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3 Times I Stumbled and Got Up (from Writer to Storyteller)


How it all began

When I switched majors from English to Interaction Design, I expected to take a step back from writing. It would hurt but also come as a bit of a relief; I'd been struggling to churn out stories at the college pace and was on the verge of burning out.

I joined the ranks of interaction design students uneasily, introducing myself as an ex-English major. In my mind, I was an "underdog," doomed to bring up the rear and tussle with each and every new concept. I hadn't accounted for the story-driven nature of user experience. Case studies, annotated wireframes, storyboards, journey mapsthey all came as a shock.

The first journey map I ever created.

In Spring 2021, I took a class called "Time Studio: Story." By now, I was more confident in my UX skillsless eager to brand myself as a clueless word-nerd. And so, Time Studio: Story filled me with a bit of dread. I'd be returning to my roots, but at what cost? All this time, I'd been marketing myself as a writer. I had no choice but to succeed, right?


Stumble 1: time for a makeover

In the second week of class, we created "TEDettes," i.e., spoken personal stories with lessons tucked inside. In preparation, I compiled a list of memories that had narrative potential, choosing one I'd triedand failedto write out in the past: the time my mother and I rescued a girl from a frozen pond.

Because I had a precept of how the story could be written, I lost sight of the TEDette as an entirely different medium of storytelling. I infused the script with detail worthy of a short story, which it very much wasn't. When recording, I kept my fingers on the mouse, and by extension, rooted my whole body to the spot. I read my script aloud. The words felt big and awkward in my mouth.

Why We Grow Up, version 1 (no body language)

Naturally, the end result was a little...stilted. My classmates advised me to use more body language. My teacher mentioned that my TEDette's climatic scene was unclear...sending me into the fetal position. A writing problem? Looking back, there was definitely some ego involved in my embarrassment.

I had a moment of clarity a few days later. Some TEDtalkers are writers, but all of them are storytellers. In other words, the act of writing a story differs inherently from the act of telling one. It wasn't just my script. Ithe storytellerneeded a makeover. So, I trimmed the script twice into something conversational and re-recorded, making sure to have it mostly memorized.

Why We Grow Up, version 2 (improved body language)

Stumble 2: danger! Detail ahead

However, I continued to overuse detail. In a later project, "Interactive Story," we turned the plot from our TEDette into a playable Twine game. Narrative design had always interested and mystified me. I swore to make my game high-quality, even though I had less than a week to work with.

I planned my plotlines with confidence, marking four separate endings. However, little by little, the plot threads, passages, and game choices began to overwhelm me. In a short story, it's pretty easy to see the finish line. Twine was a different beast, growing tangled the further I went along. I had doomed myself to carry a large amount of detail towards four distinctive endpoints.

The Twine workspace for my interactive game.

I completed the project as a burnt-out mess of a person. The game's writing was uneven, quicker and more compact towards the end where I'd run out of time. As I played the games created by my classmates, I realized my idea of "quality" was way off. The gameplay determines the level of detail necessary, and in turn, the quality of the user's experience. After all, in critique, not one of my players reached an ending before time was up.

Stumble 3: be the tortoise

I entered the last stretch of the semester a little worse for wear. My time management skills were failing me, and we'd just begun to explore product stories. I kept my ambitions high even as my morale sank low. In my "Concept Video" project, I described the app ComiXology through a meta-narrative of cheeky dialogue and teleportation.

My teacher enjoyed the creativity, but blurriness and choppy editing spoiled the execution. Time had become my greatest enemy. I'd spent too long in the ideation phase, becoming paralyzed by the possibilities. So, for my third-to-last project, a "Demo Walkthrough" of ComiXology, I forced myself to start early.

My Figma workspace for the ComiXology demo.

I paced myself day by day, two-to-three hours maximum. It looked like it would be smooth sailingthat is until I realized I had to create a video demo in addition to a Figma prototype. My first instinct was to downsize. I could cut my losses and proceed with a smaller idea without much trouble. However, ultimately, I buckled down on my initial vision. It took some reorganizing, but I'd started so early that I had room for errors. Might as well use it, I thought. Use it I did.


My Spring semester as an Interaction Design student was packed with learnings. I came into the major inexperienced and a little cowardly. I had a paralyzing fear of failure, leaving me clammed-up and passive in an environment designed to help me grow. In Time Studio: Story, these circumstances sent me stumbling into three learnings:

  1. That storytelling is best-suited to shapeshifters.

  2. That project and user goals should decide the level of decoration.

  3. That "slow and steady" really does win the raceespecially when it comes to storytelling.

Most importantly, I learned that I'll keep stumbling in the future. The fall will only hurt me if I let it.


#lessonslearned #storytelling #reflection

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