!F Lab, episode 1: StoryBooster

When stories go interactive it is not only the story that gets fragmented, but the whole production process that needs to accept a new redistribution of roles and creative responsibilities. We now have to include some crucial new players: the designers, the creative technologists, the coders, of course, but also the users – which are now active members of this living new form. The ones “formally known as the audience” are still an audience, but a participative one. If they do not click, if they do not comment, if they do not find you on the Net, you have no story.

So here is the challenge: how can we merge the wish to tell our stories, the immersive power of digital platforms and the active collaboration of our audiences?

!F Lab is a new Creative Europe training scheme for digital storytellers that wants to link the dots: it aims at using what we have learned in the last 20 years of web design and tries to adapt it to the needs of factual storytellers. In line with the practices of story hacks (see POV HackathonTribeca hacksHackastoryPopathon etc…) it recognises the importance of merging together people with technical and storytelling skills from day one in order to create something new, but it tries to do this progressively, using three different workshops during a period of 6 months, so that teams can have the time to accomplish a working prototype – rather than living them at an inspirational level, with lots of ideas but with no means to accomplish the entirety of their project.

IFlab 10.05.15 group photo

!F Lab’s first 4 days workshop, StoryBooster, has just been delivered in Leuven (Belgium) during the second week of May. A healthy group of twenty some people (11 projects and some “observers”) have come together to give a shape to their stories with the collaboration of 5 coaches: Mike Robbins from Helios Design Labs (acting as “the coder/creative technologist”), Filip Fastenaekels from Flemish TV VRT (acting as “the storyteller”), Clint Beharry from the Harmony Institute (acting as “the designer/UX”), Kasper Jordaens from Belgian incubator iMinds (acting as “the innovator specialist”) and myself (acting as the “facilitator”).  The proposition was to accept a “no fear to fail” and a collaborative ethos of work. The promise was to come out of the four days with a solid first interactive treatment (in other words to know what is your story, why should it be told now, why should it be interactive, who is it for and what it could look like).

SB pitching

For days feel amazingly short when there is a lot to do. We started thinking about “purpose” (both personal and of our stories) and who we wanted to reach with our stories. This proved to be an excruciating difficult process as we often tend to think that everybody should be interested in what we personally find fascinating. Using the technique of the six thinking hats while testing our ideas with each other we started to realise that sometimes our principal audience should not be the ones that are interested in our topics, but rather those that might not want to know about it but that, if reached, could provide a solution to the issue that we raise. After all, merging the informational power of documentary and journalism with the activist potential of the Web allows us to think beyond the divulgation of issues and opens the door to “strategies for change”.

WebDox 2015 photo with Matt

After a second day of inspirational talks @ WebDox (we had Matt Adams from Blast Theory presenting their latest project KarenShubhra Prakash speaking about Priya’s Shakti and Eva Oyon with Mike Robbins illustrating Red Cross’ Disaster Resilience Journal) we indulged in some intense one to one mentoring. This was a way to open our minds to the new ideas presented in the morning and to come back to the individual projects with a clear focus: “what is it about and why should people care?”. That brought us back to the identification of our audiences and of the shift we want them to do while experiencing our project.

IFlab mentoring photo 10.05.15

Impact became the starting point of our third day, where we used role playing and personas to test our assumptions. This lead us to a point where we could finally start to shape the interactive structure of our stories. Working backwards from purpose, impact and users needs, we could now be inspired by our new knowledge to build our story in a way that made it possible to reach the people we want to reach. This does not mean that we had to downgrade our storytellers’ skills, but rather that we could now use new information to inspire our story structures.

SB post-it photo

Our last day or workshop was full of post-its on the wall, draft flow charts and emerging wireframes. Structures started to emerge and user journeys became apparent. An introduction on digital prototyping tools served as an introduction to what our participants will have to do next: keep playing with their user journeys, interview their real audiences and start to prototype their ideas again, but this time in a digital form. Thanks to the generous support of our partners Racontr and Klynt a selected group of !F Lab participants will be able to advance their stories using professional authoring platforms, while others will experiment with the multitude of free tools available on the Web.

Our next challenge is to pick up all these emerging stories when we meet next in Malmo (see DesignBooster from the 20th till the 23rd of August in Sweden) and to merge them with those of  new participants to make them progress to the next level: a solid user journey, an interface and a finance & marketing plan.

!F Lab is a new adventure for me, and it is an exciting one. I cannot predict how it will evolve, and this is part of the game: if we preach iterative design processes, we  also need to apply them to !F Lab itself!  So far the feed-back has been extremely good. If anything, participants want more: more thinking time, more team working, more hands-on. We will take this feed-back on board for next time.

For me the greatest satisfaction has been to witness the shift in the quality of the pitches that participants did on their first and last day of workshop. We had planned a 3 minutes pitch exercise as a starting and ending point of our lab. This was a sort of “before and after” check. Well… what can I say… without any photoshop retouches the picture was very convincing: the “before” pitch was a series of ideas with no spinal cord, while the “after” pitch was – for most of the projects – a sharp, organised and convincing presentation that could only leave you wanting to know more. I was, I have to say, the first one to be mesmerised… Had I been a production company, I would have jumped to sign a deal with a few of those talented people…

Thinking about it this might be the next step for !F Lab: a part from testing and developing the 3 workshop  sessions, we might try to find interested producers to pick up projects from where we leave them at the end of !F Lab.

This is work in progress. Moore soon.

In the meantime: thanks to the coaches and to all the participants for playing the game and creating such an atmosphere of trust and open collaboration! Thank you also to those behind the organisation, without you it would not have been possible!


[all photos by An-Sophie Fontaine]