Last year, I emigrated to the Netherlands to join an impressive squad of UX writers at Booking.com. When I got here I was in a position I’m sure a lot of expats have experienced and understand. I was lonely. And I wanted to make new friends in this place where I knew nobody.
I started by looking for people who had the same interests as me. I like stories. I like elves and robots and super villains. So I rummaged around for people who like those kinds of things.
I was lucky enough to find a group of people at work who play Dungeons & Dragons. This group had a spot for one person to join their game. So I did. And for nearly two years we’ve met regularly to battle frost giants, explore hidden tombs and race dinosaurs together.
But over the course of many sessions of D&D, something unexpected started to happen. I realised that as I was playing this… this fantasy role-playing game, I was using the same UX skills that I try to use at the office. This was supposed to have nothing to do with work! But playing D&D was putting to task the same parts of my brain that put together user journeys on Booking.com.
So while, yes, my topic in this post is Dungeons & Dragons, that’s not actually what I’m writing about. I’m really writing about product development and how you can use storytelling to create journeys through your products that captivate users.
But before we wander down this path together, let’s take a detour and explain the game of Dungeons & Dragons a little bit. Just in case anyone’s not sure.
What is Dungeons & Dragons?
D&D is, basically, communal storytelling with some maths and structure. It’s a game where a group of people sit around a table with pens, paper, funny dice with lots of sides, and very often beer and pizza. The group imagines going on an adventure together. They meet up over multiple sessions, continuing the same adventure each time to find out where it’s taking them. They roll the funny dice to see if fate will allow whatever action they want to take, and they have pretend conversations with make-believe characters and each other.
In a game of Dungeons & Dragons, one of the group members is the Dungeon Master (DM), while everyone else is a Player Character (PC).
The Dungeon Master is the narrator, the referee and the campaign’s god. The Dungeon Master tells the other players what is happening around them, what they can see, and acts as all of the imaginary characters and monsters that the players interact with.
Everyone else is a Player Character. Each PC role-plays as a single person who is going on this adventure. This person they’re pretending to be could be a human, elf or dwarf, and can be one of 12 classes. A class is just a magical profession. Wizards, barbarians, druids. Stuff like that.
Player Characters play Dungeons & Dragons by announcing to the group what they want to do. Most actions in D&D rely on probability, which is what the dice are for. A player might declare in a heroic voice, “I charge at the goblin and wrestle him to the ground!” for example. The Dungeon Master may then ask that player to roll a die, and if they roll badly respond with, “You glide towards the goblin and gently caress his back. The whole situation is now awkward.”
Book I — Setting the Scene
Okay where were we again? Oh yes, how storytelling can help to craft products. Let’s start with a story.
Three days ago, you met a grizzled old man in a tavern and you paid him a handful of copper coins for passage to the largest city in the region. Now, you find yourself in the back of a caravan hemmed in by a half-dozen strangers and their unwashed stench.
“Two more tedious, foul-smelling days till we get there,” you realise as you insert a small piece of cloth into each nostril. You’re so bored you almost want this caravan to be attacked by bandits, or a dragon (not a big one though), so you’ll at least have something to do. But instead of ringing swords or the whoosh of reptilian wings, the only sounds that reach your ears are the crunch of horseshoes and wooden wheels along the pebbled path, interspersed with birdsong and the quiet muttering of your driver to his hired guards.
Your caravan rumbles through picturesque but ridiculously dull hills, down into a green valley. You can see a pair of men up ahead driving a small flock of sheep with the help of four sheepdogs. As you watch, the dogs prick their ears and raise their heads in unison. Something is coming.
In the blink of an eye, lean grey shapes burst out from both sides of the road and launch themselves at the sheep with terrific speed. The shapes coalesce into eight wolves that begin to expertly flank and surround the herd of soon-to-be mutton. Emerald wolf eyes glint with menace and snarls bore into your bones. What do you do?
This is an opening I wrote for a game of Dungeons & Dragons. The story placed a group of adventurers against a pack of murderous wolves.
In D&D, the Player Characters are free to do whatever they want in the world the Dungeon Master describes. For example in this lupine story, the players could decide to help the shepherds whose sheep are under attack. But if they wanted they could also ignore the suffering of these peasants. Maybe pull out the medieval equivalent of popcorn and watch as the herd becomes brunch. The players could even choose to slaughter the sheep, cast a spell to turn them into zombies, and conquer the valley with a cute, wooly, undead army.
Nobody, including the Dungeon Master, knows exactly what is going to happen in a game of D&D. The DM prepares a story with some branching narratives and they hope it’s flexible enough to adapt to the actions of the players. While D&D is open to any choice the players can dream up, the DM has still constructed what is, for all intents and purposes, a funnel that will hopefully get the players from point A, the back of the caravan, to point B, the story’s finale. In many ways, the Dungeon Master has the same job as a UXer.
Book II — The Dungeon Master and UX
Here’s what I mean.
At her essence, a UXer is a storyteller whose job is to help her user navigate from point A to point B. The top of the funnel to the bottom. Sometimes the path to conversion is winding, with stops along the way, but a UXer uses research to inform words and visuals that will help a real person do ‘the thing’ and complete the journey. And once the real person has completed their journey, they are returned to where it began but are now enriched in some way for having taken it. They’ve created the account. Completed the booking. Added the payment method.
The user is back to point A but improved, like a wiser and richer Frodo returning to Hobbiton after defeating Sauron and his Ring of Power. Or like Harry returning to Platform 9 ¾ with Ginny to see their sons board the Hogwarts Express.
