Storytelling, Sketching & Digging for a Better UX

This is a blog I originally wrote for my company, Axway, a while back to help inspire open communication and knowledge sharing by getting everyone involved in the ideating, brainstorming, information collecting, and designing process. My motto is that everyone needs to be a part of making a great user experience!

It combines information from my own constantly evolving process, as well as from some of my favorite books, Understanding Comics (Scott McCloud), Storytelling for User Experience (Whitney Quesenberry), Interviewing Users (Steve Portigal), See What I mean (Kevin Cheng). I still think it’s relevant and helpful now, so I decided to share it with everyone. Hope you enjoy it! Note: I’ve gotten much better at sketching since then, but everyone has to start somewhere, and this shows that you can do it, too! :).

Unlike complex visual graphics programs, anyone can pick up the following tools and start writing and sketching stories.:

We all tell stories. We’ve been telling and listening to stories since we were children. But how can we use these stories to be more effective in our work? In the products and services we are designing for our users?

But I’m Not a Storyteller!

Anyone can be a great storyteller and we can all improve our ability to not only tell a story, but to make those hearing the story think deeply about it, to make the story become their own. When people believe in a story, they will be much more likely to want to fix the problem that the story details or to create the solution that the story envisions. Each person is coming with their own perspective, their own experiences, but stories give them a shared vision.

Why Storytelling?

Expert storyteller Stephen Denning says that the usual tools of charts, diagrams, and rational arguments are simply too limited, that dialogue is effective but impractical for large change, and that only storytelling can empower one person to persuade many by igniting the listeners’ creativity.

Telling stories is natural — an easy way to sort through what you have learned. You may not even notice that you are telling a story, just that you are sharing bits and pieces that seem particularly memorable and important to you.

Stories are about more than just the transfer of information. A story is an active way to communicate events, contextual information, and develop connections between people. Stories explain, engage the imagination, spark ideas, create a shared understanding, and persuade.

This is your brain on dry data…

This is your brain on STORIES!!

Listen Deeply For Deeper Understanding

Most stories in user experience start with really listening to other people. When you listen deeply and observe real people doing their everyday tasks, you discover more opportunities. You will understand the people who use your products better. The stories you find will have more resonance and be more useful as part of the design process.

Stories could encompass descriptions of your users, their pain points, their cultural expectations, the context in which they work (e.g., Do they work in a cube where there are other employees competing for their attention? An office where they have relatively few distractions? A cold warehouse where they need to wear gloves? Are the dashboards on huge monitors across the room? What do they have distracting their attention while they are trying to use your products? How do they use your products? How do they want to use your products? How do they expect your products to behave?)

By listening to someone’s story, you see the world through their eyes. With a deeper understanding of a person’s tasks, context, or experience, you can examine the design problem from that new enlightened perspective.

Careful attentive listening has valuable benefits: it holds space open to allow other people to form their thoughts and express their minds. When you really listen, you may hear or see things that surprise you, like emotions or ideas that you haven’t considered in your design process yet.

The users of your products are experts in what they do and how they do it. Spend time with them understanding their complex tasks. Or observe their activities and interactions to discover gaps that you can turn into new product ideas. Learning to really listen to users is important if you want to discover what they need, not just what they say they want.

Pay Attention With Your Mind and Your Body

Use attentive body language and look at the person who is speaking — this communicates that the speaker’s words are important to you. The speaker will then pay more attention to themselves as well. Listening empowers speakers to expose and improve their thought process. Don’t lead them to the solution that you want to implement — listen to the solution that will work for them. If you provide a solution, many people will not want to disagree with you. Use sketching rough UI screens on a whiteboard or rough mockups as a quick method to ensure that you understand what would meet their needs and give them opportunities to ask questions, change their mind, and expand or narrow their vision.

During a collaborative customer design meeting, I talked with a system engineer to understand how he was using my company’s B2B tool. He and I talked in-depth about each of the areas of the application while he moved through it and told his story, I uncovered so much more than he was sharing at the surface and workarounds he had been using where we could add logic and categorization to fix this issue for him.

Types of Stories

There are several types of stories, including:

  • Story illustrating a pain point
  • Story that launches a design discussion
  • Story that explores a design concept: video, comic, storyboard, verbal narrative
  • Stories that prescribe the result of a new design

How Will This Help Me? And Why Should I Do It?

You may be thinking, “but this is just more work!”. Actually, getting in touch with users will improve your work, as well as imbue you with more confidence that you are creating a useful, usable and enjoyable product for your users. By telling this stories that you have collected, your team is kept on track, helping to ensure that the design will meet these collective needs.

