Story Tactics: Plots and User Journeys/Flows

Sarah Dzida
Jul 12, 2018 · 7 min read

At the heart of every story is a protagonist who changes. And these changes are described and defined by the plot—which is the main sequence of events and the people who inhabit them that the writer interconnects through scenes. The elements in the plot are there because of how they will drive the change; that’s why we don’t necessarily bat an eye when of all the gin joints in all the world, Elsa walks into Rick’s. If she doesn’t enter the plot, then Rick won’t be compelled to reclaim the identity he lost back in Paris. Casablanca is a story about how Rick decides to fight the good fight again, and the scenes in the movie detail the events that will bring him back to that fight.

Your life is about to change again, Rick!

Plotting is f@#k!ng hard. It’s all well and good to say: My story is about a young boy with magical powers who needs to defeat a tyrannical ruler. But then there are all the things that have to happen in between meeting the boy and defeating the tyrannical ruler—and a whole lot of other stuff—that make the story a worthwhile investment for your audience. All that in between stuff is why Avatar: The Last Airbender the cartoon is awesome and why Avatar: The Last Airbender the movie was a snoozefest. (All that other stuff I glossed over is how you create Harry Potter and AtLAB from the same idea.)

The best description I’ve ever heard of how hard it is to write is in Sherry Thomas’s excellent Lady Sherlock series. A character admits that she’s always imagined herself a writer, but that whenever she sits down to write, all the decisions about what could be overwhelmed her and shut it down.

BUT! We are are not here to talk about author and/or business decisions (which are rife with overwhelming decision-making)….

Let’s talk about character and user decisions, instead!

In order to move the plot forward, the author needs to connect their scenes. But it’s not the author who dictates the connection. Rather, it’s the protagonist and other characters. That’s half the difficulty in plotting—it’s not you (the author) making the decisions. Instead, it’s your character who—if you’ve done it right—acts like a real, idiosyncratic human being. Therefore, how they move through a scene is different than how you would move through a scene. Take a look at this quick overview I drew of the first few acts in Hamlet:

We all know it goes even more downhill after the play within a play.

Within each scene, there is a change. Generally, the change hinges on how the character acts and/or reacts within the scene. The story and sequence is unique to Hamlet because we are in his perspective (most of the time). This would be a very different story if we were seeing this through the eyes of his friends. (See Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.)

A well-plotted story feels inevitable because your audience has followed the protagonist and their decisions through it. They understand why and how the story has come to its conclusion. That was one of the strongest aspects of Mad Men, actually. Characters ended up in predicaments because of their decisions, and those decisions—even if you didn’t agree with them—were understandable and brought about cataclysmic and/or gentle change. (Take for example Don’s promoting his secretary to copywriter; it’s because he’s annoyed at a colleague). The story feels organic because of how the character has lived and transformed through it.

So what does this have to do with user journeys, Sarah?

I’m glad you asked. We all know that designing to your user is important. And that means creating a frictionless experience. But I feel like that gets interpreted in 2 ways:

Our user is always 1 step away from the ultimate goal.

In this scenario, our user is always 1 step away from the ultimate goal. There could be 50 pages on the interface, and each and every one of them is one-click away from each other. The interface has been built this way because the business is nervous about them getting lost. But if you give them all roads all the time, then the experience becomes like Alice’s journey through Wonderland.

Alice is either thinking: “?!” or “F this!”

A frictionless experience doesn’t mean the user wants the obvious always in their face. We don’t like stories because they are predictable or even easy. We like them because of how they surprise and delight us—how they make us feel and change even as we journey along with the character. Take romance stories. We know how they’ll end; but the real question is how will the characters get to that ending? How will the story deliver that warm and fuzzy feeling? And that’s where all the difference and delight happens.

Edit: I think scenarios like this also degrade the user’s attention. Because all roads lead to all roads, they have no stake in the situation. You’re serving everything up on a platform at every moment. The scenery doesn’t change, and they miss important things.

The second scenario is as follows:

Our user has no choice. They must go through the journey as dictated by the business no matter what.

In this scenario, the business and/or product requirements have dictated the user journey. The business may think they are taking the user through a frictionless journey, but really it’s more like Dante going through the 7 layers of hell. You know you’re going down, it’s just a question of when you get to the bottom. (Controversial Literary Opinion: Dante’s Inferno to me is all plot and no story.)

Often in these scenarios, a lot of plotting gets surfaced that isn’t relevant to the user’s unique journey through the user flow. These elements can be made more discreet OR taken out altogether. But there’s something comfortable and satisfying about a flow that has no branches. It guarantees to the stakeholder that the user will achieve the endpoint no matter how they rage against it. But it is costly to the USER in the user experience. They have no reason to repeat this unless they absolutely have, too.

Decision Points Are Important!

When doing the IA of a user experience, I think it’s really important to designate and define decision points in the flow much like a writer plotting scenes through their narrative. This empowers users and helps them individualize the experience. It’s through the decision points that we designers also come to understand the nuances of our “scenes” and how those nuances shape and customize the overall experience.

Take a look at a flow I once did for a startup:

When I wrote out the critical path for the value proposition, there were 15 steps.

Between the user and their ultimate goal—if they still wanted it by the time they got there—there were 15 must-do steps in the flow. If you read the flow, you’ll also see that the user needs to conduct two searches for a result.

Ultimately, the reason why this client came to us was to rework their UX strategy. In the first pass, we truncated the flow to this:

Pay attention to those little diamonds in the above image. Those are decision points. But those aren’t arbitrary ones. They’re placed strategically at a point that gives the user control over how they want to engage and interact with the product. They have a choice over WHEN they want to apply. They have a choice about HOW they can apply. And they have a choice about HOW they will pay. The decisions give the user agency over the experience. This is their journey. And because of that agency, they trust us to take them through the flow to the endpoint whatever that may be!

The Decision Must Be Meaningful!

In storytelling, each decision must be meaningful to the character—even if they don’t realize it at the time—and that’s what makes it meaningful to the plot. If you’ve ever worked with an editor, an editor is really good at separating scenes that are just decoration and scenes that are the lifeblood of the plot. The author may say: “But I worked REALLY hard on those 20 pages about the ghost.” And the editor will ruthlessly say: “But who is the ghost to the protagonist? Why does the audience need to care about this?”

The same must happen in your user flow. Especially in content-dominant experiences, interaction design is used as a mask to make the user think they are being given choices—swipe a carousel, tilt an image, watch a parallax. But it’s really smoke and mirrors. The interaction is actually churn between the user and the real decision point. It’s creates unnecessary tension where it could be better spent.

When you have designated your meaningful decision points then you know exactly what needs to be prioritized in the design to help re-engage the user. Suddenly not every page is a jumping in point to every other page. Suddenly your value proposition isn’t a rigid 5-step path to one action. Suddenly, you’re no longer trying to jazz up content-heavy pages to make it seem like something digitally interesting is happening. Instead, your user experience becomes more organic because you’re allowing space for the user to make organic decisions that best suit their perspective and needs. And much like in real life, those decisions may close some doors, but they will definitely open up others. Basically, there will be a change, and when we change or get to see a character change in a story, we feel the satisfaction of accomplishment.

Sarah Dzida

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UX Strategist + Creative Storyteller