Brand Building

Crafting Experiences that Deliver Empathy: 5 Strategies for Powerful Digital Storytelling

A few months ago a friend of mine shared a link to a video game she had funded on Kickstarter – “That Dragon, Cancer.” It was created to honor the life of a 5-year-old boy who lost his battle with terminal cancer. In game play, I experienced the low and high moments of Joel’s life in the style of a point-and-click adventure game. The beauty of the story combined with the interactivity of the medium completely immersed me in the experience. It forced me to relate to Joel and his family in a way that other forms of storytelling could not. This unique game had a powerful impact on me. As a developer of rich user experiences in the healthcare space, I’ve since thought a lot about why “That Dragon, Cancer” was so effective, and why we aren’t creating more experiences like it – experiences that truly create empathy and understanding.

When we create interactive user experiences for patients or physicians, whether it’s for trade shows or online, it can be easy to reach for technology first, then shoehorn a story onto a device. Take conventions as an example. The novelty of new gadgets is certainly a great way to attract attention at a busy show. The “wow-factor” will lure physicians into your booth, so there is an obvious desire to adopt new technologies.

Working at a digital agency, obviously I’m all for the early adoption of new and emerging technology; every technological advance offers new and exciting ways to break down barriers between people. But if we put technology first and people second, what often happens is the opposite. We fail to create something that is truly relatable, something that would have a longer and more meaningful impact on the user like “That Dragon, Cancer.”

Even so, leading with technology still happens for all kinds of reasons: client requests for specific technologies, timelines that push us toward the familiar, and the desire to leverage existing content. Experiences based on leading-edge technology can still be effective in delivering messaging, information and legal content, often in a very cool way. But if the goal is to create real empathy and understanding, we need to take a human-first approach.

So, how do we bring the humanity back to technology? Here are five strategies I’ve found to be especially helpful:

1). Put People First
People are complex—everybody has a different story. Every patient has details of their life that are unique to understanding their day-to-day struggles. It’s those details that allow us to create experiences where you can see through their eyes and walk in their shoes. In the same way, we also need to understand our user before we can craft an experience for them. Taking the time to understand your user and how they are engaging with the content is critical for the overall success of any meaningful experience.

2). Craft an Engaging Story
It’s tempting to deploy all the latest bells and whistles, but without a strong storyline, even the most powerful technology will fail to engage users. Make sure that your core message and storyline gives the user a reason to pay attention, stay engaged, and then walk away with a deeper understanding. In healthcare, we have the opportunity to bring serious issues to life in personal and powerful ways, connecting our audience to the story. Purpose, point of view, emotional content, pace and meaningful simplicity are all essential elements for digital storytelling. If you don’t have a writer or storyteller on your team, that’s a telltale sign that technology might be driving your experiences, rather than strong storylines.

3). Design for Engagement
Experiences that invite users to take an active rather than passive role are extremely effective in promoting real understanding, because they require engagement. That engagement is often physical as well as emotional. When the user becomes a part of an experience rather than just a witness to it, they are better able to empathize with what a patient might be feeling at that point in their journey. A good example of this using virtual reality is an experience built by Viscera, MindScape, which simulates a schizophrenic episode. In the context of a real life scenario – a job interview – users wearing the Oculus Rift headset ride a packed elevator up to the 10th floor, all the while hearing voices that tell them “You will fail! You will fail!” For schizophrenia and certain other mental disorders, applications like this can help bring about a more complete understanding of the patient burden.

4). Know the Technology
Designing and developing on new platforms within tight timelines can lead to missed opportunities and miscalculations. In contrast, dedicated research and development time allows you to experiment with unfamiliar technologies before evaluating them as a vehicle for the story you want to tell. Experiences can only live up to their full potential when they are crafted with a clear picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the technology you’re using. In short, technologies and techniques need to be understood ahead of time, so we can apply them effectively during crunch time.

5). Align Technology With Goals
Pick a technology that enhances the story you’re trying to tell. Virtual reality, augmented reality, gesture control, multi-screen experiences and gamification, to name a few, offer great opportunities for virtual storytelling, and each are effective in their own right. With virtual reality, you can completely immerse someone in a new environment and create a truly lifelike experience, perhaps allowing a doctor to step into the life of a patient. With augmented reality, you can layer computer-simulated information on top of the real world, which can be a powerful tool to show a shift in perspective or to reveal something that was hidden. Gesture controlled interfaces allow people to physically interact with virtual content—movement promotes a different style of learning that is inherently tactile and familiar. Gamification engages the user in decision-making and the resulting outcomes. Technology, chosen wisely, has the power to truly bring your content to life for the user.

At the end of the day, we relate to people, not things. There is an inherent barrier between a user and the device they are interacting with, which is a bi-product of technology. So if we are not thoughtful, the experiences we create can end up feeling cold. But if we put people first by telling compelling stories and truly understanding our audience, we can dissolve that barrier and craft real, meaningful connections while taking full advantage of new platforms and devices. Most importantly, as healthcare marketers, we have the opportunity to connect with the people who need it most, and to tell stories in a completely new and more human way.

In my experience, these five strategies are a good place to start for crafting experiences that drive empathy and understanding.

1). Put People First
2). Craft an Engaging Story
3). Design For Engagement
4). Know the Technology
5). Align Technology With Goals


The following two tabs change content below.
Andrea Noll
Andrea is a versatile and experienced digital designer and developer with deep experience in human-centered design. Her work in immersive convention experiences has earned her numerous industry awards and client accolades. When not designing immersive experiences, she is busy immersed with her husband and young son. Andrea holds a BS from the University of Pittsburgh and a BFA from Moore College of Art & Design.

Most Popular

To Top