Storytelling for UX Design Teams

Cynthia Vinney, contributor to the CareerFoundry blog

If you’ve ever bonded with a co-worker over a TV show or movie you both loved, you know that stories have the power to bring people together. But have you ever thought about the way stories can be incorporated into your work with other members of your UX design team? Or about how storytelling can help you communicate your work to clients and stakeholders?

Stories can help UX teams collaborate more smoothly, ensure designs stay user-centric and provide a means to persuasively communicate a team’s solutions to their clients and stakeholders.

This article will explore how UX design teams can use stories to improve their work throughout the design process. We will touch on the following:

  1. Storytelling brings UX design teams together
  2. Storytelling keeps designs user-centric
  3. Storytelling makes for better client and stakeholder management
  4. Key takeaways

1. Storytelling brings UX design teams together

A UX design team gathered around a laptop

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UX design teams often include more than just UX designers. Everyone from project managers to user interface (UI) designers and web developers are part of coming up with design solutions. However, each of these disciplines have different focuses and goals. Furthermore, many UX design projects start with lists of features and user goals, which aren’t particularly memorable on their own. But this can change through the use of story, which a UX designer can employ to get the whole team on the same page.

Stories capture our attention and help us understand and remember things more thoroughly than we would otherwise.

According to Rachel Krause of the Nielsen Norman Group, using a story to explain UX ideas will not only help other members of the team better understand the features and interactions the project includes, it will also enable them to understand the reasons you as the UX designer decided on those particular features and interactions.

Using stories to explain UX ideas also ensures everyone on the team has a shared language for discussing those features and interactions.

For example, if you’re designing a hotel website and you include a feature that allows users to compare room options, the solution will resonate with your team more if instead of dryly noting that you included the feature, you tell a story about how this will help users more easily decide on a room type. This will enable the team to understand the solution and make it more memorable, so when the room comparison feature comes up again, everyone will know what’s being discussed and why.

2. Storytelling helps to keep designs user-centric

A person sitting in a wheelchair at a cafe table, working on a laptop
Photo by Marcus Aurelius from Pexels

Using stories will also remind everyone on a UX design team that their solutions must champion the users they’re designing for. Interaction designer Francisco Inchauste says that the first step in keeping designs user-centric is defining the user.

Of course, if you’re a UX designer, you likely already create personas to define your users, which is a form of storytelling in and of itself.

To emphasize the storytelling potential of personas further, think of personas as characters. Although these characters are fictional, they should be based on real user research.

Creating stories about these characters will enable team members to better remember them and understand their needs. And by using the names of the personas throughout the design process, the usually nameless “user” will be transformed into a protagonist with a face, goals and emotions, ensuring everyone on the team can empathize with them, and as a result, invest in creating an experience that will be meaningful to them.

Human Factors Psychologist Becca Kennedy also suggests thinking about user flows, journey maps, and storyboards as the plot of a story in which your persona plays the starring role. Not only will this enable you and your team to keep your designs user-centric, it will also enable you to communicate your choices more effectively.

For example, if you’re designing an app that enables users to make online appointments with a chain of medical clinics, dryly explaining the steps users will take to do so won’t capture your team’s attention.

However, if you explain the experience from a specific user’s perspective you can inject emotion into the experience while still backing it up with user data, ensuring the whole team is persuaded to work on the proposed solution.

In this example, you might do that by saying something like this:

“Tedi clicks on the ‘Book an appointment’ tab and in the next screen enters their address to find their nearest clinic. They want to go to the clinic where a specific doctor works, however they can’t find a way to search the clinics by doctor. Frustrated, they close out the app and call to make an appointment instead. Our testing found 75% of users wanted to see a specific doctor even if the doctor worked at a clinic that wasn’t the closest one to their home. Therefore in our redesign, we must account for a way to search by doctor’s name in the appointment booking system.”

3. Storytelling makes for more persuasive client presentations

A person standing in front of a group of professionals with laptops, giving a presentation
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Of course, after your team has created a UX solution, you have to get stakeholders or clients to sign off on it. Storytelling can be a valuable tool for accomplishing this and you’ll want to ensure the story you tell is as persuasive as possible.

After all, you and your team have done a lot of work to come up with the best possible UX design solution and you’ll want to make sure your clients and stakeholders understand why you believe it’s the best option.

There are several things you should do to ensure the story you and your team tell about your UX design solution is as persuasive as possible.

Speak the language of your clients and stakeholders

At their core, stories are a form of communication, and communication is never as powerful if it doesn’t seem like we understand and appreciate the people we’re communicating with.

To establish credibility when you talk to clients or stakeholders, ensure you’re using terminology that reflects their industry. This will enable them to see their concerns reflected in the project and it will establish your grasp on their particular needs.

For example, if your client is an automobile company that’s introducing a new electric car on the market, you’ll want to be able to speak to the technology behind the electric car, the advantages of purchasing it over a gas-powered vehicle and any terminology that’s specific to the new car.

Center your presentation on the concerns of your clients and stakeholders

As UX designers, we spend our days figuring out how to create the best designs for our users, but when we present to clients our attention needs to shift to their concerns and frustrations.

If we have a client who’s most interested in how quickly a user can get through the purchase process, spending most of our presentation telling them the story of how users can explore new product description pages won’t capture their imaginations, and it may make them more critical of our work.

Before determining how you tell the story of your design solution, make sure you understand what your clients or stakeholders are most interested in hearing about, and in your presentation emphasize your solutions to their concerns over other parts of the project.

Tell the stories of real users

Clients and stakeholders often form their own opinions about what the solution to a UX design problem should be. These opinions often differ from the solution you’ve come up with, so it’s invaluable to use a story to persuade them that your solution is, in fact, the best one.

One way to make the story you tell especially persuasive is to back it up with real data from user testing. For example, if a client or stakeholder is skeptical about a design that streamlines a signup process by only asking for a first name and email address, you can tell the story of watching a user get annoyed and opt out of a signup process where more information was asked for.

If you have quotes explaining the user’s decision, that will further support the solution you’re presenting. Most importantly, emphasize the user’s emotional response or evidence of the clear impact the issue has on them (this can be an effective way of communicating the importance of inclusive design). This will make your stories more memorable and persuasive.

Show and tell

UX designers create a number of deliverables throughout the design process. You’ll want to make deliverables that illustrate the story you’re telling, whether that’s a persona to establish who the users you’re designing for are, or a user flow to take clients and stakeholders through each step in a particular interaction.

It’s always valuable to use Powerpoint or Keynote to show off these assets as you speak, but they should mostly convey visual information, rather than research-laden copy.

Instead, the visuals should reinforce what you’re saying. This combination of verbal and visual will enable clients to remember the story you told when it comes up again later.

4. Storytelling for UX design teams: Key takeaways

By now, you should have a broad overview of the ways stories can be used to bring design teams together, ensure designs remain user-centric and make client presentations more persuasive. To sum up:

  • Using stories can bring teams together by helping them better understand the reasons behind the decisions to include specific features and interactions and creating a shared language for discussing those features and interactions.
  • Stories can be used to keep a project user-centric. Personas should be used to create characters with names who are referred to throughout the project and user interactions can be seen as the plot of the story those characters are the protagonists in.
  • Stories should be a key part of presentations to stakeholders and clients. Tips for using them include: Speaking your clients and stakeholders’ language, center your presentation on clients’ and stakeholders’ concerns, tell the stories of real users and use visuals to support the story you’re telling.

Now that you understand how to use storytelling with UX design teams, you might want to learn more. If so, you’ll find the following articles useful:

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

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