Using the user – developing content in 2015

I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago endorsing the building of personas as a tool for content creators. I had a number of positive responses to the post, from people in the academic world as well as people from the creation side of the content business. Since a major reason I got in touch with personas as a tool to begin with is our close relationship with the User Experience laboratory at MediaCity Finland, I thought I’d share another tool – or, rather, method – that is very common in a number of fields, but to my knowledge not yet to any greater extent in the content creation field, not even when talking about multiplatform or transmedia projects.

User Centered Design is – to quote Wikipedia – a method or framework of processes in which ”the needs, wants, and limitations of end users of a product, service or process are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process.

This is obviously a very handy process when producing, say, a web shop, as these criteria are of the utmost importance for your users and your customers to have as smooth and intuitive an experience as possible.

I would strongly recommend anyone actively involved in creating and developing content for an audience to investigate UCD processes in greater detail. What I’ve found is that it complements the more traditional development processes in a very good way. For me, the greatest benefit about adapting a UCD-based approach to my projects is that it forces me to narrow down the options and the possibilities to the select few that are the very best ones when it comes to reaching an intended audience, enganging them in the intended way, validating their participation and following up with the scope of the long tail.

This can of course be done in a number of ways – co-creationally, or with the help of deep interviews and so on. The ISO standard for the design of interactive systems has six key principles to ensure the design is user-centered:

  1. The design is based upon an explicit understanding of users, tasks and environments.
  2. Users are involved throughout design and development.
  3. The design is driven and refined by user-centered evaluation.
  4. The process is iterative.
  5. The design addresses the whole user experience.
  6. The design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives.

Now, if we translate this into content creation and development, we start to approach interesting areas. As these are methods infinitely suitable for the interactive and transmediated concepts and projects of today, when we need to make sure the narrative on all platforms not only fits logically together but also approaches and entices the audience in a way that achieves precisely the right reaction and engagement, involving the target audience – the end user – from the very beginning is a powerful tool.

The Great Narrative pt II

Some weeks ago, having just returned from summer vacation, I wrote a piece on what I termed ”The Great Narrative”. My point was simply that stories matter, and the stories we choose to tell and the way we choose to tell them matter even more. This goes doubly for the world of today, when the stories we are bombarded with are many times negative, infuriating, saddening or despair-inducing.

We as storytellers have a duty. We have to be part of the nurturing facets of humanity. We need to create stories that lead to the kind of society we would want, for us, for our children and for generations to come.

If all we tell are stories of catastrophes and desperation and atrocities, if all we look for are more clicks and more traffic and more engagement-based-revenue, our road forward becomes increasingly narrow until the narrative of us – i.e. the Great Narrative I talked about earlier – withers and dies in a commodified spasm of anguish.

I’ve talked to some people in the month since I wrote the last post on the Great Narrative, people who’ve approached me with theories and projects and ideas and suggestions, and it all gives me hope. If we can turn the tide, at least to some extent; if we can tell the great stories, the inspiring stories, the stories that make us look up into the sky in wonder… if we can do that, and at the same time, why not employ the same crafts used to enhance the more chaotic stories in the world today and do it combined with engagement strategies and actionable contact points and long tail thinking, then I can start hoping.

I read a great piece on storytelling over at the Daily Beast today, looking at how we employ storytelling throughout our years, and how stories and storytelling can ” give clarity, purpose, and strength to those whom we will one day leave behind”. Yes, indeed – but what stories we do tell, and what consequent impact they have… that is all up to us.

Think inside your boxes – find new ways to reach and engage an audience

Last week I read a good post by Jay Bushman on ”6 expert tips for multiplatform content creators”. One of the points stood out to me in particular – the need to throw out the manual and think in new ways regarding platforms and tools and possibilities. For Jay, this is about looking at platforms in new ways and about using different platforms in ways they were not necessarily intended to be used in.

The more I think about applying this to my own work and projects I consult on, the more I believe that for me it’s about starting this train of thought way earlier than that.

