How Storytelling Works in Design
Designers use storytelling to get insight into users, build empathy and reach them emotionally. Designers create personas to represent target users and add conflict to stories that reflect their user journeys and problems. Crafting stories, designers can better understand what users want from a solution.
Stories enable us to understand and remember in a way that a simple recitation of facts or a bulleted list of statistics simply doesn’t. This is because stories don’t just provide information, they are also a vehicle for emotions. We often consider stories entertainment because they make us laugh, cry, and scream—and it’s these emotional experiences that make stories resonate with us.
This is extremely valuable in UX design, where our goal is to create the best possible experience for a user. Successful user experiences often evoke emotional responses, whether it’s a smile of delight or just the relief of finishing a task efficiently.
According to psychologist and UX strategist, Susan Weinschenk, stories engage the visual and auditory areas of the brain along with many others, which means when you listen to a story, your brain is active and engaged. This brain activity sustains your attention, makes the experience more enjoyable, causes you to develop a deeper understanding of the information communicated, and enhances your memory of it.
How to Reach Users through Stories
You can use storytelling in your design process to present your user research results in an engaging way and create empathy with your target users. This will help you steer the design process and keep it user-centric. Here’s what you can do:
1. Define your target users with personas – to envision users’ likely experiences and gain empathic insights. Personas are based on user research but tell a story about your insights. An example persona might be “Rick”, a 47-year-old manager struggling with his work–family-life balance. He even works on his train commutes. Feeling drained, he wants better control of his life.
2. Create a plot, with conflict – to make the personas heroes and envision how they can overcome specific problems using your design. Make this a mapped-out journey or storyboard with each persona’s aim/s clearly defined. E.g.:
Rick discovers your (yet-to-be-designed) time-management app online. He downloads it and completes your questionnaire about work commitments, family, outgoings, etc.
He starts using your app, letting it collect data from his phone and fitness tracker about time on various tasks/activities, stress levels, alertness, etc.
After a week, your app charts his tasks and activities, including sleep, heart-rate data, etc.
Tapping a phone tab, Rick sees time-management suggestions on how to become more productive, well-rested, etc.
He has the option to continue or suspend monitoring (e.g., if on holiday/vacation).
3. Give your design the supporting role – show it improving your persona’s/user’s life and how easy it is to use. For example, consider how many steps Rick needs to use your app and if voice-controlled devices at home might influence its suggestions.
4. Work with the setting –When and where users use your design is vital for building empathy. For Rick, it’s the home, train and workplace. But what about (e.g.) busy professionals working from home?
5. Tailor the look/feel – Your design’s appearance is vital regardless of its functional benefits, so design the most appropriate (e.g.) layout, colors, typography. For example, Rick prioritizes an at-a-glance, easy-to-use design, but soothing colors would complement larger fonts, etc.
The What – The user problem/s you define: E.g., They work too much overtime because of…? Budgeting problems at home?
The Who – The users themselves, envisioned through personas. This includes people who play influential roles in the main user’s/persona’s story. You can identify them using customer journey maps.
The How – Your story arc, with a beginning, middle and end. From introducing the player/s at the beginning, you build towards their biggest problems (which many factors can affect) and finish with the happy ending your design delivers.
Ultimately, your design should predict your target users’ actions at every level possible. Testing will help confirm how successful it is.