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April 28, 2016 /UX/UI Design /

Sherlock Holmes and the Case for Collaborative Experience Design

“What does it mean when a story is no longer just on the screen?”

That is the question Lance Weiler pondered as he set out to create Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things, a global collaboration project that aims to transcend the space between digital and physical storytelling and shift our perspective of the authorship and ownership of stories.

It’s an ambitious project that has involved over 2,000 collaborators from 60 different countries to date. Makers, game designers, hackers and storytellers have come together to build prototypes (“smart objects”) that will be used to help solve fictional crime scenes based on the famous works by Arthur Conan Doyle later this year.


Weiler recently gave a talk at FITC Toronto about his investigation into looking at these “connected crime scenes” and what happens when the audience becomes part of the experience. The concept of this mass murder mystery party provides an interesting glimpse into how immersive experiences can drive innovation.

‘It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.’

~ Sherlock Holmes Quote

Designing the Audience Into the Experience

Through his work as a filmmaker, designer and the Director of Experiential Learning and Applied Creativity at Columbia University, Weiler has ventured into collaborative and experimental territories before. Previous projects including the Workbook Project and Learn Do Share also harnessed the power of the web to bring like-minded creators from around the world together to solve problems.

This project was on a much larger scale, however. So far, Weiler and his team have run 15 prototypes in 10 countries in preparation for October’s globally connected crime scene (check out the GitHub kit here).

These prototypes allowed them to strategize how to maximize audience engagement by leveraging this collective love of Sherlock Holmes and technology. Because Sherlock Holmes is internationally popular as well as in the public domain, it was the perfect catalyst for testing this level of experiential storytelling.

Through the prototypes, Weiler and his team identified four design principals that all XD designers could learn a thing or two from.

Redefining Storytelling

“A story isn’t just by one person anymore,” Weiler said in his talk. He was referring to the Sherlock Holmes IoT collaboration, but his observations leave a trail of evidence that our relationship to technology and how we tell stories—how we tell our own stories even—is evolving.

Of course, Weiler couldn’t make a case for story-driven innovation without throwing a red herring into the investigation. Creating immersive experiences where people can see themselves in a story is an amazing way to connect with an audience, but what happens when they turn the page?

Weiler asks, “What does storytelling look like to a generation that is so used to making their own content?”

The challenge then is once you create a way to make your audience part of your story, how do you design the experience so your story becomes part of theirs?

That’s where the fun begins. As Sherlock Holmes would say, “The game, Mrs. Hudson, is on!”

The Four Immersive Design Principals

Through the prototypes, Weiler and his team identified four design principals that all XD designers could learn a thing or two from.

While these four principles were created in reference to the participants of the Sherlock Holmes and the IoT collaboration, they can easily be applied to any instance where you want the audience to be not just part of the experience, but part of the story.

  1. The Trace – The user can see their contributions within the story.
  2. Granting Agency – The user is granted agency to make decisions (as a team and individually) and they can identify how their actions impacted the experience.
  3. Thematic Frame – The user can contribute to the experience because they have a pre-existing understanding of its foundation.
  4. Social Movement – Orchestrated micro experiences where unexpected moments foster collaboration between participants.

Weiler referred to this last principal as “serendipity management.” The experience is designed with twists that surprise and delight the users.

“It is not really difficult to construct a series of inferences, each dependent upon its predecessor and each simple in itself. After doing so, one may produce a startling effect.”

~ Quote from The Adventure of the Dancing Men [Sherlock Holmes]

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