What’s In a Story?

Stories need to include events, decisions and actions, or at least a reaction to a situation or environment. Stories that just give a series of statements on what happened aren’t very interesting — these are like use cases and flow charts. Stories describe not only actions but also context to help you understand why they happened. As human beings, we want to know why something happened, not just what happened. If we aren’t told why, we will likely invent a reason for ourselves. So, the first step in creating a good user experience is to add the reasons why the events occurred. You must communicate enough information to be useful as a way of explaining user context or triggering design ideas. You don’t want to include every detail or motivation — you need to rely on the audience to interpret parts of the story for themselves, so you must tell a story that helps them do that. The audience will draw on their own lives and experiences in interpreting the story, making the story their own. This also elicits other shared stories, building connections.

Beware Cultural Assumptions!

If you and the audience bring different cultural assumptions to a story, it opens up opportunities for misunderstanding or for distraction. Don’t assume you understand something — ask questions and clarify to avoid time delays.

Spark the Imagination with Springboard Stories

Another type of stories, springboard stories, are short stories, almost fragments, which illustrate a typical predicament while suggesting how things might be different in the future. Their goal is not to suggest a specific solution, but to spark the imagination and get people thinking about the problem in new ways. Once an audience begins thinking about a problem in a new way, they take ownership of the stories, and sculpt and develop in in their own minds. Because they own the story, they are much more likely to take that action if the story suggests it. For example, if the solution needs to be a bridge, let the story listeners envision the type of bridge, what material it is, what it spans. In this way, your story becomes THEIR story and as it is passed on, it becomes a part of your company’s collective stories and understanding of customers’ use cases and needs.

Stories create shared understanding, spark ideas, engage imagination, & persuade…

Stories Are Based On Customer Data

User experience stories aren’t made up — they are based on data from listening and observing in formal and informal settings. They are just as valid as scientific research papers or business reports. Stories are a form of communication built deeply into the human psyche. Because of this, you can use them to pack a lot of information into a small space. This makes stories an easy way to learn and an effective way to teach. It’s the illustrations, examples, and anecdotes that help you remember key points in a presentation or grasp a new concept on an emotional level.

Stories Complement Other Customer Data Sources

The stories you collect complement other data, including site logs, surveys, and functional analysis, among others. They can support the data and often reveal places where we need more information. Stories can be gleaned from search logs and server logs, customer service records, training and sales demos and classes, market research, satisfaction surveys, support sites, user forums.

Logs and Analytics

Logs and analytics show the users’ interaction with the site, and by seeking the story behind this data, you can get a better understanding of how and why users use our products. Customer service records often provide users’ context and an overview of the types of questions being asked.

Other Employees and Departments

Trainers, salespeople, and support engineers often have great stories of questions that they are asked in class, stories on how the users are using our products, and the ways users explain a problem. They can be a great source of information and if you make them feel comfortable, may put you in touch with trusted customers.

Marketing also has a lot of invaluable customer information and insight and keeps their collective finger on the pulse of the market.

Surveys and usability tests provide people with the chance to answer open-ended questions and make comments. These comments could be very short stories, or might hint at stories that could be collected through follow-up interviews.

Putting It All Together

To better understand our users, I created Google Analytics dashboards, utilizing information from a variety of sources, including in-site analysis (showing number and percentage of clicks per screen elements), mobile usage and performance, search logs, locale, and much more. One of the things I love about my company is the latitude to identify problems and come up with solutions to them!

Combining this quantitative data with the qualitative data from our customers helped us to design a quick loading mobile-friendly support portal with optimized search performance (I’ll show what I used to do this in an upcoming blog :) ), ensuring customers saw the most relevant results in each category and optimizing for particular tasks of installation, upgrade, and troubleshooting. We could also introduce customized information to our customers based on their platforms, clicks, preferences, and more. This stream of data allowed us to reach out to more customers and find more people to participate in our collaborative design process, which ultimately resulted in a better user experience!

Read Between the Lines — Customers May Not Want to Hurt Your Feelings

Stories are not always explicitly stated. Some must be drawn out by building trust with the user, deduced from what the user doesn’t say (often a user doesn’t want to say anything bad about their company’s processes. Also, depending on the culture, users may be hesitant to say anything bad about your products or services, even if there are real pain points that you could easily fix for them. You need to listen to them and give them space and time to tell their story.