At the beginning of any project there is (hopefully) a solid story waiting to be told and explored. Most often, this story also has a main platform it’s attached to – if it’s a book, a movie, a web series, a graphic novel, an online experience or something else. If it’s developed in true multiplatform or transmedia mode, it also has a suitable number of other possible – or even probable – platforms to spread the story out on or continue affiliated stories on.

What I feel would be beneficial would be to take this initial story and port it to other media. Not necessarily for actual production, but for the added value of looking at the content, the narrative, in another light, and see which new avenues open up.

For instance, if you re-imagine your book as an online choose-your-path adventure, you will be confronted with several challenges. How do you hook your audience? What does a user journey look like? How would you hope to achieve virality? What happens when the user reaches the end of the experience – where do you point them.

The experience of this mental excercise can be directly taken back to the initial property and be used to enhance the offering the book consists of.

Vice versa – if you have an online experience you want people to engage in and interact with, try to port it into a movie script. You’ll soon be confronted with the traditional challenges of building a credible narrative that will keep your audience interested and engaged for a couple of hours at the least. This material can then be taken straight back to the online experience you want to produce and be used to influence the narrative to make it more engaging and exciting.

I could give a number of other examples, but I think you get the general idea. In short, I believe we shouldn’t simply think outside the box – we should instead carry all possible boxes with us in our toolbox, and put our ideas in one box at a time and see how the boxes influence how we view our content.

Simon Staffans is a content and format developer and media strategist, employed by MediaCity Finland. He works with multiplatform storytelling, transmedia development procedures and great stories. Contact him at simon.staffans(at) or follow him on @simon.staffans.

The art of finding an audience

Almost to the day a year ago I wrote a post on audience engagement, talking about five points I believe are essential when it comes to reaching the point of meaningful interaction with an engaged audience, and the harnessing of that power in the long run.

I still stand by my points from that post, nothing has changed in that regard. But this post has come about as a direct result of a number of workshops and consultations I’ve done over past year or so, which have led me to the conclusion that we need to realize some very crucial things about our audience to begin with.

I’ve talked with and consulted on a number of projects and programs, where the audience has been a part of the equation. But unfortunately, many times the audience has been a fairly theoretical part of the equation. It has become apparent that many who start out creating content, producing a campaign or a project or looking to distribute what they’ve created, have a skewed notion of who their audience is, leading to misfiring attempts to gain traction and , in the end, wasted time and resources.

This has been the case for fiction franchises I’ve evaluated, innovative apps I’ve consulted on, even long-running TV properties.

To be able to consult these and future clients better, I’ve started looking into different ways of actually finding out who your audience is and who you should target initially as well as in the long run. One solution I am in the process of evaluating is taken from the world of User Centered Design and marketing – the building of personas and the most adequate way of using these for a storytelling-based property.

There is an abundance of litterature and web sites dedicated to the building of personas – i.e. ” fictional characters created to represent the different user types that might use a site, brand, or product in a similar way” – which has become a cornerstone in User Centered Design processes. I feel it is a method well worth looking into for anyone starting out creating content, no matter what kind of content it is .

The first step would be to carefully construct your personas. Who will be interested in your franchise? What kind of people are they? What are their goals, their needs, their hopes, their wishes? How technologically advanced are they? What will make them interact, what will turn them away from your content? As I said, there are many sites online ready to assist you in creating the right personas for your specific project. What you need to do is think beyond the marketing needs of most persona-building advice and tweak them to suit your long-term storytelling needs.

My advice would then be to take this all a bit further. When you know what your different personas are like – what they are likely to engage themselves in, what they are likely to share on social media and so on – the next step is to conduct some research. Where are these personas IRL? Where can you find people that are the most like your personas? Where do they live, what do they do? How much alike are they to your personas, and in what ways do they differ? And what impact do these differences potentially have? Which of them have a following online already and could have the potential to become beacons for your narrative?

