In Part 1, we shared with you WHY UX design needs to consider effective storytelling as synonymous with effective UX design. In Part 2, we’ll now explore steps a UX designer can take to get better at storytelling to create amazing journeys for their users.
Make your User the Hero!
UX design creates experiences with users in mind, duh. And the point of a story is to keep the events in the story related to the main character at all times. So, it stands to reason that “Storytelling Design” would place the user in the shoes of the main character or protagonist. Good designers and good writers know that without first knowing your protagonist/user completely, it will be unlikely you will be able to create an effective experience for them.
When we design a website for a client here at SWELL, we first start with a brief. This is a series of questions intent upon understanding our client’s users and inspiring our design and content teams to create something beautiful and effective. In the same way, as a writer begins to form characters for their story, they ask very similar questions. Let’s explore some from the writer’s perspective:
- Who is the protagonist?
- Just as in real life, this is so much more than a name. Where do they live? What do they do for a living? What about for fun?
- What motivates them?
- Without understanding what truly motivates someone, we miss a major part of their story. It becomes a real challenge to relate to the character.
- What are their dreams, hopes, and fears?
- Delving deeper, every individual has layers. Within the layers underneath motivation, lay a myriad of emotions unique to that individual. This is what influences how people process things – How they act upon the events in their world.
- What are they struggling with?
- This is probably the place that we should be relating most to our character (though your product or service should probably be addressing this inherently). What our protagonist struggles with is probably the most compelling piece for a writer to construct. These are the points in a story during which the character grows. Without the character growing within a story, the story falls flat.
The “Building of the World” and Architecture
Have you read Lord of the Rings? The Hobbit? Any science fiction or fantasy? (If not, you should – but I digress.) J.R.R. Tolkien (the author of LOTR, and Hobbit) was simply the best at investing a significant amount of time building the world in which his characters will live. He was known to make maps of cities and landmarks, define cultural and societal norms, introduce politics, and ensure the “science” of the world is consistent. Much of which he built surrounding his “worlds” was said to have never even made it into the books. The reason is simple: authenticity. The more complete the world is, the more real it feels to the reader. In this way, the “world” becomes a character in and of itself. In the same way, UX design should invest time into thinking through the “world” they’re tasked with creating. Again, let’s look at some questions we ask during the briefing process and relate them to questions UX designers can ask themselves during this process:
- What is the world we’re building?
- Is it a website? A web app? A mobile app? Depending on the platform, your approach will certainly change.
- How do key aspects of this world interact with one another?
- In a story, the writer may consider things like the rules of magic in this realm – do some characters have it? Do some not? Why? In the digital world, the concept is the same. How do elements on the platform relate to one another?
Story Arc and User Flow
In every good story, the hero makes choices. Those choices have impact on how the story plays out and what happens next. They dictate the “arc” of the story and eventually lead the hero to resolution.
The same is true of users engaging with your design. Which is why it will be vital to understand the steps in the process of your “narrative”, in order to guide the user toward making the choices you want them to make.
Here are a few questions our digital storytellers ask that are also worth asking for UX design:
- What is the ending?
- Every story has a conflict to be resolved. Every character – a struggle to emerge from. I.E. Frodo needs to get the ring to Mordor. Luke Skywalker needs to realize his potential as a Jedi. Poirot needs to be observant and uncover clues.
- Why would someone want to get there?
- I might take a note from Simon Sinek and argue that your “Why” should come first. But this harkens back to user motivation and how that plays into user’s choices. I.E. Frodo needs to save Middle Earth from great evil. Luke needs to help lead the Rebellion and restore the Jedi order. Poirot needs to solve the case.
- What decisions need to be made along the journey to get to the end?
- Think of this as the GPS directions that guide the character through the struggle, telling them where and when to turn to reach their destination. The choice is still upon the character, and each decision has the potential to change the story. The fact is, characters don’t always know what they’re going to do in the moment – nor are they aware the decision is significant. But the writer is – and so are we as UX designers. It is our role as the creator to create a safe and enjoyable space for users to make decisions even if our user doesn’t realize they’re making decisions.
- How can we better help the hero?
- Writers will plug in all sorts of assistance for the protagonist in the form of new information, items, companions, magic. How does your UX design provide what the user needs to get to the destination?
A Note on “Conflict”
For most of this post, we’ve been discussing the similarities between storytelling and UX design. But for a moment, let’s discuss a major difference.
Stories need conflict and struggle to be interesting. A writer will spend time constructing tragedies and events that their character must endure. They do so because it helps their character mature or understand their own surroundings in a way that helps define them. Through struggle, the character obtains clarity on what it is that they are moving toward and why!
On the flip side, UX design is about minimizing struggle within the user’s journey. The less conflict there is, the better the overall experience will be. We don’t need our users to grow as much as we want to make it as simple as possible to shine.
If we want to create digital experiences that are unique and intriguing, we need to consider including storytelling. As humans, we relate innately to stories and learn well from them. If we can think about user experience as a story we’re writing and our user as the main character, we will deliver an overall story arc or experience that is compelling. These methods will help us to achieve our goals of effective UX design.