Good Software For Human Beings -- The Secret Is Narrative

What is the secret to great software for human beings?  Not just any secret, but the secret?

The qualifier "for human beings" is an important caveat to this dramatic question -- because there is lots of great software which performs work not strictly for human beings.  For example, powerful mainframe software manages the insurance contracts for millions of insured people.  While the ultimate beneficiaries of such marvellous technology are human beings, the sorting and update and retrieval of these records could better be described as "for the organization".  Software "for human beings" implies software that is directly and specifically intended to augment the brain power of an individual human.  Examples of software "for human beings" include email clients, contact managers (CRM), personal information managers (PIMS), word processing etc., graphics editors.

The secret to great software for human beings is support for narrative. 

Narrative, which is a more formal way of saying "story telling", is about the meaningful progression of events organized starting from a single point of view.  Stories can utlimately weave together many individual stories, but the building block of narrative has to be the story from one person's point of view.

Why is narrative so important to software intended for direct use by human beings? 

Evidence is increasing from brain research that human brains are hard-wired for narrative understanding.  Based in part on amazing lab studies which show the brain "lighting up" in response to narrative stimuli, scientists speculate that narrative is the brain phenomenon whereby identity and a sense of self is created.  According to this research, everything else that humans do can be seen as being organized around core personal narratives. 

Your host first became acquainted with this research 10 years ago, when attending FOIS '01 (International Conference on Formal Ontology in Information Systems -- where he heard Prof. Lawrence Barsalou's keynote address on "human conceptual systems".  It is intriguing to note  how ontology research and narrative research are related.  An interesting and current summary of research in this area can be found in at November 2010 New Scientist magazing article entitled Story Tellling 2.0: When new narratives meet old brains (

What impact could our increasing understanding of brains and narrative have on software design? 

Software works best when it is sympatico with the the way that human beings operate.  There is a huge upside for software builders who will be first to market with software that natively supports concepts of narrative, and for which the personal story is an organizing principle for the product.

@NancyDuarte: Why Story Telling Is Crucial To The Future Of Work

Nancy Duarte (@NancyDuarte) is well known for her leadership as a communiciations guru; for example the book Resonate: Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences is a marvellous source of ideas and frameworks.

Story telling (or "narrative") has been a core idea in much of Duarte's work.

If you'd like a full hour-long audio interview with Duarte, just this July 16th, you can find "Why Story Tellling Is Crucial To The Future Of Work".

Two of your host's favourite themes in one event: "Story or Narrative" and "Future of Work"!

How is interest in narrative software developing to 2015?

How is interest in narrative-oriented software progressing, as of mid-2015? We'll use a Google Trends search report as our proxy for "developing interest".

So here's what Google Trends reports, as of July 29th, 2015, for

[narrative software]

Additional searches are provided for context

["supply chain finance", "autonomous vehicles", "self-driving" vehicles]

Note the blue trend line. "Narrative Software" is shows up afer 2010 or so, and maintains a low Google search activity since then. Search volume is comparable to other speciality topics. Interestingly, the trend is rather flat!

From a business perspective, narrative software is very much about "infrastructure". And as a sales person, your host is familiar with the challenge and opportunity of selling infrastructure software and building business cases for infrastructure. 

At the operational level, there is no real business case for infraastructure! Any exciting innovation such as narrative software is only exciting if a board or CEO sees value in fundamental innovation built around new technology, in this case narrative software.

Google Trends only provides a clue on innovation associated with any technology. If we dig into what's happening behind the scenes, there is evidence that both the technology and business of narrative-derived software is building momentum.

Enterprise Architecture & Story

Here's a fascinating interview by Andrew Blades, in Xpand Xpress, of well known and prolific enterprise architect Tom Graves: "5 Minutes with Tom Graves".  Tom discusses his work in EA and how he came to the field.  Of particular interest is his description of what an EA does as related to the story of an organization:

It's also a mixture of structure and story. Yes, there's some structure-type work - models and suchlike - but most of that is really the solution-architects' role, and they often won't like us barging onto their turf. Instead, much of what we do is more about building a story, about how things work now and how they could together better, either in the present or in the future. And we often deal with huge complexities, so the process of finding a simple-enough story to describe all of that, yet without losing any of the key nuances and 'gotchas', can be a surprisingly hard part of the work that we do."

Pump Up The Volume On Interest In Narratives: 2012 Year End

Since the root posting on narrative was first written in January 2011, market interest in narrative technologies has gradually increased, reflecting ongoing research momentum, engineering momentum,  increasing business needs, and not least, increasing awareness of the possibilities of narrative technology.  And all this is enhanced by an increasing awareness of the "importance of story" for humans themselves -- which is odd to say given that "story telling around the fire" was likely a dominant form of human communication for most of history!

Here the the tweets from your host on the topic of narrative, over the past year.

Tweets from @johnhmorris, 2012, including hashtag #narrative

Dec 12/12

@dpatil: #bigdata (or any data) deliverable more "#narrative" than numbers! #BPM @wsjtecheurope @leweb @editorialiste

Dec 12/12

@nprnews: Lego blox popular & expensive because kids wanna tell stories! (Me: "Applies to #SOA & #BPM too") #narrative 

Aug 10/12

#SocialBPM challenges? Optimism despite tech immaturity & missing #governance - #BPM #Narrative @Peter_ebizQ 

Jul 02/12

#SocialBPM: Two (2) challenges before we realize the promise - #Narrative #governance  #BPM # @Peter_ebizQ

Jun 12/12

Sales guru G. James: "How to Tell a Great Story" - also good for #BPM #bizprocess! @Sales_Source @Narremes #narrative

May 17/12

Social BPM & Social CRM - "The Rise Of Story" -  @colorblindjames @BPMLeader #BPM #Annotation #Narrative #CRM @Narremes

May 08/12

Recipe For #Sales Software Of The Future  #Annotation #Nanopub #Narrative #CRM

May 07/12

@maxjpucher @skemsley - "Join In- & Outbound Comms" - "It's all #Narrative" - "Column 2" -  -  #BPM


Peter Gruber Weighs In On Story Telling

Awareness of the "power of story" continues to grow.  Well known entertainment mogul and sports team owner Peter Gruber is also now an author of a book entitled "Tell To Win" (link goes to Gruber's own homepage for the book).  

Here's a recent blog posting by Gruber on LinkedIn labeled "If You Can't Tell It, You Can't Sell It".  Your host hasn't read the book (yet), but the Amazon reviews are more positive than you usually find.  Story isn't just about theory, it's a very practical part of the human condition.

Update: Peter Gruber continued his notes on narrative with this item "Is Hunger For Story A Bug In Our Brain?" where he engages with Chris Anderson's (Editor-In-Chief of Wired Magazine) contention that story telling is "dangerous" and "too powerful".  This short item is worth reading, along with the comments.

Yes But Nassim Taleb Warns About Stories And Narrative . . .

Your host is reading Nassim Taleb's "Black Swan".  And one of the concerns of Dr. Taleb is how narrative invariably leads one astray.  It is possible that narrative is both important and misleading at the same time, which would make for an interesting and possibly fruitful contradiction.  

As for Dr. Taleb, his  insights, valuable though they are, are to be taken "with a grain of salt".  His "take no prisoners" style of presentation is not matched with a thoroughness that would be helpful to readers and critics alike.  Nevertheless, this is an acknowledgement of worthwhile caveats on narrative, found in the Black Swan.