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Reflection: Narrative-Based Design


My Narrative

Once upon a time, in February 2020, a young woman sought her happily ever after as an employed 2020 college graduate. The world was her oyster…until it wasn’t. March hit, along with the Covid-19 pandemic. Hiring stopped, as did the rest of the world. Any hopes for employment in research with her psychology degree were suddenly shattered. She felt lost. She returned home, finished her final semester of school, and reconnected with her family. The longer she spent sheltered away from the rest of the world, the more time she devoted to her loved ones, as well as to cherished books, movies, shows, and music. She rekindled her passion for stories and entertainment, once again playing piano, making videos with her siblings, and reading books to her young nieces and nephews. These activities brought light into her world of darkness, and eventually, she didn’t feel so lost. She realized she needed to hang onto that light for herself, and help others relight their own spark.

She still wanted to pursue a career that incorporated her love for psychology and human development, but she also wanted it to involve the media that helped her learn and grow into the person she is today. She decided to pursue a graduate degree at NYU in Learning Technology and Experience Design, aiming to create stories, media, and designs for others that bring light into their worlds of darkness. The rest is history; and, she lived happily ever after (well, let’s hope!).

The Power of Narratives

Narratives captivate and compel. They keep learners engaged through a structured arc of material. They are relatable, digestible, and most of all, memorable. Human memory can be very fickle, so understanding its limits can greatly inform learning designs. If people can connect new content to what they already know, they are more likely to remember that new information. Narratives tend to be relatable, building upon common themes and characters that people understand. That is what gives them some of their power. Even still, thoughtful designs need to be crafted with empathy and an understanding that learners may engage differently with content based on their lived experiences. For this reason, determining the target audience for any learning design is key. Designers have to know who they are trying to reach, and even then, understand that their own perspectives and biases could be impacting the way they tell their stories.

Even in UX design, the process of making personas is all about creating an empathetic story around a user. Designers must understand their characters, address their conflicts, and propose effective resolutions. Their designs must also account for learners’ strengths and weaknesses. They should aim to minimize cognitive load and extraneous processing while maximizing learners’ motivation and focus. For instance, as dual coding theory posits, people typically learn best with the simultaneous presentation of both verbal and non-verbal information. Designers should keep this in mind as they create learning content.

Nevertheless, some outlets may be more suitable than others for presenting certain types of material. Content about optical illusions, for instance, might be difficult to convey through an auditory medium as opposed to a visual medium. This is where empathy comes into play once again. If a designer wants learners to effectively absorb their material, they need to think carefully about how they can best communicate their content. When learners can go beyond simply retaining information toward transferring it to a new situation, that indicates proficiency. If a learner is able to effectively teach someone else about the subject matter (or tell their own tale, if you will), I would call that a success story.

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