As a natural follow-up to this – find who these people interact with, why and how. This will give you valuable information as to how you could frame and voice your own campaign and your own content. Let this knowledge and these conclusions influence how you approach your intended audience – basically, mimic their behaviour and output, tweaked to suit your own content and narrative, observe what happens and draw your conclusions – how could the output be tweaked? What kind of reactions did you get? How did people engage, and did you reach the intended target groups?

This is the approach I will be taking with a couple of the projects I’m involved in at the moment. I’ll post any future findings regarding the use of personas on this blog, but I would dearly like to hear your thoughts on the matter. Have you tried using personas in the way described above, or a similar way? How did it work out for you? What were the pitfalls and the key aspects?

Get ready to do a Dark Detour

DD2 2

Last year Steve Peters and Alison Norrington launched the first installment of Dark Detour, a Halloween multiplatform ghost story that gained a considerable amount of interest as well as eager participants. This year they’re back, bolstered by the addition of Jenni Powell and with a new rabbit hole to dive into, called “All That Glitters”. I caught up with the trio to ask them some pertinent question about this years project (which is successfully crowdfunding over at IndieGoGo, now looking to unlock some stretch goals):

So, what made you decide to do a season 2 of Dark Detour? What were your final experiences of season one and what conclusions did you draw from the process and the outcome?

Alison: We’d always planned to make Dark Detour an annual event – an anthology if you like, but we wanted to see how things played out last year before we made any promises or announcements.  Our final experiences of Season One was that we were excited to deliver a story in real time over social media, that ARGs are far from dead, that Steve is awesome at creating puzzles and that working across 2 timezones really works for us!

Steve: I considered Season 1 a success, and I think we stumbled onto a unique way to tell a story that I hadn’t quite seen before. We really tried to do things in a way as to be accessible to as many people as possible, and people sure seemed to have fun in the process. We wanted to crowdfund again this year partly to gauge interest as well, plus we wanted to grow our audience as compared to last year.

Jenni: I have the unique experience that I was actually a participant in season 1 and now I get to go behind the curtain and experience that in season 2.  It gives me an opportunity to give the player point of view in order to help us make season 2 an even stronger experience.  I also have a lot of interactive storytelling experience myself from my work on The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy.

When we discussed this second season earlier, you mentioned adopting a new take on crowdfunding? Would you care to elaborate – what kind of a new take, and why?  

Alison: We were inspired by Elan Lee’s gamification spin on the crowdfunding process – where retweets and challenges added community, not directly equating to more funding, but to more fun!

Steve: Well our new take really concerns the stretch goals. Once we hit our goal (a few days ago), I blatantly stole Elan Lee’s Exploding Kittens mechanic in that we didn’t ask for more money from people we’d already gotten money from, but instead asked them to do things that a) were fun; b) were free; and c) helped spread the word and get more people involved.

Last year the two of you, Alison and Steve, did the project between the two of you. What made you expand?

Alison: A few things!  Workload of course – we both worked a ton of additional unexpected hours on Dark Detour last year, but we wanted to bring in Jenni Powell and Nick Tierce because we know they will bring some fun creative muscle too.

Steve: Reality! Alison and I wore ourselves ragged last year, so we wanted to not only divide and conquer the workload a little better this time, but also sought out people we knew could bring really creative things to the table. It’s a win/win/win/win. :)

Jenni: We’ve actually doubled the team and I think that’s going to help so much.  Pretty early after the conclusion of season 1, I reached out to Steve and offered myself up as help as I know how much work these can be and felt I could be a big asset…I guess they agreed and here I am!  :)

Care to lift the lid on the project a little bit? What can we expect? You’ve mentioned a Nordic twist – how will that play out?

Alison: Oh yes, there’s a Nordic twist!  Last year our story was set in US – a journey from NY to LA.   We’ve brought the story to the English moors this year but have sprinkled a distinct Scandinavian flavour – one of our main characters and some very real mythology can be expected!

