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Storytelling for User Experience

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We all tell stories. It's one of the most natural ways to share information, as old as the human race. This book is not about a new technique, but how to use something we already know in a new way. Stories help us gather and communicate user research, put a human face on analytic data, communicate design ideas, encourage collaboration and innovation, and create a sense of shared history and purpose. This book looks across the full spectrum of user experience design to discover when and how to use stories to improve our products. Whether you are a researcher, designer, analyst or manager, you will find ideas and techniques you can put to use in your practice.

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1. Why Stories?


What is a story?

There are many types of stories in UX design

More work? Not really!

More reading


We all tell stories. Its one of the most natural ways to share information, and its as old as the human race. This book is about how to use a skill you already possess in a new way: in the field of user experience (UX) design.

As a part of user experience design, stories serve to ground your work in a real context. They let you show a design concept or a new product in action, or connect a new idea to the initial spark. But most importantly, they help you keep people at the center of your work. However you start a project, in the end it will be used by people. Stories are a way of connecting what you know about those people (your users) to the design process, even if they cant always be part of your team.

Stories can be used in many ways throughout any user experience process:

They help us gather (and share) information about users, tasks, and goals.

They put a human face on analytic data.

They can spark new design concepts and encourage collaboration and innovation.


2. How UX Stories Work


Stories are more than just narrative

Stories have many roles in user experience design

Maybe youre not convinced


Some people think of telling a story as a form of broadcasting. Claude Shannon, sometimes called the father of information theory, looked at communication as a sort of transmission of a message from one place to another. From this perspective, a story would be something simply transferred from one person to another, like an exchange of goods or a signal on a wire, as shown in Figure2-1.

This seems simple enough. You write a story, and then you tell it. You might consider your audience as you write the story, but telling the story is just broadcasting it. A lot of bad speakers seem to see it this way as well.

But its not that simple.

Good storytelling is interactive. Its more like a conversation than a broadcast, even when the stories are carefully crafted and rehearsed. Actors and directors talk about how the audience is different at every performance, even if the script or the stage action is the same from night to night.


3. Stories Start with Listening (and Observing)


UX design requires good listening skills

Listening and observing leads to better understanding

Being listened to is addictive

Learn to be a good listener

Teach your team to listen

More reading


Our world is full of things to listen to: theatre, books, movies, radio, recordings, and television. The World Wide Web has brought new ways to listen to radio, watch movies and TV, read books, and read blogs all over the Internet. YouTube and podcasts let you talk to people all over the world using video and audio. With all this media, all this expression, all this need for people to read, watch, and listen, you might think that listening to one another would be second nature, and that we would all be very good listeners. Instead, all of these possibilities have sometimes encouraged us to express more and listen a little bit less.

Dont get us wrong. Expression is important. But in user experience design, a great idea can often start from a quiet moment of listening or observing how people act and interact.


4. The Ethics of Stories


Good research ethicsgood storytelling

Professional societies give us relevant ethics for stories

Acknowledge your own influence

Tell the story accurately

Keep the story authentic

End the story well

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We have already talked about the triangular relationship between story, storyteller, and audience. But theres a second triangle.

This triangle is critical for user experience, where you use stories collected from real people. This triangle switches the relationships around. At the beginning of the process, you are the listeners, and your ethnographic informants, usability participants, or research interlocutors are the storytellers (see Figure4-1).

Figure4-1.When you create and tell a user experience story, it is one you have originally collected from another person. Your retelling of the story creates a connection between the user from whom you originally heard the story and your audience.

Because you are using material from other people in your user experience stories, you have an ethical responsibility not only to the story, but to your sources as well.


5. Stories as Part of a UX Process


UX is a cross-disciplinary practice

Using stories in user experience design is not a new idea

Stories can be part of many UX activities

More reading


Now that weve explored what a story is, the ethics of telling them, and how stories empower people through listening, its time to think about how all of this fits into user experience design.

If you are looking for inspiration at a specific point in a project, the chapters in this section each focus on one aspect of user experience design, in a roughly chronological order.

We are not going to promote one approach to user experience design over another, nor are we going to promote a new methodology based on using stories. Whether you believe in user-centered design, goals-based design, or even a more technical approach like domain-driven design, stories have a place in your work.

Despite the number of approaches to user experience design, the core is usually quite simple, so we will stick to this generic process: start by understanding the context, put that understanding to work in creating the design, and then test the design as it is fleshed out to be sure that the product will be a good fit.


