Narrative is the single most powerful tool you can use in user experience design.

The Power of the Narrative

It’s hard to overestimate the power of narrative in user experience design. Humans understand the world in terms of narrative, where recognizable human actors traverse an arc of experience and undergo a transformation on the way. All drama, literature, politics, music, and art follows the structure of narrative. It is how we relate to our friends and family, and comprehend the world around us.

Learning how to construct, deconstruct, analyze, and tell a strong, human narrative is core skill for all user experience designers to master.

Narrative is the single most powerful tool you can use in user experience design. It can clarify your user and their needs. It can lead you to the best design solution. It helps to verify the quality of that solution. And it is the most effective tool for convincing others to adopt your solution.

The primary purpose of user and stakeholder field studies is to learn about your users’ identities, desires, obstacles, and motivations, which are — not coincidentally — the essential components of narrative. When you go out into the field and observe your user community, the way to understand what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what is motivating them, is by constructing a story that explains what you have observed.

Narrative is also the primary tool for creating workable design solutions. In your role as designer you imagine a potential solution. You then attempt to construct a believable narrative, whereby the user tries to achieve their desired end state through the agency of your proposal. Your evaluation of the result indicates whether or not you have solved the design problem at hand.

By visualizing the success of your design proposal through storytelling, you are testing the viability of your idea. That is, the narrative you use to devise your solution is the same one you use to assess your design solution. It is certainly no replacement for empirically witnessing human users applying your solution in real world situations, but is orders of magnitude cheaper and faster and, in practice, nearly as effective.

Once you have a workable approach, and your testing shows it to be valid, and your storytelling convinces you that it is the proper design path to follow, the next biggest task is to communicate your choice to colleagues, stakeholders, and developers. Of course, the most effective tool for communicating the context, rationale, and fitness for your proposed solution is a coherent narrative.

By delivering your proposed solution as a realistic story, a narrative — of human questing, achievement, and transformation — your audience will react emotionally to the user, identifying with them and their journey. If, instead, you merely describe the physical attributes of your proposal, highlighting controls and displays, none of those things is imbued with any emotional weight, and in that context, any button can be as good as any other. Your proposal becomes diluted with inconsistent notions, idiosyncratic preferences, historical conventions, cognitive illusions, and just plain professional jealousy and competitive ambition.

Learning how to construct, deconstruct, analyze, and tell a strong, human narrative is a core skill for all user experience designers to master.

You can learn more about conducting field studies here.

There’s always good, practical stuff to read on Cooper’s blog, The Journal.