Stories About Interactive Storytelling:
From Handmade Books to HTML and Beyond

Abbe Don

Abbe Don Interactive

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University November 12, 1999

Inspired by a combination of my great-grandmother's personal stories, postmodern narrative theory, and experimental fiction such as Julio Cortazar's novel "Hopscotch," I considered myself an interactive storyteller before I ever touched a computer. In 1984, I saw a touch screen shopping kiosk for the first time at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles, and I had an intuitve flash that my ideas about storytelling combined with this new technology were the key to transforming the relationship between author and audience by following Cortazar's advice to "involve the reader as an active participant, an accomplice even."

I have spent the last ten years working both as an independent media artist and as an interface designer in the computer industry championing the cause of personal, interactive storytelling as the development platform shifted from HyperCard to CD ROM to Interactive TV to the World Wide Web. Yet, I acknowledge that the theoretical promise and commercial hype around interactive storytelling continues to far outpace the actual implementation of research prototypes or commercial products even as a more viable and affordable interactive platform emerges with the availability of inexpensive digital cameras, video editing software, and more bandwidth to consumers' homes.

I propose that the real key to unlocking the transformational qualities of interactive storytelling lies not with more powerful technology but with a deeper understanding of people and design. I will present a set of design guidelines and heuristics for engaging people in narrative activities based on my work designing character based interfaces, refining my own creative voice and storytelling skills, and designing workshops and online environments that facilitate the personal storytelling process. I will also examine what has worked and what has constituted some noble failures and consider which assumptions were naive and which appear to be standing the test of time by sifting through my own work and the body of work that now constitutes the field of interactive storytelling.

See the slides for this presentation.

Abbe Don, president of Abbe Don Interactive, Inc. is an designer and interactive multimedia artist, specializing in digital storytelling, information architecture and virtual community projects. In 1998, she launched The Digital Story Bee, an international workshop focused on teaching people to tell their personal stories via the web. The workshop has been held in San Francisco, New York, Crested Butte, Tel Aviv, St. Petersburg, Kiev, and Moscow. From 1996-97, she was the founding Executive Producer for Electric Minds. She is best known for her interactive family album, We Make Memories which has been exhibited in the United States and Europe and received an Honorable Mention in the Second Annual New Voices, New Vision contest sponsored by Interval Research and the Voyager Company, Her ongoing foray into interactive family storytelling, Bubbe's Back Porch, can be viewed and contributed to on the World Wide Web at

Ms, Don holds a masters degree from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. From 1988 to 1991, she pioneered the use of characters in user interfaces as a member of the Guides Team for Apple Computers Advanced Technology Group. Her essay "Narrative and the Interface" was published in The Art of Human Computer Interface Design published in 1990 by Addison Wesley. In 1992, she was the producer of Voices of the 30's, an educational CD ROM about the 1930's. In 1993, she spent a year doing research in the Agents Group at the MIT Media Lab before leaving to become Senior Interface Designer for Network Services at Kaleida Labs, where she worked on Distributed ScriptX, an application protocol for distributed, multiuser, multimedia, environments for online services and interactive tele-vision.

Ms. Don founded her own interface design and digital storytelling company in 1994. Her recent clients include Ameritech, CompuServe, Edward Don & Company, Hewlett Packard, Netscape, Sun Microsystems, Purple Moon, Institute for the Future, Encyclopedia Britannica, vivid studios and Well Engaged.

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