6. Collecting Stories (as Part of Research)


The best stories come from being there

Other sources of stories are all around you

Listen for stories

Get groups to tell stories to each other

Explore memorable incidents

You can observe stories, too

Tips for collecting stories

Write stories into your notes

More reading


Stories in user experience design are not made upthey are based on real user data and then distilled to effectively illuminate the design process. It all starts with collecting stories during user research. Whether you are building a picture of audience demographics, doing an in-depth task analysis, or seeking a broader understanding of user motivations and desires, you, too, can collect valuable stories.

The stories you hear from users give you a first-person view of the world from many unique perspectives. They help you understand the goals, motivations, and preferences of the people you design for. They help you understand their personalities and their quirks, which you can use to create a rich, textured experience.

Meeting Real Customers Leads to a Whole New Way of Talking


7. Selecting Stories (as Part of Analysis)


Your first audience: yourself

What are you looking for?

Finding the stories

Finding stories in data

Building stories into personas


Now that youve collected stories, you have to select those to develop for use in analysis. These stories serve a purpose and must be more than simply great anecdotes.

A performance storyteller may start from a story that just feels right and develop it over many years, letting it evolve in front of different audiences. In user experience, that process often happens as you (and your team members) go through all of the user research material to understand what you have learned.

As you select and develop your stories, you have to consider both your audience and your goal. These stories must help you understand the user experience in a new way or help support your user analysis as you communicate with the rest of the user experience team, the broader project team, and management.

You (and your colleagues) are your first audience. Your first use of stories is to help your team understand what you have learned about users and their context. If you dont find these stories useful and meaningful, no one else will either, because you wont be able to use them effectively.


8. Using Stories for Design Ideas


Stories evolve through the design process

Brainstorming for new stories: Generative stories

Brainstorming helper: The storytelling game

Developing user research stories: Generative stories (again)

Incorporating your user research into the brainstorming game

Moving from brainstorming to concept: Expressive stories

Stories that document design: Prescriptive stories

Stories can be part of the brand story

More reading


The stories you have collected are not blueprints for design, but they can serve as unparalleled inspiration for the design process. They hint at the goals, attitudes, and needs of the people you are designing for. They can also lead to the story the design must tell.

When we say that the design must tell a story, we are not just talking about games or interactive fiction, or even about turning a work application into an adventure (Conquer the benefits allocation maze...). Instead, we mean the kind of stories that help you create new designs. These stories are used to make you think of new possibilities, give you the tools to encourage a self-reflective kind of thinkingdesign thinkingor so you can imagine designs that will improve the lives of other people. Stories explore ideas from user research.


9. Evaluating with Stories


Using stories to create usability tasks

Turn user stories into instant usability tasks

Turning tasks into stories

Collecting stories just in time for usability testing

Using stories for reviews

Collecting stories just in time for usability testing

More reading


An important part of any user experience process is to evaluate the design. We have several techniques for this, from expert review to usability testing.

Design teachers suggest tricks like looking at a drawing in a mirror to see it from a different perspective. Stories collected from users can act like a mirror, letting you look at a product from the other side.

Although we have placed this chapter near the end of the design process in the linear organization of this book, we assume that you have been testing your workwith users and through design reviewsall along. You can use stories to improve your evaluations, whether you are doing a formal, summative usability test or a quick hey you test with your neighbor. Many of the ways you can use stories in evaluation are covered in Chapter6.


10. Sharing Stories (Managing Up and Across)


Dont worryeveryone is a storyteller

Help the audience build the story you tell

If you dont know your audience well, try listening

A few audiences you may meet

More reading


Until now, we have focused on collecting, selecting, and shaping stories. Now, lets discuss how to use stories to communicate outside of the design team.

For many practitioners, explaining design ideas and the sources of those ideas to managers is difficult. We get enthusiastic about the specifics of the idea, drowning the audience in details before they comprehend the big picture. Or we struggle to make a connection between the idea and the real-world problem it solves. What we need is a way to engage their imagination, so they cannot simply hear the new idea, but contribute to it and thereby invest in it.

Thats where stories come in. They dont replace the entire presentation; theres still a time and a place for details of technology, marketing, and budgets. The role for stories in a management presentation is to get the audiences attention, to set a context for the rest of the data, and usually to inspire action by leaving them with a clear image.


11. Crafting a Story


What do we mean by craft?

Stories get better with practice

Sometimes stories fail

Think carefully about your goals


So far in this book weve discussed why and when to tell stories in UX design. Now we are going to focus on how. No matter how short the story, careful construction is critical.

The idea for a story may arise spontaneously, offered to illustrate a point or answer a question. Or you may plan a story in advance as part of a report or presentation. However you discover the story and whenever you use it, your goal is always the same: You want the story to make a point. The work of crafting a story is aimed at ensuring that the story communicates what you intend and is not misunderstood.

Now it is time to turn our attention to how to craft a story. In the rest of the chapters, we will look at the following elements of a story and how you can use them to make your stories more engaging (and more effective).