Observe Closely — Context Is King

Pay attention to the user’s context. Are there huge screens displaying several dashboards from different vendors that are across the room from them? For example, we found that some customers were using a huge display across the room to show data on our dashboard tool, which impacted so many areas of the design. This is something that we would never have seen without observing the actual end users in their natural habitat. Meeting with users in a conference room is helpful, but it’s likely that they wouldn’t have mentioned this in a traditional interview, where they are just recalling information. If meeting users in a conference room or over the phone is the most access you can get, make the most of the time. Ask your users if they would mind helping with a usability test of the product. Remember to remind them that it is the product that you are testing, not them! These impromptu and planned testing sessions helped us to improve the accessibility, icon design, contrast, pain points, and more importantly, helped us to prioritize what our customers needed most.

Be Open to the Unexpected

Sometimes you find stories that you would never have expected. For example, in talking with a systems programmer who used a file-transfer product, I found that financial mainframe customers had different release expectations and compliance requirements, which helped to inform our roadmap.

Let Them Finish — Don’t Interrupt

Let your users have the time to finish their story. Give them space and silence to compose their thoughts. If you interrupt with a solution or try to finish their story, you’re not really listening. You’re making them feel that they’re not important and maybe worse, you’re not getting the whole story! Also, people tend to want to agree with the interviewer, so they often change their story to match what you think the problem is or say that a solution will work when it really won’t meet all of their needs or even any of them! It is only by getting the whole story that you can understand the problem and start to think on how to make a bad user experience a good one.

Listening to your customers and building personal relationships with them so that they feel that you care about them as a person goes a long way towards improving the on-screen user experience, both in terms of the stories that they will share when they feel comfortable with you as well as the potential collaborative prototyping they will help with once they feel that you are hearing their concerns and trying to improve them.

Summarize and Ask Questions to Ensure Your Comprehension

While they are talking, periodically sum up what they have said, to make sure you understood correctly. Make sure to take your turn in the conversation without distracting (derailing!) the user’s train of thought, even nonverbally with body language cues like nodding your head. Check that your understanding of particular tasks and actions is correct — don’t just assume.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It is better to ask questions now than to create something that is not what our users want or need!

Collecting and Sharing Stories Is Good For Everyone!

If you’re in sales, listening to the problems that they are currently facing in their jobs will help you to weave in their issues into your sales pitch. If you’re in UX, you need to “sell” your deliverables, including your information architecture, visual designs, usability reports, or new product concepts. Listen to the business needs so that you can weave your understanding of these needs into the proposed user experience. If you’re in support, you know your customers intimately and as such, are in the perfect position to share your stories with the rest of us. By making friends with support engineers, they put me in contact with trusted customers who have shared their stories and pain points and goals and thereby helped inform current and future product design. They also helped immensely with the search optimization of our support portal and shared common issues customers are facing, such as security and production issues.

This is extremely helpful in helping you to shape your own search optimization strategy, resulting in a better experience for everyone and increased customer loyalty and trust. If you’re in product management, you interact with many customers and already share those stories to help guide product development.

To dig deeper, you can put your friendly UXers in touch with trusted customers so we can unearth other stories that you may not have been focusing on when identifying the major needs.

Select Stories that Show the Big Picture

Be honest with your stories. Make sure that the stories you choose to tell reflect the big picture. By focusing on outlier stories, you distract the audience from a clear understanding of the major issues and from ideating a good solution to the issues. Stories must be factual, whether they are from one customer or a composite story from talking to many customers. Don’t avoid important stories because they don’t align with the solution you think should be implemented.

Don’t Rush Them — Provide Time For Stories

Allow time for follow-up questions and for the users’ thoughts to wander. Although we often need to get particular information in an interview, by allowing users time to think carefully and deeply, you get past the top layer to explore the deeper experience and gain valuable insights on how to improve it. If someone is reluctant to tell a story, try telling a short one of your own. This breaks the ice and begins to build trust. People hearing a story are often compelled to tell one of their own.

Take Good Notes and Summarize

Take good notes! You won’t have any stories, story fragments, images, or great quotes if you don’t! If your customer feels comfortable, ask if you can record the session. Remind them that this will be be kept confidential and only used by the team to understand how to improve the user experience. Take note of the level of emotion a user displays when telling a story — that is a clue as to how important the story is to them.

Try to write a summary of each person you talk to, which could include:

  • demographic details and a description of the person
  • a log of their actions (where they were when they did each task and which tasks they performed)
  • quotes and observation notes
  • brief stories
  • other specific details, such as task success, preference, or questionnaire data

Summarizing the session while it is still fresh in your mind ensures that you will not lose data. These notes may also be important information to flesh out your personas.