Steve : There may be lutefisk. That’s all I’m gonna say :)
You can expect us to use some new, different platforms to tell our story this time around. Plus, we have some more spooky social media tricks up our sleeve that I can’t divulge.

Jenni: Seeeeeeeeecrets.

Final question – why should I as a viewer/user engage in this? And how do I do it?  

Alison: Firstly we’d love you to join our community.  Facebook is the primary place to like us and then if you could help us reach our stretch goals and unlock Jay Bushman (as a first) we’d be super excited!  Then you simply need to follow our main characters social media accounts – still to be announced.  If you like jumping into rabbitholes, All That Glitters is for you – there’ll be some demystifying and figuring out to be done over the 4 days that we’re ‘live’..  Is ‘live’ the right word??……

Steve: You should take part if you like fun, interactive stories that feel like they’re actually taking place in the same world you live in. Because all you do is follow a few people on social media, the story will come to you the same way all your friends’ stories do, which makes it feel pretty real. Plus you never know when they might reach out and interact with you on a one-to-one basis.

To take part, go to and register. Then, when Halloween approaches, we’ll email you to let you know who to follow/friend etc. That’s it!

Jenni: And, you know, how often do you get to get together with a group of people…some friends, some strangers…to help move a story along in a way that your actions have real effect?  For a week, you get to step outside your normal routine and dive into other people’s lives and experiences and actually have a real impact?  There truly is nothing quite like it.

DD2 team

The Great Narrative

Over the summer I’ve actively tried to avoid doing what I’ve been doing for the past couple of decades – craft stories, design and produce them and tell them to an intended audience. I’ve found that I tend to absorb myself in my own projects to quite an extent, and in turn have found it difficult to find the time to take part of other stories, however interesting, timely or urgent they may be.

This summer I’ve put almost everything on the shelves and concentrated on not being the producer but rather the consumer. I will admit, it has been a bit of an alarming experience.

The prevailing narratives – large and small – are a constant worry on the mind. If it’s not ISIS and terrorism, it’s #BLM and shootings, or failing integration projects, nationwide bankruptcies, a consistently widening gap in income and wealth distribution, an ecology and a climate on the verge of upheaval… We are constantly, unendingly, bombarded with apocalyptic messages, which in an unrelenting battle for clicks get blown up and scandalized into every extreme possible.

I know, this is not news to anyone who has access to even the most feeble of news sources. We all experience this, daily, and handle it in different ways – some get worried, some get angry, many have developed a highly refined sense of indifference, a few take what action they deem appropriate and necessary.

But I have an increasing feeling – perhaps even conviction – that we as storytellers have a great responsibility as a part of the larger picture. I believe it’s time for us as storytellers to evolve – or rather, evolve our thinking. I read an article that the voices of the world are dying, as large parts of biological ecosystems, previously teeming with life, are becoming increasingly monotone, if not outright silenced. And the voices that are left in the world are either screaming in agony or busy greasing the wheels of hundreds of years of enterprise – be it in the form of progress, of globalization, of gadgetry, of startups or something similar.

The emptiness at hand is something we need to address. We need to fill it with stories – stories that point to and lead the way to a time and place where the old voices are welcomed back. Yes, this is a future where there is sustainability in the world. Yes, it’s a world less hungry for what passes as ”success” today, less focused on monetary gain. Yes, it’s a future where what counts as a ”good life” has been re-imagined.

As events become stories, these stories eventually turn into legend, the legends become myths, and in time, ingrained truths, taken for granted. But we need to start telling these stories in the first place, for the chain to remain unbroken. The canvas we’re all painting on is the fate of humanity. So the questions I’m pondering now are – what stories do we tell? How do we make them convey hope, how do we turn them into something that guides the way to an imagined future where we stand a chance? Is it even possible?

