Which of the following two paragraphs do you find more compelling?

Paragraph 1

Karen arrived at the subway station. She waited for her train. After a few minutes, she got onto the train. The train stopped several times between stations. Karen was 30 minutes late for work.

Paragraph 2

Karen arrived at the subway station, dripping with sweat. She sat down on the platform, wishing the train would hurry up. She was already running late, and she knew her boss would be furious if she missed another client meeting. After what seemed like eons, the train finally arrived. It started and stopped, inching along at a snail’s pace. Karen bit her lip to hold back a stream of curses. Finally, she arrived at her station, elbowed her way up the stairs, and sprinted to her office. Her stomach sank as she saw the closed conference room door. The clock on the wall confirmed that she was 30 minutes late—again.

The second paragraph is a lot more interesting than the first, even though they essentially convey the same information. Why? The first paragraph is just a list of facts. The second is a story.

What does this anecdote have to do with UX design? A lot, actually. If the point of UX design is to create enjoyable digital experiences that make a lasting impact on users, then a UX designer’s craft has a lot in common with the craft of digital storytelling. Thinking about UX through the lens of story can help us maintain a human-centered approach, move people to action, and provide much more memorable interactions with our products.

Why the Storytelling Analogy Is Useful

UX Design: Storytelling Analogy

Source: Designed by Freepik

You may be wondering: What’s the point of this whole reframing exercise? We already have established ways of thinking and talking about UX design. Why should I spend time exploring the parallels between my work and digital storytelling?

It all comes back to the underlying goal of UX design: To improve customer satisfaction and loyalty through the utility, ease of use, and pleasure provided when interacting with a product. Thinking of this process like story craft can help you:

  • Stay focused on your users. While users are supposed to be at the heart of the design process, it can be all too easy to let your own ideas, preferences, and biases get in the way of what your users actually need. Stories are so fundamentally grounded in characters that it’s almost impossible to forget about them at any point in the writing process.
  • Create a meaningful journey. The best product experiences take the user on a journey that leads somewhere they want to go. The worst ones involve a series of seemingly unrelated actions that take the user somewhere they may or may not have expected. Thinking about user flow as a story involving events that build on one another in a cohesive narrative arc, can prevent some of these Frankenstein-y user flow issues.
  • Make a lasting emotional impact. Whether we’d like to admit it or not, most products don’t evoke an emotional response. They don’t make a long-term imprint on the user. They don’t create a sense of positive anticipation the next time a user goes back to the product. But stories—at least the best ones—do all of these things.

Stories are ingrained into who we are as humans, and we’re already hard-wired to respond to them. We’re not wired to respond to digital products. Using story to bridge the gap will help you create more enjoyable, memorable, people-centric user experiences.

Define Your Users as Protagonists

Make the customer the hero of your story. —Ann Handley, CEO of MarketingProfs

UX Design: Users as Protagonists

Source: Designed by Freepik

The goal of UX design is to create an experience with users at the center. The goal of a story is to create a narrative with characters at the center. Any good designer knows—just as any good writer knows —that without understanding who your protagonist is, it’s impossible to build a compelling experience around them.

Some of the key questions writers ask when developing characters apply equally well to UX design:

  • Who is my protagonist? Ask questions, do research, and use this information to create a clear picture of who you’re working with.
  • What’s their motivation? Writers, method actors, and user experience designers all need to understand what moves characters to act. Without knowing a person’s underlying motivation, it’s hard to anticipate what they will do or why.
  • What are their hopes, dreams, and fears? Digging one layer below motivation, we uncover a complex ecosystem of emotions that impact how people think and act. Knowing what these emotions are can provide valuable insights into how you can work most effectively with your protagonists.
  • What do they struggle with? The places your users struggle are often the most interesting. In a story, these are the points of friction that help characters grow; in a digital product, these are the opportunities for creative solutions that can transform an average experience into an unforgettable one.

