Telling Stories: Why Narrative Matters to UX

This article is based on a talk I gave in November, 2018 to the London, Ontario chapter of Ladies that UX. The slide deck from the presentation is available on SlideShare.

I took computer science in tenth grade. We were learning Turbo Pascal, or maybe Hypercard. Either way, I wrote a program that had what today we would call a conversational interface. It referred to itself using personal pronouns like "I" and "me," and had a friendly, informal tone of voice. I showed it to my teacher, Mr Vogt. He thought about it for a second and said, "People don't like it when computers act like people. It makes them uncomfortable."

I had never thought about this before. First, I don't think I'd ever thought about any user of my program besides myself. Second, I had certainly never considered that the way I presented an interaction could affect the way a user would feel.

This was probably the first conversation I ever had about "user experience."

Since that day, my path toward UX work has been winding. I have always always interested in playing with HTML and CSS. I even taught myself how to code a bit, and have a buggy trivia game to show for it. (I really have to go and fix that one day.) But my main course of study has been in English Literature. I did that for a long time, ultimately earning my PhD in 2011.

This has led to some quizzical looks when I talk to people in my industry. There's not a clear, direct path between studying nineteenth-century American literature and digital strategy, at least not on the surface. But, I think there's actually a lot that UX can learn from literary studies, particularly when it comes to storytelling and narrative.

Story, plot, and narrative

Storytelling and UX might seem to be a bit of an odd mix. In fact, there are cases where, as UXers, we're suspicious of storytelling. It's more like something the marketers do after we've designed the experience. They add a spin on the information to try to trick the user into buying something. That's not something UX is interested in. No. We want to solve problems.

However, if we really want to be empathetic to our users and meet their needs, we need to understand story. Being human-centric means understanding how humans consume and interpret information and that happens through stories. We're wired that way.

Stories are remarkably effective at communicating a lot of information that is difficult to communicate otherwise. Now, I'm not a neuroscientist. But based on my reading, I think I understand that when you present somebody with a simple list of facts—data points or discrete pieces of information—they process that information with two parts of their brain, those associated with understanding language.

However, when story is presented through story, other parts of our brain light up, too. Our brains respond to the sensations described in the story as if we are actually experiencing them. The brain doesn't distinguish between reading about an experiencing it in real life. That means stories can convey much more information than a list of facts can: colour, action, characters, sites, smells, sounds, and emotion.

Brain

Keith Oatley, Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, says that reading creates a simulation of reality that "runs on the minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers." Hearing a story literally creates an augmented reality—no technology required.

Stories also help establish stronger connections between individuals. A meta-analysis of 86 fMRI studies showed that there's substantial overlap between the brain networks used to understand stories and those used to navigate interactions with other individuals. And, stories help cultivate trust. Emotional stories prompt the release of oxytocin, a chemical in our brain that cultivates trust.

For UXers, this is worth thinking about. One of the core tenets of our practice is that experiences should encompass the entirety of the user's being. That includes usability and convenience, but it needs to consider emotion as well. Stories have a big role to play.

But what is a story, anyway?

Usually when I see people talking about stories they use some variation of this diagram:

Story arc

You have a character who has a problem. They commit to solving it. They struggle along the way. The tension rises as they continue to wrestle with their challenge until they reach a crisis point and climax. This moment seals a fundamental transformation in the character and they have a new perspective borne of their struggle.

Of course, if telling stories was that simple, anyone could write a great novel. But this is onlyde part of it. The way we tell that story is important, too.

Take Herman Melville's Moby-Dick for example. The plot is pretty simple. There's a guy—call him Ishmael—who is feeling out of sorts and decides to go see the "watery part of the world" as a sailor on whaling ship. It turns out that the captain of the ship, Ahab, is a bit obsessed with one specific whale called Moby Dick. Moby Dick took his leg a few years back, you see, and Ahab has sworn revenge. Ahab, Ishmael, and the rest of the crew chase Moby Dick around the world, and eventually find him. They chase him for three days, but, in the end (spoiler alert), Moby Dick destroys their ship leaving Ishmael as the sole survivor.

Rockwell Kent Moby Dick

Seems simple, right? Then how is that people like me are able to spend years of their life studying and interpreting this book?

It's not so much the plot as it is the narrative.

If you've read Moby-Dick—or even if you've attempted to read it but thrown it across the room in frustration—you'll know that there's a lot going on in the story. First of all, you'll know it's a long book. It has chapters and chapters that explore in excruciating detail the bloody business of butchering whales. The characters have weird, biblical names like Ahab and Ishmael. Some chapters are written in the style of a play more than a novel. There's a section that's about a totally different ship, told in flashback after the events of Moby-Dick. There's an entire chapter just about the colour white.

Moby Dick Narrative

But this is the very stuff that gives the novel its power. Without all that, the story's just a sequence of events. It's the narrative that gives rise to its meaning. In other words, the way we tell a story is just as important as the story's content.

So what does this have to do with UX?

One of the most important things we have to do in UX is build a good understanding of our users. To help facilitate that, and to make sure our colleagues and stakeholders share that understanding, we tell stories. And, when we do that, we have a responsibility to be mindful of the narrative we're sharing.

Consider a narrative that we're probably all familiar with: the persona. When well-made, a persona communicates what we've learned about our users. It condenses pages and pages of qualitative and quantitative data, interviews, contextual inquiries, and other research into a document that can be easily shared and understood.

