Posted on: 9 October 2014
Tedde van Gelderen
Founder & President
UX Storytelling: What story are YOU telling?
There is a growing sentiment that Storytelling is a thing in User Experience land, and that it’s something we need to take notice of and somehow integrate into the work we do in projects.
To dig a little deeper into UX Storytelling, I did a little informal research of my own and found that about half of the people I asked ‘what does a Story mean to you?’ answered that it’s something you would find in a book, movie, play where usually something is described in an engaging way, most of the time fictitious, almost always embellished and enriched to tell the story better. The other half thought I was asking about Stories like in a newspaper or academic article or what they would tell their spouse at the end of a working day. More factual in nature and meant to convey what really happened.
The above made me question if we all mean the same thing when we talk about not just the story but UX Storytelling (storytelling in a UX Design context)? Do we know what the other person thinks when we say we use UX Storytelling? I think there is a lack of clarity here.
When you look at one of the shorter definitions of what a story is: ‘An account of real or fictitious events’
This definition doesn’t choose between the real or fictitious events, either or both can appear in a story. So when you tell the story, the listener somehow would know when the events are made-up (walking unicorns downtown) or when they’re factual (when you drop a rock it falls to the ground).
Then there is the telling part. Once we have a real or fictitious series of events, there are many ways of telling it. It seems to me that many conversations about UX and Storytelling focus on how you tell the story, rather than the actual story. Having a narrative, buildup of tension, and other elements that tell a story well are obviously important. Well told stories have a greater impact, are better remembered and reach more people if shared more. This is especially relevant when we try to have evidence based product requirements end up in the design. Instead of a list of features on a sheet of paper, having a visual storyboard bringing these features to life in their context has clear and obvious benefits. For example, instead of doing Use cases, write them into richer User Stories or even Usage Scenarios or Journey descriptions make a lot of sense.
I think this is part of why Personas have gained greater adoption, telling the story of a user with a name, personal background, specific motivations and goals is simply more engaging to think about while designing and innovating instead of referencing ‘the general public’. Persona-like descriptions help to envision the user and customer being a full, genuine person with real needs instead of conceptual groups with funky names (‘the pragmatics’, ‘the potentials’) that only live in data driven market research.
In all of the above, in both the story and the telling, there is one thing that stays the same: the storyteller would need to make sure the story will be consumed in the right way by their audience. Awareness of your audience knowledge and attitude is critical. Making sure the audience knows they are looking at real events or fictitious (e.g. entertainment, instructions, vision of the future, news, etc.) and that they would be receptive to the form in which the story is told (engaging, motivating, informing, instructing). Storytelling, in a UX design context, will need to pay specific attention to this if the (design) audience is to appreciate the actual intent of the story.
That brings us back to one of the foundations of UX Storytelling: it’s risky to assume what you know of your audience and based on that knowledge how they will interpret the story. Do YOU know THEY know it is a real or fictitious story or maybe a bit of both?
In the end both Real & Fictitious Storytelling have their place in UX Design and Product Innovation but you do need to know what kind of story you are told.
So, what stories are you telling?
Tedde van Gelderen
Founder & President
Continually looking for ways to improve the experiences of others, Tedde has dedicated his professional life to experience design, research and strategy. He derives energy, motivation, and purpose from improving the experiences of others and believes that every organization — and every industry — can benefit from Experience Thinking.