UX and the psychology of storytelling

How to combine the art of storytelling with the design of human experiences…

group of people sat around a campfire

Now actively wishing for Jason to come along just to liven up proceedings.

The psychology of stories 

In our everyday lives, we experience a steady stream of storytelling in fiction, marketing, gossipy coffee shop conversation, and even our own running thoughts.

The information we learn through stories sticks with us in ways that listicles, facts, and statistics just don’t.

Here’s why…

Stories help us understand

Stories are effective because they appeal to a hardwired way that the human mind works. It’s our natural impulse to impose order and attach meaning to our observations.

In a 1944 psychology experiment, participants watched a short animated film in which three geometric figures — a large triangle, a small triangle, and a small circle — move around and within a rectangle shape with a ‘door’. Participants in this study then described what they saw.

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Heider & Simmel (1944)

The researchers, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, discovered that participants assigned all kinds of personality characteristics and motives to these simple shapes, generating compelling plots about an ‘aggressive’ large triangle, the ‘helpless’ circle, and the ‘hero’ small triangle. Sometimes the plot centered on love, or cheating, or sometimes it was a parenting saga.

More recently, seven comedians interpreted this short film for USC Institute for Creative Technologies, which is a very entertaining watch…

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Out of Shape

The film simply depicts lines and shapes in motion, yet our brains fill in so much more.

Stories help us remember

To describe this psychological mechanism briefly and to-the-point: we process stories more deeply than we process other kinds of material. This helps us remember them.

The rich detail we get from descriptions of characters, locations, and events — and relating it all back to our own experiences — helps us personally connect with information or ideas.

Emotions matter too. A relatable story that strikes an emotional chord may trigger strong reactions and deep memories.

If you’ve ever watched the tearjerking opening sequence to the 2009 Pixar film Up, you will probably never forget it. Also, apologies if you are crying now because I reminded you.

the couple sitting down in the disney film Up

Storytelling in UX strategy

Why does all of this storytelling stuff matter for user experience? It matters when you, as a researcher or designer, want to make an impact. Storytelling is a powerful tool for understanding, communicating, and inspiring ‘human-ness’ in UX research and design.

If you are a UXer, you probably already use some forms of storytelling, like describing examples of user interactions you observed during testing, or explaining how the product or feature might impact a user’s everyday effectiveness or happiness.

To elevate your story, draw upon real people or personas rather than a faceless, nameless ‘user.’ Personas are characters representing potential users, often based on data from real user interviews. When you give a bit of background information about your ‘characters,’ it helps anchor the story and conversation around user needs.

Sheila is a cardiac surgeon, a mother, and a nonprofit volunteer, and she would use a new app only if it integrated easily into her busy life.

Now that your story has characters, it’s time to talk about plot. The plot comes from your user flow, user journey, or scenario that describes how and why a user might interact with the product. Again, this can be based on a real interaction you observed, or it can be a hypothetical (but realistic!) example.

Stories can help you get your point across to team members or stakeholders. Sharing user data is effective, but sharing user data while also describing it through a quick story will likely be even more persuasive.

Effective: “During testing, 54% of users abandoned the app during the log-in process.”

Super effective: “Sheila was so frustrated while trying to enter her username and password that she insisted that she must be a stupid dolt, and closed out of the app in a huff. 54% of users during testing felt similarly and abandoned the app during the log-in process.”

penny searches for a holiday comic strip

Image from Johnny Holland

Storytelling in UX design

Let’s now consider how UX design can tell users a story. Design is a form of communication, so a positive user experience might have a clear beginning, middle, and end – just like a story.

If you have the time and ability to further bring your story to life, you can even storyboard an experience. Storyboards can call upon visualisations, illustrations, and emotion elements to use for UX-related communication and strategy

When your product tells a story, users easily learn how and why to use it. Your product might have a ‘voice’ and a consistent flow toward user goals, forming an unfolding narrative that users create for themselves.

For example, Apple is a company that has perfected the art of the story. Purchasing an iPhone is an engaging experience with a beginning, middle, and end:

  • You learn about the newest iPhone and its exciting new features from Apple’s highly-publicised keynote event
  • You order your new phone online and when it arrives in the mail, you unwrap layers of pretty packaging.
  • Finally, you activate and customize your new phone through a step-by-step process, making it yours to (hopefully) love.

contents of an iPhone package

Throughout product experiences, there are plenty of spots to inject personality and delight to make the user’s ‘narrative’ more interesting.

Be creative: how can you turn your product’s UX into a story? Their brains and hearts will thank you.

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Main image by Mike Erskine.

Becca Kennedy

Becca Kennedy is a Human Factors Psychologist and cofounder of Kennason, a UX consulting company in Upstate New York. Say hello on Twitter: @becca_kennedy

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