Storytelling: a top strategy for creating an innovative digital experience

by Pooja Chinnapattan on 3 May 2011

Storytelling is a very powerful technique for designing user experiences. Creating great digital space relies on a deep understanding of conduct, and storytelling has long been the way that people converse and comprehend actions, emotions and behaviours.

Recreating this storytelling process allows a more 360 degree view of the user and the creation of a better user experience. The next few paragraphs will attempt to explain the nature of storytelling and why this technique could be adapted to design digital environments.

The power of storytelling

For as long as can be remembered people have been listening to and telling stories. The oldest known instance of story is the one told by the pre historic man. Through the medium of paintings, stories were told of tools, hunts, strategies, and much more about life.

Rapidly moving on from the prehistoric times to this morning, when you were brushing your teeth and scheming a little on how to bring up that funny incident with your friends in the pub later, the one from last night's client dinner. At that point, you were planning a story. A story that would let your friends imagine the scenario and experience what you experienced.

Stories are a personification of human interactions and good stories convey a lot about lifestyle, emotions, inspiration, and motivation. A good story leads a listener to experience a reality that you want them to understand. This is exactly what user experience professionals try to deliver to their clients, a method to re-create reality to get websites or online interactions 'right'.

When it comes to telling stories for creating digital environments, it is essential for the designer to know what lies hidden within and beyond the user narrated stories. Innovative environments are a result of catering to the hidden feelings of your users, emotions such as anxiety, curiosity, hope, and future aspirations or visions.

The psyche behind storytelling

It is fairly common that people don't always believe what they hear unless there is a strong rationale behind it. It's easier to believe in things that you can relate to. It is the ability to feel connected that would stimulate or dissuade the acceptance of a story. The power of connection is what made you want to read this article. This feeling of connection is a pure neurobiological activity and is the source of intention and persistence. So you see, stories can be convincing if they have the potential to connect the listener/reader to a story.

How can you create a useful story?

Everyone is trained to tell stories in their regular day to day circumstances but good stories need to be designed, especially when you intend to demonstrate the margin of opportunities available and solutions to explore those in a real situation. Good stories are those that evoke a response, not the reaction of shedding a tear, but more the reaction that makes the receiver examine the state and activity of the conscious mind.

There are 3 high level kinds of stories needed for a user experience project:

1. The story from the user perspective

The first story in a project is adapted from the version as told by the user directly. It consists of all the essential facets of user experience for design considerations namely affect, cognition, physical factors and social factors. This story is a representation of the reality with prominence on context and connection.

2. The story within the team

The second story is a strategic story that is tailored to bridge the connection and context to facts and numbers, giving a human feel to digital consumerism. These are essentially to rationalize design decisions with an aim to convince strategic decision makers.

3. The story delivered back to the user

The final story is what the user, or a potential user, receives back through TV advertisements, news, reviews, or product websites. This is an inbuilt or indigenous version of the original story, with offerings filling the margin of opportunities discovered through the process of storytelling. In other words the right product, at the right time, being communicated with the right messages, through the right mediums to the right target market.

In conclusion

Taking all of the rationale from the above, here are the key points to help you create useful stories to enhance the experience of the virtual world created for your users:

1. Understand the client's story first

Get a clear understanding of the business proposition. This can be best achieved by drawing rich pictures or mind maps. To do this draw or take into consideration the structure, processes, concerns, relationships and issues of the system, this can help in bringing out the story of the organization. Rich pictures provide a broad view of the entire scenario and prepare you for recognizing and reporting unpredicted results especially in large organizations.

2. Understand the user story

Irrespective of the technique used for gathering data, here are the 'must have' ingredients:

  • Get real user stories: A story is only real when the user expresses experiences with moods and emotions involved.
  • Understand the future expectations of the user: Knowing this widens the array of design opportunities.
  • Find the triggers and influencing factors: Knowing what motivates or discourages users will get you a pat on the back
  • Don't just look and nod - be patient, observe and understand: In the heat of the moment, don't just go by what the user says, be empathetic to the situation. Understand first and analyse later, don't jump to conclusions.

Once all these ingredients are in place you will be knee deep in qualitative data. To make a story, recreate the experiences by bringing together the scenario by introducing personas. Let each persona be the representation of the real story teller. Weave together the collected bits and pieces of this particular users passion, hopes, aspirations, and how they would make emotional connections.

3. Give a good presentation

The presentation plays an important role at this point. Use any or all of the below tools:

  • Videos: Grab colleagues and make quick short videos (you may have to buy them drinks later), or get videos of any user studies, or gather clips from movies which may drive your intention. Anything that results in you having a collection of videos.
  • Sketches and scribbles: these don't need to be polished, stick figures work
  • Photographs of users in context.

4. What can go wrong?

The only thing that can get in the way of implementing storytelling in user experience is your own apprehension. What if you don't make the right judgment call or aren't able to decide on the right combination for a story or are just simply afraid of the uncertainty of it all?

Understandable fears. Just remember that with great power comes great responsibility, you are allowed to feel a little nervous. Quoting Bene Brown, a UX researcher, "what makes people vulnerable makes them beautiful and vulnerability brings about the best of creativity and a sense of belonging".

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