Information Architecture as World Building

World building has two parts. One is the actual creation. The other is bringing the world into your story. Everything you create should not be in your story. —Patrick Rothfuss, Author

UX Design: IA and Worldbuilding

Source: Designed by Freepik

Science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy authors invest a lot of time on world building. This exercise can encompass everything from physical landmark mapping to defining societal hierarchy to codifying cultural norms to exploring scientific principles that govern how the world behaves. In the same way, UX designers devote a lot of time to thinking through the “world” they’re building in the digital realm. A few key questions to ask during this process include:

  • What kind of a world am I building? Is it a website? A desktop app? A mobile product? Depending on the kind of world you’re creating, your goals and approach will differ, just as the world-building process for a high-fantasy short story differ from that of a far-future science fiction novel.
  • How do key components of my world relate to one another? In a story, you may consider things like how natural elements relate to the magical abilities of different tribes of people. In a digital product, you’ll also need to consider which types of elements are related, and how certain functions or actions build sequentially from one step to the next.
  • What rules apply to this world? The logic that governs the real world may or may not apply to a planet from long ago in a galaxy far, far away. The same holds true when designing a product: The rules you define must make internal logical sense, but they’ll likely vary (a least a bit) from project to project depending on the world you’re building in.

User Flow as Story Arc

The structure of a story is created out of the choices that characters make […] and the actions they choose to take. —Robert McKee, Author

UX Design: User Journey

Source: Dry Icons

In a story, characters make choices that have a direct impact on what they do and what happens to them. These choices, in turn, determine where the overall narrative arc will lead and how it will resolve in the end.

The same is true of users encountering your digital products. The more you understand about the pivotal steps in the process, the better able you’ll be to guide the user through the choices they need to make.

Here are a few questions digital storytellers consider that are also worth asking on the UX side:

  • What is the end destination? Every story has a central conflict the character is trying to resolve. Frodo inherits a ring and wants to return it to Mordor; Darth Vader wants to conquer the galaxy and the Rebels try to stop him; Sherlock Holmes is given an impossible case and wants to solve it. What is the conflict your users are trying to resolve, or the task they’re trying to accomplish?
  • Why is someone going there? The follow-up question to what your users are trying to do is why are they trying to do it? This goes back to motivation and the hopes, dreams, and fears that feed into a user’s actions.
  • What pivotal decisions do they need to make along the way? The path that leads a character through conflict to eventual resolution involves a number of pivotal decision points along the way. Each of these decisions has the power to radically alter the course of a story. Characters don’t always know in the moment that their decisions are significant, but the narrator does. The same is true for you as designer: It’s your job to identify and create a safe space for important decisions in the user flow, even if your user doesn’t identify them as such on their end.
  • How can you help the protagonist along in their journey? Authors provide assistance to their protagonists to help them on their journey with sidekicks, information, useful items, and sometimes even magic. Your designs should also provide help and structure to guide the user down the right path.

Key Difference: Conflict Creation vs. Conflict Resolution

Anything we can do to make things simpler and more transparent is a plus. — Cap Watkins, Sr. Design Manager at Etsy

UX Design: Conflict Resolution

Source: Designed by Freepik

One of the key differences between digital storytelling and UX design is their approach to conflict.

Stories need conflict to be interesting. An authors spends a lot of time thinking about what kinds of obstacles, tragedies, and issues to throw at their characters, even when it breaks their heart. They know that these conflicts will help their characters grow, learn, and gain clarity on what it is they’re seeking and why.

Conversely, UX design is all about minimizing conflict in the user’s journey. The less friction there is in the process, the better the experience will be. Instead of focusing on growth from overcoming obstacles, a digital product rewards the user by helping them accomplish their task as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Summing up

If we want to create digital experiences that deliver unique, compelling value to our users, then the inclusion of story is a crucial consideration. Thinking about our users as protagonists helps us understand them better. Exploring how they interact within the worlds we create gives us a clearer sense of how to architect our products. Approaching user flow as a story arc allows us to develop a meaningful journey instead of just a random series of events. All of these outputs, in turn, help us achieve our UX design goals.