

This practice-led investigation asks if and how design can enhance the user’s experience of interacting with everyday physical domestic objects through the application of narrative storytelling devices derived from film.

The concepts of tellability and narrativity are used to explore the way people interpret interactions with objects and to develop methods for product designers to integrate narrativity into the product experience of mundane objects, things we use every day, objects which are often overlooked.

The interest of the design community in experience and interaction design has tended to focus on digital products or interfaces because these fields emerged in large part from computer science in the area of Human Computer Interaction. By contrast, this investigation draws attention to the way users can also have meaningful and interesting interactions with tangible non-digital products.

Since interactions with products happen over time, the concept of narrative is useful to help envision how experiences will unfold. Narratives are used in everyday life to communicate, engage others, and interpret our experiences. Narrative is closely tied to memory and we tend to remember information better when this is presented in narrative form. This research focuses on how products can prompt or reveal a narrative through their use, and how the designer of a product can embed qualities that enhance the narrativity of the user experience.

This research develops design work, a set of domestic kettles, specifically to address the area of design praxeology, or research into the process of designing, so that in the first instance its direct audience is product designers, in particular those designers working within speculative design and product design research. However, the scope of the study has also produced approaches and design methods applicable to product design for mass production and design for social impact.