Storytelling is how we share ideas and experiences. They are effective because they appeal to the workings of the human mind, as it’s our natural impulse to impose order and attach meaning to our observations.
We process stories more deeply than we process other kinds of material. This also helps us remember them. The rich detail we get from descriptions of characters, locations, and events — and relating it all back to our own experiences — helps us personally connect with information or ideas.
Emotions matter too. A relatable story that strikes an emotional chord may trigger strong reactions and deep memories.
So, why does storytelling matter to UX Design?
In an ideal case, great products, and services appeal to us on an instinctive, a behavioural and a reflective level. While the instinctive level deals with the visual appeal, the behavioural level deals with use and usability. It is the reflective level which determines whether and how we process, remember, and share an experience.
Applying storytelling techniques and methods help your UX Design and the process in many aspects. Giving additional context helps your audience connect with a concept. This additional context can be in the form of behaviours, emotions, reactions, motivations, or goals. Unlike a flow chart or artifact, a narrative allows the audience to understand the reasons behind users’ actions; they remind our audience members that they are not the user.
Stories also spark our imaginations and generate new ideas and they allow us to form a shared understanding.
Thinking about how to build a product usually involves feature lists and backlogs. Stories bring user pain points and goals to the forefront of the conversation and help teams create a shared language of why they’re building a product or feature and whom it benefits. These stories can also be used to rally around a product vision, painting an image of how life could be better with that product.
Storytelling in UX
Research and UX Strategy
If you are a UX Research or strategist, you probably already use some forms of storytelling, like describing examples of user interactions you observed during testing or explaining how the product or feature might impact a user’s everyday effectiveness or happiness in a report.
To elevate your work, try to communicate a story through compelling research reports. Incorporate imagery with relevant case studies, charts, and photos from usability tests to give your audience something to connect with beyond words.
For example, let’s say you’re working on a checkout workflow for an ecommerce website. You interview a user, and she tells you about a recent experience she had when purchasing an item. Shelly is a mother whose daughter is away at university, studying to become a lawyer. Shelly likes to send her daughter gifts from time to time. She finds the perfect gift for her daughter — something that reminded her of when they used to go on spa days together. She sends the package directly to her house a few states away but doesn’t include a gift receipt because she doesn’t realise, she can do so. When her daughter gets the package in the mail, she has no idea who sent the package or why she’s receiving it, leaving her unsure of whom to thank.
When writing your research report, include Shelly’s story as a case study along with a storyboard or journey map as a visual representation. Consider including a photo or illustration of her to allow your audience to put a face to a name.
Interaction and UX Design
Let’s now consider how UX design can tell users a story. Design is a form of communication, so a positive user experience might have a clear beginning, middle, and end – just like a story.
If you have the time and ability to further bring your story to life, you can even storyboard an experience. Storyboards can call upon visualisations, illustrations, and emotion elements to use for UX-related communication and strategy
When your product tells a story, users easily learn how and why to use it. Your product might have a ‘voice’ and a consistent flow toward user goals, forming an unfolding narrative that users create for themselves.
For example, you can show your audience the original design that Shelly (our protagonist from above) used to purchase her gift. Then present your new-design idea using the same scenario; point out how the gift options will be more easily accessible in this new version to allow Shelly to include a gift receipt and a message with her purchase.
Recalling the story and using it as a scenario to design something better helps your audience members make decisions based on Shelly’s needs and not on their own preferences. It also gives additional context as to why you made certain design decisions.
When your product tells a story, users easily learn how and why to use it. When they think from this perspective, they have more information to make a decision that will benefit the user in addition to the business.
Throughout product experiences, there are plenty of spots to inject personality and delight to make the user’s ‘narrative’ more interesting.
Be creative: how can you turn your product’s UX into a story? Their brains and hearts will thank you.