Telling stories with UX

It’s a brave new world. No longer locked to a page, words are in the airwaves, on our screens, our wrists and even our glasses. But where does this leave traditional narrative?

Alex Schwarz
The Airtasker Tribe


Illustration by Jin Ju

I’m a writer at Airtasker. I like to think that I’ve always been a writer, though I have been known to wander — I’ve coded, I’ve designed, I’ve done retail. But I’ve always swung back to my north star that is writing.

Now it feels like narrative has shifted from printed page to the digital art-board, becoming woven through wireframes. We used to agonise over how a word could define a character, now we weigh the meaning of a settings notification. We test, determine and figure out how language can change actions, shape perception and encourage loyalty every day.

Does that mean we’ve moved away from storytelling? I got into writing because I love stories. Thankfully, stories are as valuable now as they’ve ever been.

As Donna Lichaw explains in The User’s Journey, stories are some of our oldest and best tools for communicating and teaching. There’s a reason people have been using them to pass on knowledge since the dawn of language — people relate to stories. People accept them.

Anything can be a story. Perhaps your dog is snoozing away, feet twitching as he chases an imaginary squirrel. Maybe you take a stroll through the wild and spot the rarest of wild birds. You could just open your Facebook feed and read a kind-of-interesting article about the future of plastics. When broken down, it becomes a story — a series of actions and experiences. What really matters is how engaging it is and the message behind it.

So, where Cat In The Hat teaches children about trust, an onboarding sequence teaches a user how to use something.

Like a classic hero, the protagonist (your user) must go through a journey to achieve their reward. And as the storyteller, your role is to see that they make it to the final page, enjoying the ride in the process.

Here at Airtasker, this is so important, but also rather more challenging.

We’re the thread that connects two unfamiliar individuals, one seeking to get something done, and the other looking to earn money by doing so. This means we have 2 concurrent storylines, 2 protagonists whose paths will inevitably cross. Of course, as far as they’re concerned, each is the protagonist in their own story — but it’s something we must account for and design for.

Illustration by Jin Ju

The big issue is this: people get dissatisfied when their perceived expectations don’t meet reality. Airbnb have attempted to mitigate this over the years by educating Hosts and helping them show off their homes. It helps that Hosts are naturally incentivised to do this — more happy Guests means more money. So by setting up the expectation well, the Guest’s reality when they arrive at the door should match.

Here at Airtasker, we face a somewhat different challenge. The Job Poster needs something done, but doesn’t necessarily understand the value of being clear in their expectations. Many want the task done ASAP and assume the Tasker will know exactly what needs doing and to what standard. On the flip side, Taskers naturally assume that all the wants of the Poster are included in the initial description.

As any designer who has ever worked with a client knows, the brief is everything. The quality of the brief can make or break a project.

This is tricky to balance. Every day we’re connecting people that don’t know each other and helping them work together. Naturally friction occurs.

So we do what we can — we give tips, how-to guides and articles to help explain why it’s great to write a great Post. We give feedback every step of the way, reassure their actions and help them know what will happen next. We become the calm voice they can trust, enjoy and rely on.

This is the cornerstone of UX storytelling . It’s the skill to weave a clear and enjoyable thread throughout the user journey, regardless of where it might lead.

So, in keeping with the narrative theme, I figured I’d include some great lessons from some of my favourite authors that have inspired and guided me:

  1. Keep it short and sweet
Why overcomplicate things?

“Never use a long word where a short one will do.” —George Orwell

Just like any other part of design, it actually takes effort to write less. A user’s attention is a finite resource, the last thing you want to do is squander it. Make sure that whatever is on the screen has value to the user, and isn’t simply there to tick a box.

2. Give them what they love

TunnelBear, you’re the best

“Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.”Kurt Vonnegut

Users are usually drawn to a product for a particular reason. Build on it. People love to hear more and interact with things they love.

3. Bite the bullet, take the feedback

“When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they’re almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they’re almost always wrong.”Neil Gaiman

User / stakeholder / random individual feedback is invaluable, seek it out wherever possible. There’s only so much you can see from your own viewpoint. Use your own judgement on what to do with said feedback, however — remember that you’re the decider.

4. Know when to break the rules

Sketch isn’t always funny — but when it is…

“And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction. (Remember, too, a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.)” — William Safire

I love the sarcasm in this quote. The real lesson is — don’t be a slave to rules. If you know them well enough, then you should also know when to break them. There are times when you’ve got to make exceptions, and you should feel free to do so.

5. And that context is key

This crossroads reveals both what’s happened and what’s next

“At first, I see pictures of a story in my mind. Then creating the story comes from asking questions of myself. I guess you might call it the ‘what if — what then’ approach to writing and illustration.” —Chris Van Allsburg

Holding in mind where a user has come from and where they’re headed in the flow is incredibly important in UX. Not only does it dictate how to bridge your user story, but it gives your user confidence in their actions and helps them understand what to do next. Without it, they’ll start to feel lost and alone — and there’s a good chance they’ll wander off (never to be seen again…).

6. Keep the user first and foremost

Only one way to guarantee good conversation… ;)

“Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, your story will get pneumonia.” — Kurt Vonnegut

Your user is all. Let them feel like it. They’re holding you in their hands, they’re the ones that should be in control of the actual flow of their story — you’re there to help them along the way.

7. Be bold

MailChimp’s brand guidelines definitely strut, “Aww, yeah”!

“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like.” —Neil Gaiman

For design to stand out, it has to strut. Meekly follow conventions and standards and you’ll blend in with the crowd. If you’re going to do something different, do it with pride. If you’re a funky, cool brand, sound like it. If you’re edgy and rebellious, show it. Do what you want, but do it with gusto.

Now more than ever we need to tell stories. Not only do people love a good story, but they also breathe life into our actions — and our apps.

Do you have any other storytelling principles you like to use in your design? If so, I’d love to hear them! Please let me know in the comments below.

P.S. Thank you so much to all the great people that contributed and helped bounce ideas… JJ, Bernardo, Fra, Damo and Priya — you’re awesome!