Contextual Storytelling, Part 1: UX Beyond the Screen

By Andrea Zeller

Editor’s note: This post is the first in a series of ongoing articles that will highlight “Contextual Storytelling: Best Practices for the Internet of Things,” an innovative, new directed research course taught by Comm Lead instructors Andrea Zeller and John du Pre Gauntt. During the course, a small team of students will develop a framework and best practices for native storytelling that is optimized for multiple devices, contexts and locations. The first two posts in this series focus on the history and current state of contextual storytelling. Later posts will cover the processes and challenges that students encounter during the course.

It is coming fast and strong, a user experience that will not involve your computer, and possibly not your mobile phone or any screen. Or your screen will only be a part of the experience, and it will speak to “things” around you, like your refrigerator or a sensor, or even a can of soup.

Contextual experiences are closer than you think and not a far off sci-fi idea. In fact, you have already been a part of one if you’ve tracked a run with a GPS watch, used a Good to Go pass to pay a toll or even scanned a QR code.

Contextual Experiences: A Brief History and Definition

Contextual experiences leverage beacons and sensors to create real-time experiences in a specific space and time. Theorized as early as 1991, the Internet of Things was invented by Kevin Ashton and refers to a system in which the Internet is connected to the physical world through sensors. As technology catches up to the initial theories of the Internet of Things, contextual experiences are starting to evolve and impact our everyday life.

Organizations are starting to look at this inter-connected world as a new channel for innovation and marketing. The frontier of contextual storytelling is starting to unfold.

Great Contextual Storytelling by Brands: Nivea Sun Products

The following video, featuring an ad released by Nivea Sun Products in May, paints the perfect picture of how a brand can use contextual storytelling to fulfill an identified need of their customer.

The ad features a clever use of sensor technology that is embedded in humidity-resistant paper armbands designed to be worn on the beach. Parents place the armbands on their children and then download an app with a simple user interface. The app enables parents to set the maximum distance their children can wander away from them on the beach before being notified. As soon as a child ventures beyond that distance, the app activates an alarm. With this clever ad and contextual experience, Nivea has extended their brand promise of protecting customers and their children in a profound new way.

Nivea Sun Products App

A Creative App from Nivea Sun Products Helps Parents Keep Track of Their Kids on the Beach (Image: Nivea Sun Products)

When contextual storytelling is done well and builds on the emotional experience that ties the user to the brand value like this example by Nivea, the craft has the potential for brands to get to that next level of delivering on their value propositions and strengthening brand loyalty with their customers. Contextual storytelling does this by allowing users to live and breathe the brand through an experience.

Another Example of Great Contextual Storytelling by Brands: InfoMotion Sports

The following video shows another example of groundbreaking contextual storytelling, this time by InfoMotion Sports, a digital coaching technology agency that created 94Fifty, a basketball tracker and feedback app. The app enables players to hone their shooting and ball-handling skills through sensors that track basketball shots and provide the feedback to players.

By tracking the ball and providing the feedback to players in real time, 94Fifty connects users to helpful data and helps improve their performance, in the moment. Fulfilling the need for a coach to provide real-time, data-supported feedback to an athlete, 94Fifty is an example of a contextual experience that solves for a larger problem and appropriately uses data to connect people and improve performance.

The Current State of Contextual Technology

Although contextual storytelling is still in its infancy, contextual technology will allow for more of these powerful stories and connections. Currently, the most well-known examples of contextually aware and/or intelligent services are virtual assistants such as Siri, Google Now and Cortana. However, virtual assistants are only a small subset of potential contextualized interactive touch points. Location technologies such as Estimote and Gimbal are drawing virtual perimeters around physical points to add intelligence and interactivity to daily experiences. Automotive manufacturers are integrating cars, consumer electronics and information services like never before. The Internet of Things promises to transform how people relate to objects and information.

In Contextual Storytelling: Best Practices for the Internet of Things, the Comm Lead course that John and I will be teaching this fall quarter, we will leverage the content strategy and user experience (UX) disciplines to develop a framework for storytelling in the age of context and community. The need to define frameworks for how we tell stories and manage communities for persuasion and influence must adapt when the whole world becomes an interactive desktop.

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