The information in these chapters draws on theory and guidance for any kind of story, but is just as relevant for a user experience story.


12. Considering the Audience


The relationship between the audience and the story

Details from user research help ground stories

What if they think they know, but they dont?

Mirror stories are stories about ourselves

The relationship between you and the audience

How much are you like the audience?

Is your relationship to the story the same as the audiences?

Do you bring different pieces of the puzzle?

Help them get from here to there

Use stories to advocate

Bring them home safely

More reading


A story is not just something you push out into the world; it is created in the minds of everyone in the audience. In Chapter2, we looked at the Story Triangle (see Figure12-1) and the dynamic relationships that connect the storyteller, the audience, and the story.

Figure12-1.In the Story Triangle, there is a connection between the storyteller and the audience, as well as between the audience and the story.

The first step in crafting a story is to identify and understand your audience. This may seem obvious, but its an easy point to forget when you are in the throes of story creation. This is as true in performance storytelling as it is in storytelling for user experience design. In both cases, your goal isnt just to write (or tell) a great story, but to communicate something to other people. To help a group of people understand something in a new way. To persuade. Whether this is as simple as narrating a sequence of events, or as complex as allowing them to relate to a contradictory set of attitudes, reaching your audience is the most important part of the equation.


13. Combining the Ingredients of a Story






Language of the story

Putting the ingredients together


Now that weve considered who we are going to create a story for, lets think about what we have to work with as we put the story together.

Stories are made up of the following ingredients, each one helping shape the story:

Perspective:The point of view from which the story is told

Characters:The people in the story

Context:The environment in which the story unfolds

Imagery:The visual, emotional, or sensory texture the story evokes

Language:The linguistic style in which the story is told, as well as the style of speech of the different characters

Gather your ingredients, combine according to a recipe or story structure (discussed in the next chapter), and you can craft an effective story. In this chapter, well focus on the ingredients.

Every story is told from at least one point of view. In user experience stories, there is no such thing as a neutral point of view. How you present the characters, context, and events of the story is part of the point. Change the perspective, and you change the story, shaping it to either work for a specific audience or make your point more clearly.


14. Developing Structure and Plot


Story structures are patterns

Story structure helps the audience, the author, and the story

Useful story structures for UX stories

Using plot

Choosing a story structure and plot

Stories are more than the sum of their parts

More reading


In this chapter, we reach the structurethe organization of eventsof the story. In the previous two chapters, you have seen how you can tell a story from different perspectives or change the way you tell it to different audiences. Here, we will look at the elements of plot and structure.

The structure is the framework of a story. Its the underlying skeletal pattern for the story.

The plot is the arrangement of the events of the story, the sequence in which those events are revealed to the audience.

Story structure and plot are the path to bring the audience into the world created by the storyteller. When the audience can enter the story through a clear structure and plot, they can pay more attention to the storys larger themes and higher-level points, and are less likely to be distracted by logic and rational analysis. They can listen to the emotional subtext of the story, and be coaxed into its influence. They can get it.


15. Ways to Tell Stories


Telling oral stories

Written stories

Visual stories

Multimedia, video, or animated stories

Putting stories in your reports

Make presentations a story of their own

Choosing the medium for your story

More reading


Throughout the book, we have talked about storytelling, but stories can be told in many different ways:

Oral stories:Stories told aloud with both storyteller and audience present.

Written stories:Stories communicated in written form. Usually, this means that the storyteller is not present and the story has to stand on its own.

Visual stories:Stories told (mostly) in pictures.

Multimedia, animation, or video:Stories told using spoken words, pictures, and moving images.

There are two formats that are especially important in the world of user experience design. Both formats mix a written or visual presentation with oral presentation, blending the mediums.

Reports:An obvious place for user experience design stories is in user research and usability reports or as a way to introduce a design concept, whether the report is written or presented orally.


16. Try Something New


And so we arrive here, at the last chapter. In this book, weve tried to make the case for stories as a good way to communicate. People are natural story listeners, so its an easy way to share information. Stories can include rich information about behavior, perspectives, and attitudes. They are an economical way to communicate contextual details. When people listen to stories, their minds are engaged in the process of painting in the details. This engagement sets the stage for persuasion or a call to action.

But it can still be hard to change your own ways of communicating, especially if you are part of a team. Habits and established templates are difficult to change. It can be hard work to get to the heart of a story and tell it in just the right way for the audience. And, sometimes, stories fall flat, even when you have tried your hardest.

All we can do is urge you to take the first step and try a story or two.

At first, storytelling may be unnerving. Its a new way of talking for some business contexts. Take it at your own pace. But try it.



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