What Makes a Signature Story?

I was watching a video from the Stanford Graduate School of Business’ YouTube channel on The Power of Signature Stories by Jennifer Aaker and David Aaker. Both of them as speakers were very engaging and I watched the whole video without increasing the speed of the video.

According to David Aaker, a Signature Story must be authentic, intriguing, involving, narrative and have a strategic message. To have an effective advertisement today, a signature story must be woven into the advertisement. It can’t be a sales pitch. The viewer must be able to feel connected to the advertisement. It is also not for the advertisement to go the emotionally manipulative route–the audience will feel it’s not authentic. People are looking for the authentic factor and they will be able to recognize a fake one from far away.

So? How does this translate to digital? On digital, content is king. According to David Aaker, content is stories. To be able to write stories whether fiction or non-fiction in a compelling, authentic, and intriguing way will set you forward. It doesn’t matter if you are talking about subjects such as theoretical physics to art, the way you write, show, or talk about the subject will determine how much of an audience’s attention you can capture.

On a personal level, how can you create a signature story? Jennifer Aaker lays out 5 ways you can have one.

  1. Carve out areas of incompetence

    • The best stories always come from areas where you fail or are just not that good enough. Talking about the things you do well can end up being boring after a while. So, for variety, look at all the areas where you feel you are inadequate.
  2. Be sneaky (brand things)

    • Brand everyday things you do. You can have “Special Days”, “Sunday FunDays”, “Saturday Night Sleepovers”, etc. Even if what you do on those days are boring, you will end up remembering those days because of the brand name.
  3. Seek highs and lows

    • Life is not always about the highs as well as it’s not just about the lows. If you are having a really good day (you just got a promotion and you were able to get something from that new trendy dessert place), you will eventually have a low point (as you were walking home from your good day, you stepped in dog poop and your umbrella decided to snap at that specific point–you are drenched).
  4. Bank stories (pithy or short)

    • Save your stories in a notebook, a phone app, journal, or random napkins. You just need to have a selection of stories that you can look back on.
  5. Create 6-word stories for fun

    • If all else fails and you think nothing interesting happened to you that day, make 6-word stories for fun. Think about moments of change and transformation. An example used in the video is “Baby shoes. Never Worn. For Sale.”

All in all, I really liked the video and I learned something that will be with me forever.


Empathy in Design

Empathy in design is a central idea that many designers are taught. But, several articles have come out against empathy. Empathy isn’t bad. We all have some form of empathy. It’s just that empathy can be used to reinforce an individual’s bias. It can also be used to separate one group from another.

“Empathy as it’s generally practiced ultimately subverts its own goals. It tends to reinforce ‘otherness’, promote anthropocentrism, and ignore ecological considerations.”

Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University, is one of the main figures advocating against empathy. Bloom argues that “the world does not need more empathy; it needs less of it.” Empathy is “sugary soda, tempting and delicious and bad for us.” He states that empathy should be combined with reason, compassion, and self-control.

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy deals with emotion. Action and designs based on too much emotion without reason can lead to bias.

“Empathy is easily exploited, marshalled on either side of the aisle to create not a bridge but an impasse of feelings.”

Thomas Wendt, in  Empathy as Faux Ethics, writes that the problem with empathy is that it has “become a crutch or shortcut for designers who mistake having empathy with doing good design.”

In order to make a good empathetic design, it requires the designers to “project themselves into the other’s perspective not just to appreciate their views, but also to turn that understanding into design interventions.” It’s a way for a designer to come in and solve the other’s problems. This framework assumes that “The Designer” possesses “a unique ability to access the psyche” of “The Other.”

In designs of today, “empathy is applied retroactively to fit a business-centric product into a human-centric frame. It becomes an ethical practice designers use to feel better about the potentially of making superfluous things that no one actually needs.”

“Empathy for commercial ends is simply marketing.”

This human-centered focus on design ignores the political, social, and ecological aspects of design. If humans are at the center, then “things like environmental sustainability, social justice, care for ourselves, economic equality…most political aspects of design, cannot be adequately considered.”

Again, none of the readings suggest that empathy is a bad thing. “Save for sociopaths, we all have it and use it every day.”

“It is this ubiquity that makes empathy in design such an unexciting topic. Worse than its banality, empathy has quickly become a catch-all concept for good design and ethical action…Real design skill is about realizing that empathy is a small part of a much larger system of influences, causes, and effects on the situation at hand.”


Thomas Wendt, Empathy as Faux Ethics
The Economist, The case for compassion, not empathy

The History of UX & The Rise of the User

I wanted to understand how UX began. In my search, I came upon a paper written by Shaheen Amirebrahimi: The Rise of the User and the Fall of People: Ethnographic Cooptation and a New Language of Globalization. The paper looks to show how “[UX] started as a tool anthropologists hoped to use to shape the corporation, [but, it] ultimately shaped them.”

“Since the 1980s, anthropologists have used their work to ‘make the world a better place,’…[but] as ethnography-as-method became separated from the field of Anthropology, it was opened to new collaborations with adjacent fields (design, HCI, psychology, media studies, and so on).”

As individuals and corporations raced to use UX for themselves and profit, “user experience became not a tool for innovation, but one that perpetuated old practices of business-as-usual…[it became] a new kind of language to re-frame processes of globalization.”

Ethnography research that used to based upon analysis of “production, consumption, colonization, inequality, race, class, religion, gender” was now replaced by a “simplified binary of user and used.”

Design is an “inherently political, action-oriented field, which academic anthropology typically takes a position of non-interventionist observation.” Therefore, the combination of design with anthropology leads to areas of misalignment.

“The Shift from ‘experimental’ to ‘design’ ethnography brought with it a double-edged sword of political action. On the one hand, the door was opened for greater incorporation into organizations and more influence to ‘make positive change happen,’ yet so too arose inherent ethical dilemmas about the nature of our work.”

“Ethnography began to go from something peripheral, experimental, and exotic, to something normalized within the logics of product development.”

Steve Jobs in 2007 increased the importance of UX. While announcing the iPhone, he “christened ‘the user’ and the betterment of their experience (or UX) as the pivotal focus for the next era of technology production.”

As UX began to gain traction, the fundamental way in “which research problems were framed and solved” began to change in a subtle way. Rather than looking at how people live in the ‘real world,’ with ethnographically informed theory and practice,…the world and the people in it were flattened, reduced to a binary of use and commodity.”

As many more disciplines coopted the language of UX into their practice, UX started to lose a central meaning and began to wear many hats.

“Its lack of theoretical center left the brand open to becoming increasingly disarticulated by the diverse group of actors attempting to use the language to their own ends.”

The issue with UX was the fact that “it was such a malleable term of reference that it stifled the ability of anthropologists to bring cultural specificity and difference from outside the corporation within to enact change.”

Instead, UX became a means by which the corporation could “distill the outside world, purify it, and make it ultimately look nothing like the outside, but instead, just like its internal self.”

As I work in UX, it is important to not erase the person as a whole. So often, I have found myself simply thinking about a customer/consumer only within the context of their use of a specific product or service. It is important to me to never forget to incorporate the whole (political, social, economical) existence of whichever group I will be studying. Sometimes, the interesting innovation may occur outside of the set research boundaries.

“Innovation work is like the world around us and the people in it, multifarious and non-conforming…Innovation happens at the seams, where boundary objects and ideas come into contact in new and unexpected ways.”


The Rise of the User and the Fall of People: Ethnographic Cooptation and a New Language of Globalization by Shaheen Amirebrahimi || 2016 Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings, pp. 71–103, ISSN 1559-8918, https://www.epicpeople.org