More stories equals more complete understanding.

Capture Stories with a Sketch, Comic, or Journey Map

Another great way to capture a story is a quick sketch, which anyone can do, as I showed in this blog. Sketching is a great way to capture a user’s experience, thoughts, and emotions at different points in performing a task or series of tasks. These low-fi sketches of customers’ pain points can help to inform the overall customer journey map, as well as persona-based journey maps — which personas are involved in particular tasks, where data is sent next, the level of collaboration, emotional highs and lows.

Comics are another great way to convey stories. Comics are an easily digestible that sticks in people’s heads more easily than several pages of bullet points.

If a story doesn’t fit into any of your personas and you are sure that it is important, you may be missing a persona or there may be something that your company doesn’t understand about your personas and either will need to expand or narrow the scope of what a particular persona is responsible for.

What Terminology Do They Use — Does It Align With Yours?

Pay attention to how someone talks about a particular issue or task. They may use different words that you are used to or than what our products use. Business users may not use the technical terms you expect. This is helpful information when determining if there needs to be a company-wide terminology change on business user interface.

Your support portal’s search logs also gives you insight into how users are searching for something. For example, they may enter just a product version, assuming that your support portal knows what product they are searching on. They may or may not include the dots in the product version, or just include a major version and expect to get any minor versions back. They may copy and paste an error code into the search box. They may use acronyms or abbreviations that you have not provided search results for. In analyzing these search terms, you will be able to identify these needs and boost the search experience so that it meets these needs. My in-depth analysis helped us choose a more versatile search engine that would better meet our customers’ needs, as well as create more customized reports, no results reports, case-insensitive reports, and more.

Sharing Begets Sharing (or If You Share with Others, They Will Share with You!)

By sharing the stories your customers tell, you encourage others to share similar stories from other customers, so that you can build a picture of how your customers tend to use a product, what is most important, what they’re not using at all.

For example, in talking to several customers of our dashboard tool, we found that no one was using two modules of the tool, and were able to improve the design, increase affordances, provide how-to videos and training to help them understand how beneficial those modules could be for their business, and other improvements.

This builds relationships and trust by showing the customers what is possible and engendering loyalty, as well as identifying opportunities to incorporate into training classes, kb articles, how-to videos and more in-depth, customized technical documentation.

Listening To Customers Makes Them Happy

If you needed more reasons why storytelling is a great way to collect information and help improve our products, remember that your brand is only as good as your customers feel and say that it is. Listening to customers and involving trusted customers in your collaborative design process will deepen their trust in your company and products. By providing this outlet and allowing the customers to have “some skin in the game”, and showing how much you appreciate their insight and deep expertise, you cannot help but increase your number of satisfied customers, deepen customer loyalty, and ultimately, attract new customers based on the stories they tell about us. Let’s make it a good one!

“A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company. It’s a gut feeling because we’re all emotional, intuitive beings, despite our best efforts to be rational. It’s a person’s gut feeling because in the end, the brand is defined by individuals, not by companies, markets, or the so-called general public. Each person creates his or her own version of it. While companies can’t control this process, they can influence it by communicating the qualities that make this product different than that product. When enough individuals arrive at the same gut feeling, a company can be said to have a brand. In other words, a brand is not what YOU say it is. It’s what THEY say it is.” — Marty Neumeier, The Brand Gap

Great Books To Get Started

This writeup combines information from my own process and experiences as well as from some great authors:

Storytelling for User Experience, although written years before Kevin Cheng’s See What I mean book on using comics to convey stories, fleshes out the information Cheng provides in his quick comic book-style read.

Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal is a great book on learning to ask questions, share stories, and leave space for people to answer.

Kevin Cheng’s See What I Mean is about sketching and telling stories. And what’s even better, it’s in comic book form, so it is easily digestible in less than an hour. I got into comics and sketching user stories with its predecessor by about 10 years or more, Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud.

Dan Roam’s classic, Back of the Napkin, shows that stories can be captured anywhere. Next time you’re out with a client, use your napkin for more than just a drink coaster! ;-D




Storyteller, process optimizer, relationship builder, stakeholder uniter, experience creator. (MS in HCI/AI/UX)

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Courtney Jordan

Courtney Jordan

Storyteller, process optimizer, relationship builder, stakeholder uniter, experience creator. (MS in HCI/AI/UX)

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