Screen Shot 2018-12-01 at 10.00.16 PM.png

But when we create a persona, we have to make choices. If we interview ten people to craft a persona, we have to make decisions about whose experience is included and whose gets left on the margins. We have to think about who we think is representative, and whose story is most important. That's a lot of responsibility.

And that's before we even think about the deliverable itself. What's the difference between a big, glossy persona that you hang up on the wall of the office, and one that lives on a whiteboard as a bunch of sticky notes? What does the latter tell your team and your stakeholders that the second doesn't? One, it seems to me, suggests that the persona is fixed and well-known, whereas the other suggests a living document that's still subject to change. One invites collaboration. The other, not so much.

I'm not suggesting that there's any one right way to do this. I'm emphasizing that we need to be mindful of of what we're communicating and how we go about it.

And then there's the other end of the equation. How do those narratives we've shared about our users translate into the stories we tell to our users?

I think that often when we design an experience, we're nervous about stories. We're uncomfortable with all of that extra "stuff" that goes into narrative because we don't want a lot of excess around whatever it is we're building. We're trained and taught to focus on the user's top task, or their job to be done, or their goal. Anything else is "clutter."

We default to the good old "inverted pyramid." We define the most important information and put that at the top. The less important the information, the further down the page it goes.

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This makes a lot of sense, most of the time. We want people to be able to find what they want quickly. If I'm on a web site with a specific goal in mind, I don't want to waste time maneuvering around a bunch of unimportant information.

But what if I don't yet know what I want?

What if what I want isn't what I really need?

People aren’t simple.

Here's another story. I work for a company that sells life insurance. This is, of course, a product that invites people to think about death.

We have a lot of research that tells us that people usually start shopping for insurance after experiencing a transformative life moment. Usually, it's the birth of a child.

But I don't need research to believe that. Near the end of 2012 I experienced one of the best moments of my life. I can still picture it my mind's eye. I was sitting on the couch in the little house my wife and I were renting watching The West Wing. I was enjoying Bartlett being Bartlett when my wife came running down the stairs with an astonished smile on her face. She was pregnant. I don't know that, to that point in my life, I'd ever been happier. Or more terrified.

I probably should have bought life insurance that day.

The other moment that prompts people to shop for life insurance is a close encounter with death. I don't need to see the research to believe that, either. That's because, less than three months after I received the happy news I just described, I was sitting in a doctor's office hearing a stranger in a white coat tell me I had cancer.

I'm fine now. I was lucky. It was a very treatable form of the disease, and we caught it very early. But for a period of time, I had to think about the possibility of leaving behind a young family with nothing but my student debt.

So let me ask you this. What's my top task here?

Term Life Insurance

It's not "get a quote."

I'm sharing this because I want to suggest that it's risky to reduce your narrative about your user down to being about a person who has a clear, specific goal in mind. If you do, you might be missing out on some of your user's most significant needs. We can't assume that our users always have a specific, rational objective that they are aiming for. People aren't "meat machines," to borrow a phrase from Andrew Hinton. We aren't robots following a clear set of instructions, processing inputs and outputs. Human experience is far messier, far more organic, and definitely less predictable than that.

Human beings are emotional creatures. We make decisions with our emotions first, and rationalize them later. But that's not always the way we think about it in UX, I think because emotions are a lot harder to deal with. But this gives rise to a new narrative about our relationship with our users.

When I search the web for "life insurance" and the top result has a page with a bunch of little boxes telling me about flexible pricing and exhorting me to get a quote, that's telling me a story about exactly what I mean to the company that created that page—as well as the designer who created it, and whoever approved those designs.

Thinking back to that story arc, I think we often are in a rush to go right from that inciting incident to the problem's resolution. But that's not always the right move. Sometimes, what your user needs most is in the messy middle between "A" and "B."

Narrative Arc A to B

So what do we do about it?

I don't know if I have any concrete answers. And, to be honest, this is going to get harder before it gets easier. As time marches on, we're going to have less and less control over how people receive the messages we send. Already, we've had to make peace with the fact that we can't make assumptions about the screen the user's viewing our website on. Today, if we do our jobs well, the content we write might appear on Google as the "zero result," and a user might benefit from it without ever seeing the designs we worked on so painstakingly. It might be delivered through the voice of Alexa or a chatbot.

But I do have three tips that I think can help make things a bit bitter.

First of all, be mindful. Think about the story you're telling, whether it's when you're creating a person or a wireframe, selecting imagery, or even talking about users with our colleagues, be mindful of the story you are telling and the choices you make when telling it.

Second of all, work together. Your users don't see your work as the product of separate individuals or teams; they experience it in its totality. The sooner you start collaborating with your peers and colleagues, the better. Seek out and listen to diverse opinions. Be open to disagreement and deliberation.

Finally, question assumptions. Our field already has plenty of activities, deliverables, inputs, and outputs that we accept as true and valuable because they're what we've been taught or been told to do. As UX becomes increasingly professionalized, these kinds of common practices will only increase. But we need to continue to ask why, even if we're talking to ourselves. Never stop digging deeper, and never assume that just because it's the way things have always been done or because it's "common sense" that it's the right thing to do. Put your user first.

Actually, scratch that.

Put the human you're designing for first.