3 Simple Elements to Tell a Story Through Interactive Environments

Interactive environments, are places, objects or designs that physically interact with you, when you take a certain action. But at their core interactive environments are all about one thing: User Experience. Although, at Argineering, we prefer Human Experience. Because that’s what we can relate to. The word “user” alienates the people experiencing your art. It makes it feel as if we’re divided into two opposing teams. Human is what we all are. It reminds us of our complexity, fragility, emotion, compassion and creativity.

As designers we focus on perfecting our designs. We want them neat, organized, complex, simple, breathtaking. All of these are simply tools, but the main goal is to create art that serves humans and satisfies needs. Designs that connect with people and satisfy their emotions.


What is a Story?

A story is fact combined with emotion. Take a look at this example:

 “The queen died. The king died.” 

These are plain facts. Now, let’s add two words to this example.

 “The queen died. The king died. Of grief.” 

Why did this statement raise our interest after emotion was added? For starters, it’s humane. It’s something we can understand and relate to. But most importantly it raises our curiosity, and that’s the key.

Stories are made up of core elements, including plot, setting and character. Plot is the key ingredient in most stories. But in art and design, plot often becomes secondary. When we build a story in design or art, we don’t control the order in which the user perceives the story. Typically a plot has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But in design we don’t have that liberty. We usually start at one of these points and let the audience complete it with their interaction and through their experience.



1. Setting

Setting is the mood, time and place of the story. That’s the first thing the audience receive, consciously or subconsciously. They get a feel of the story and that’s the mood. Time and place are when and where you want them to go. Is it now? Is it history? Is it a future you want to transfer them to? On this land, maybe you want them to journey to the clouds? Whatever you want you can by setting a time, place and mood through tools such as color, material, light, fonts, music. The setting relies mainly on two tools: Visuals and words.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that visuals are always enough, sometimes the power a simple word creates can change the entire story. In Storytelling for Designers by Stacey Williams-Ng, she gives an example of this cube:

What’s the story here? There’s no story. It’s just a plain cube.  No curiosity. No intrigue. What if we add a few simple words?

“Sheila’s block was the only one without pictures on them.”

What just happened? Curiosity. Suddenly you want to know who is Sheila? Why is she the only one who doesn’t have pictures on her cube? What is her story?

The Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama was created to commemorate the journey of all those who died fighting for civil rights. Here, you can see how the color and smoothness give a sombre and serious feeling to the sculpture, while the sound of water is calming and healing. The water flows in the middle against gravity to symbolize the struggle for civil rights and then falls smoothly over the edges to show the struggle is overcome. Words also play a role in this memorial, through a quote by Martin Luther King “Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” We find the time and place are documented through the names of people who died fighting for civil rights, how they died, when they died and where they died.



2. Plot

Before jumping into the plot, which is the sequence of events, lets take a moment to observe what makes speeches interesting. Nancy Duarte is an American writer and speaker, who decided to look for the secret structure of great talks and presented it in the form of a shape; a square wave.

According to Duarte, great talks take audience on a journey from what is to what could be. They don’t start at the peak and they don’t stay at the same pace, but go up and down. People resist change, so you have to take them back and forth. Have their curiosity raised first. This, is what Steve Jobs would do in his presentations. Jobs was a revolutionary technologist, but he was also a great storyteller. His talks were filled with laugh interventions and clap interventions. As he followed the same shape that Nancy Duarte discovered, he would use the power of pause and he would use simple words that convey emotions and people would get drawn to whatever he’s presenting.

“A Walk Down Memory Lane” 

This installation was created by Argineering in collaboration with Salma Shawki for her premaster’s project at the German University in Cairo. Salma’s vision was to create a tunnel that takes one into a journey of their past and encourage them to let go of things holding them from moving on.

They start with a fingerprint which is the first peak. It gives them an element of surprise. People place their fingers on the fingerprint sign, a bell rings, the light turns on and the narrator’s voice begins. It gives a feeling that they’re about to begin a journey customized just for them, because it was their fingerprint that triggered it. The plot advances and the second peak comes in when the boxes move in and out in synchronization with the sound of a heartbeat. By then, the audience feel completely immersed in the experience. The final scene concludes with feelings of happiness as the entire tunnel is lit to give a mood of hope. Finally, when the person leaves the entire tunnel shuts down ready for a new person to enter.

Back to the plot; it is conveyed through two tools: interaction and animation. Let’s break those down.

Forms of Interaction:

Automatic: The user doesn’t make an effort and the design presents and interaction. Why do we use automatic interaction? To grab attention. To create an element of surprise. People love that, they love to be surprised.

Touch: The user feels more connected to the design by using their touch sense to create an interaction.

Button: It’s a call to action. It’s an invitation for the user to bring in a past experience of how a button functions. It’s fun and playful.

Fingerprint: It gives a sense of personalization and makes the user feel unique.

Physical Effort: Let’s take jumping as an example, it demands the user to exert effort because the result is worth it. It creates focus, and most importantly allows the user to jump out of their comfort zone and be silly.

These 4 circles together create the human experience when interacting with a story centered design. What ties them together is the character element.



3. Character

In these stories, humans are the character. The story is based on them and they might take an active part shaping it. Each human comes in with their own experience and the installation affects their minds each in a different way. But another important character is the brand behind the interactive product. The story that makes the user either love this brand or hate it. Do they inspire the user? Do they make the user feel engaged and entertained? Do they make them curious? All these factors can make the character of the brand either a protagonist or an antagonist.




“We are all storytellers. We all live in a network of stories. There isn’t a stronger connection between people than storytelling.” Jimmy Neil Smith, Director of the International Storytelling Center

Design and art that tell stories will always engage people more and create deeper impact. In interactive environments, stories are told through Setting and Plot, which are fulfilled through interaction, animation, audiovisuals and word. These tools create a human experience, and tying them up together is the element of Character. In the end, it’s all about creating something that truly connects with people, engages their mind and senses and stirs up their emotions.