ForwardSlashStory – the stone that sends the ripples

FullSizeRende4rI’ve been trying to write down my experience of attending F/S 2015 several times already. It’s been difficult. Mostly because I feel what I learned – or, rather, immersed – there has yet to sink in properly. Sink in, and rise to the surface again.

I agree wholeheartedly with what people have written about it to date; great blog posts by Lee-Sean and Fan and enthusiastic mentions on social media from just about everyone. The enormous luxury of spending time – exclusive, uninterrupted time – with magnificent, warm hearted, brilliant people, discussing the very things that make us all tick… in a way I only feel how unique the experience was now in hindsight. A couple of weeks ago, in Nosara, Costa Rica, I was too busy living it.

I’ve written a couple of small posts about things that came to mind during discussions there. I thought I’d give it a shot in this post to briefly list some things that pop out of my notebook when I read my notes from those few days. These are not in any kind of order, but they are things that have been coming to the fore again and again during the past couple of weeks.

Empathy was such an important word during many of the different talks. Feeling empathy, conveying empathy, fostering empathy… using empathy as a driving force to create desired actions. By acknowledging and supporting our own empathy, we can reach a deeper understanding with those we wish to share our stories with. I was introduced to the Inzovu curve, which is an interesting way of visualizing a method to create a certain impact and show a way forward.

A method that sounded infinitely interesting was that of breaking up something, give the pieces to the audience and then let them piece it together as they see fit. This goes against much of my professional experience – from TV, radio, publishing – where near-full control has been the desired modus operandi. And that, in my mind, is what makes this a very exciting way of operating. Not to mention that it directly turns what has been an audience into something else, something much more exciting.

That storytelling is one thing, but storymaking is quite something else also became abundantly clear. There has been a lot of talk on storymaking, especially in marketing, over the past year. Just like a lot of other buzzwords in the field I feel that this term also carries a lot of potential for all kinds of storytellers, as long as we’re able to look beyond the hype and into the heart of the matter, the core principles of – in this case – storymaking.

I found the notion of looking at stories as pure evidence of what issues really matter to people a fresh one. For me, in the enormous flood of content we’re surrounded by daily, to observe and nurture the stories that do take hold, that do resonate, that do gain a following and that do get shared and retold, gives us a lot of food for thought regarding what things really do matter to people today.

Using games, not for the sake of gaming or as an attractive vehicle to entice people to enter your story world, but as a way of getting them to move from their ”regular” state into a play state, that’s another very good way of looking at your projects. In a play state, people are more ready to experiment, to achieve goals, to abandond their shells in favor of interaction… just the kind of active audience member we would all like to have. This is one approach I’ll be trying out for sure. Just as long as the project knows how to harness that play-state, once achieved…

There is no need for an answer, or even many answers. As long as we are able to hand our listeners and readers and watchers a really good question, that is enough – and more than enough.

To start development work on a story with the designing of a game is a novel approach that I’d be eager to try out. With that game – in whatever form and shape it emerges, be it a paper board game or something else – in the hands of yourself and other people, there then exists the possibility to create your story based on the reactions and actions of the people playing. Seeing the world – and your work – through someone else’s eyes is often crucial in order to have any hope of reaching a full potential, and this would stand a chance of making that possible.

…. there are many other notes on Post-It notes, in notebooks and Word-files, but I think I’ll get to them in due time. As a final note, a massive thank you to all who participated, talked, discussed and shared openly and warmly. If I could wish for something for my future, it would be for many more opportunities like this one. And my deepest thanks to Christy and Lance   , who made it all possible.

Comments, as always, extremely welcome.


… and if anyone is planning on visiting the west coast of Costa Rica, I can wholeheartedly recommend the Sunset Shack and the Harmony Hotel, the venues we were located at. Beautiful places and great people.

Simon Staffans is a content developer and producer and media strategist, employed by MediaCity Finland. He works with multiplatform storytelling, transmedia development principles and great stories. Contact him at simon.staffans(at) or follow him on @simon_staffans.