In a moment of inspiration, the Tools of Change Conference (#TOCCON) keynote address was delivered by by LeVar Burton, the longtime host of Reading Rainbow, who spoke about storytelling, imagination and empowering a love for reading. His inspiring message to the room of publishers and technologists was, “You come here to use your imaginations in the service of storytelling.”

Storytelling is not the first thing many of us think about when it comes to digital publishing and creating web products. But, Burton is on to something.

Creating websites that are incredibly useful begins with understanding who the user is—what are their needs, desires, and goals? Like any great story, the author must define the protagonists. So, we begin our development process with publishers trying to identify who that user/protagonist is. We define primary users/characters and secondary characters. We explore demographic information, institutional relationships, academic areas, level of technological sophistication, special needs or concerns, and the users relationship to the content and metadata of the site. Once we identify these attributes in the primary users, we often repeat this process with important secondary users.

The next step in our creation process is to outline the narrative or plot. What would be a successful experience for that actor? A critical step in the planning phase of development is to define scenarios that each user group will likely pursue. Defining these story arches for each important user group requires imagination – placing ourselves in the shoes of that user. This requires a solid understanding of the user motivations. The narrative of what the user experiences in a Web site must also be informed by a clear understanding of the content and metadata that can be leveraged in the product. So, during the planning stages of any project we dig in to the content and metadata available to provide a critical analysis determining how we can support the users and scenarios that we have defined. In some cases, we may need to explore creative ways to meet user goals such as data enrichment.

In the end, a successful website has a narrative. We can tell something about who the users are that the site is targeting. We can understand what those users can gain by having an experience in the product. The navigation, tools, tone, and environment should support the user and their quest.

Like all good stories, the process begins with research about the characters, empathic insight into the their goals and motivations, and imagination to understand how they will act in a given environment.

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