The Power of Storytelling in UX

Cynthia Vinney, contributor to the CareerFoundry blog

There may be no more potent force in human history than story. We spend our lives saturated in stories, whether we’re watching the latest Netflix series or telling a colleague what we did over the weekend.

In fact, stories are so fundamental to human existence, that we even see our lives as stories—and the kind of story we tell ourselves about our lives can have a big impact on who we are. But what does storytelling have to do with UX design?

Clearly, stories are a powerful form of communication, and incorporating the principles of story into UX design has the potential to make users’ experiences with the products and services we design more understandable, memorable and meaningful. This article will delve further into the power of story and share some ideas for baking stories into your next UX design project.

  1. The power of story
  2. Emotional design
  3. Incorporating story into UX design
  4. Key takeaways

Three people gathered at a cafe table with laptops, laughing and talking
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

1. The power of story

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.

Yet, by harnessing the power of story, we can make users’ experiences even more engaging and compelling.

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.

Perhaps most importantly, a well-told story can lead the audience to take action. In UX design, this means that incorporating story elements can provoke an emotional connection that will cause users to respond with actions—such as selecting a link that will move them deeper into a website or choosing to buy a product or service.

2. Emotional design

It’s important to remember even if you incorporate story techniques into UX design, your efforts are only one half of the equation. The other half comes from the user. If the user doesn’t make an emotional connection to the product via the story you’re telling, they won’t experience any of the other benefits of storytelling either. As a result, it’s valuable to understand how people emotionally experience design. According to Don Norman of the Nielsen Norman Group, who wrote a book called Emotional Design, there are three levels of emotional response to design:

  • Visceral emotion, which is emotion that we’re born with. In other words, these are the emotions that are innate to us as human beings, and that therefore we have little control over, including our proclivity to recoil from ugly faces or our attraction to shiny objects.
  • Behavioral emotion, which is the emotion we experience as we’re performing a given behavior. These are the kinds of emotions user experiences evoke all the time. As a user clicks through a website, for example, they might feel pleased after selecting a link that brings them to the page with the information they were looking for. In contrast, a user may feel uncertain if they go to an application with the intention of paying a bill but are unsure which option they should choose to successfully complete the task.
  • Reflective emotion, which is the emotion that happens as we reflect on past experiences. These emotions can include nostalgia or wistfulness, however when it comes to UX design, reflective emotion can also have broad implications about how users feel about a product and the likelihood they will use it again. For example, if a user wanted to sign up for a new social network, but was required to provide a great deal of personal information to do so and then found the network wasn’t appealing or useful for them, every time they hear anything about that social network they’re likely to react with disappointment, frustration or disdain.

All three of these emotional responses to design are useful to know and understand when incorporating story into UX design, because UX designers must consider if the story elements they’re integrating into their designs have the potential to invoke negative emotions at any of these three levels.

Designer facing away from camera, working on a desktop computer.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

3. Incorporating story into UX design

UX design is a natural fit for the use of story. Consider this:

Stories have a beginning, middle, and end that unfold in a sequence over time. As writer and designer Christopher Murphy points out, this mirrors the way we design and think about the experiences we create. UX designers take users from the beginning to the end of an experience over a series of screens that unfold in a sequence over time. However, incorporating story into UX design is more of an art than a science and UX designers should carefully consider how to utilize story elements on a project by project basis. Here are some specific story techniques to integrate into UX design.

Consider pacing

The pace of any story is important. Provide too much information at one time and you’ll overwhelm your audience, provide too little and you’ll bore them. This is the same for UX. The key to ensuring your design’s pacing grabs and holds your users is to ensure the information on each screen works together to pull your users into the design.

For example, if you’re designing a website for a hotel, you don’t want your homepage to include all the information about the different types of rooms and pricing. You want to start with a large image of the beautiful hotel grounds. Only after the homepage has captured a user’s attention should they have the option of moving on to the less exciting task of exploring room options and their pricing.

Impose sequence

No less important than pace is the sequence in which content is presented, both on individual pages and throughout a UX design. In a book, movie or TV show, a story’s sequence is key to our enjoyment. If a story fails to inform its audience that one event comes before another, the audience will become confused and disoriented. And while UX designers can’t impose a sequence as tidily as a traditional story, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways of using sequence to improve the users’ experience. In fact, this is something we do already through UX elements like navigation.

For example: For any but the smallest projects, if we put every single navigation option at the top level, we would quickly overwhelm and discourage users, but we often incorporate secondary and tertiary levels of navigation that can’t be seen or utilized until the user selects a top-level navigation item.

As UX designer Jonathan Walker explains in UX Matters, imposing sequence provides a structure that reduces users’ cognitive load. Another way to impose sequence is through workflows.

For example, if you buy an item online, the checkout process often takes you  through a sequence of screens. First you might be asked to provide your shipping address, then your billing address, then your desired shipping speed and finally your payment information. These steps don’t have to be divided for any programming reason, they could easily be shown to the user all at once, but this would likely overload them. Imposing a sequence prevents this, enabling the user to focus on and quickly work through the tasks presented on each screen without getting distracted by what’s coming next.

Keep tone consistent

Tone is crucial to stories. It builds familiarity and trust, whether it’s terse and businesslike, laid back and conversational or something else entirely. In a book, tone is driven by the voice of the author; in UX design, images and text must work together to reinforce the tone of a product. As a result, it’s important everyone working on a given project understands the tone of the brand overall or the project specifically.

As UX Writer Jessica Collier observes in re:form, “successful products have a point of view that narrates events to the user. Their voice is consistent but also dynamic. They don’t break character, but that character evolves as the product develops and changes.” In other words, if your brand is serious and businesslike, you wouldn’t want a goofy message to pop up whenever users make an error because it would completely undercut the products’ tone. To learn more about writing this kind of copy, check out our guide: 10 Ingredients for Top-Notch UX Writing.

While words are crucial to establishing tone, it’s also important to remember images are too. For example, if a fitness tracking product includes beautiful color photography of healthy people exercising, it would go against the product’s tone, and be jarring to users, to include black and white photos of trees on one or two screens.

A designer working at a laptop on a desk with a stack of books, near a sunny window covered in sticky notes

4. Key takeaways

This article provides an overview of how and why storytelling techniques should be incorporated into UX design. To sum up:

  • Stories are powerful because they hold our attention, invoke emotion, entertain us, deepen our understanding and improve our memories.
  • Don Norman of the Nielsen Norman Group outlined three levels of emotional response to design that may be invoked when using storytelling techniques in UX design: visceral emotion, behavioral emotion and reflective emotion.
  • There are many elements of storytelling that can be incorporated into UX design and UX designers should carefully consider how to utilize them.
  • Pacing of the user experience should be considered in order to pull a user into a design and hold their attention.
  • Sequence should be imposed to give an experience an ordered structure that limits users’ cognitive load.
  • Tone must be kept consistent throughout a UX design. As tone promotes familiarity and trust, images and words should work together to build a brand or product’s voice.

Now that you know about incorporating storytelling into UX design, you might want to learn more. If so, you’ll find the following articles useful:

And did you know that storytelling even matter for career changers? Learn more in this workshop recording: Storytelling for Career-Changers.

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