As with any user journey, you can write and visualise everything beautifully and as long as the user does the ‘right’ things and follows the breadcrumbs you think are super clear, everything will work out great. But as any UXer can tell you, as soon as you put real humans inside a funnel, everything turns to chaos and you better have a backup plan for when somebody decides to completely ignore the story you’ve crafted.
The way around seemingly endless choice is to give your adventurers, and your users, incentives for taking the ‘right’ path. To make your optimal path seem like the best idea to them. For example, let’s say you, the Dungeon Master, need your players to save the shepherds from the wolves so that you can move the story forward and eventually reach point B. But what if your adventurers don’t want to help? These players are in your funnel now. You can change the story around them so they’ll want to help and think it’s their idea.
We can do this in the real world too — well, the online world anyway.
Maybe a customer on your website is using filters to narrow down their search results. But maybe this customer is adding too many filters and they’re about to see 0 results. Not fun. How about we add suggestions underneath the big fat 0 and say “We couldn’t find anything that matched all your requirements, but here are a few options that meet most of them”? Maybe the user will find something they’re happy with, instead of leaving with nothing.
Or what if a customer is on Booking.com trying to pay for a hotel and their payment gets declined? The journey could end here. But there are a lot of accommodation options on Booking.com that don’t require prepayment. The guest can book but pay later when they arrive at the hotel. What if we recommend one of these options instead?
These are just a couple of examples, but encouraging users to trickle down the funnel instead of venturing off the path completely is what UXers do every day.
Book III — The Players and UX
Being a Dungeon Master can be hard work. You have to write a story. You need to keep everyone focused and on track. It’s like trying to run a meeting that started at 5:30pm on a Friday. And everyone’s throwing paper clips at each other and wearing funny hats for some reason.
By the way, people don’t actually wear funny hats or costumes when playing D&D. Just to kind of rein in that particular stereotype.
Anyway, if you want to play D&D but never have before, you might want to start as a Player Character because it’s a lot less work. But can I take the fun out of this idea by telling you it can help with your actual work?
That was a rhetorical question. I definitely can.
In D&D, you’re forced to act and think and feel like another person might. Role-playing forces this persona you’re wearing to interact with lots of make-believe beings: shepherds, wolves, bartenders, soldiers, other adventurers. And you can’t help but imagine what these characters might be thinking, the things they may have seen.
Empathy is a skill that’s absolutely crucial if we want to be good UXers, because we need to understand our users’ problems before we can solve them. You and me, we’re separate beings right? I am “me” and you are “other”. Role-play helps to bridge this mental gap. And bridging this gap can help us realise that someone who isn’t a professional can interact with a design in a different way. It can help us interpret the motivations of our users and figure out their desired outcomes when using a product.
Unlike most board games or card games, D&D is a game of cooperation. No single person can win. You aren’t trying to bankrupt the other players with a hotel on every square, or solve the murder before anyone else. Most of the time you need to work together as an adventuring party so you can accomplish a shared goal. Collaboration means understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your teammates. It means recognising that you’re stronger together than you are apart. And it teaches appreciation for the diverse skills everyone can contribute.
So playing D&D as a giant dwarf who has to rely on a small hobbit to reach a hidden latch can help you learn to collaborate with different people and job roles — who all have their own strengths and weaknesses in any product team.
Role-playing games can help you learn to solve problems. In D&D, the odds are against you. You need to find creative solutions with inadequate resources, using tools that were designed for a different purpose.
Product development feels like this sometimes. You find a new problem and the tools you need to solve it haven’t been built yet. So you repurpose the tools you have in a way that nobody’s done before.
Movies and video games can’t make you use your imagination in the same way Dungeons & Dragons can. D&D is a crude game. It uses crude tools like maps, sketches, dice, pencils, and you’re forced to fill in the blanks with your brain. You need to suspend your disbelief and come armed with imagination if you want to complete the picture.
Imagination can help anyone in any role to build products. Imagination lets you write copy that hooks, draw mockups that pop, or dream up a crazy hack that solves a persistent back-end bug.
While the Dungeon Master is, as we’ve learned, the person who shapes the original narrative, everyone contributes to the story in D&D as it grows, evolves, changes direction and becomes more than any one person’s tale. You’re telling it together. And being able to tell a cohesive story can help you understand a user’s journey through your product.
Think about your users and their journeys through the products you’re building. Create journey maps. Construct personas. Hold or attend design sprints. Talk to your peers or a friendly UXer you think can help. They might be able to help you use storytelling to create a user journey that makes sense to real-life people.
To finish up, I’d like us to return to point A, but enhanced for having taken this journey together.
The shapes coalesce into eight wolves that begin to expertly flank and surround the herd of soon-to-be mutton. Emerald wolf eyes glint with menace and snarls bore into your bones. What do you do?
What if our group of adventurers decide they don’t want to defend the shepherds and their sheep? Can we change the story to change their minds?
Maybe the grizzled old caravan driver isn’t what he seems. Maybe he never meant to take you to the large city as he said, but he was from this valley all along! The village council sent him to the tavern where you met, not to drink, but on a mission to convince or kidnap some adventurers and bring them back to the valley so they can fight off the vicious wolves.
Your driver and his guards draw swords as they shove and kick you and your fellow passengers out the back of the caravan. The driver does what drivers do best and drives away. You land on your arse on the dusty road, slightly dazed and blinking as your eyes adjust to the noon-day sun. You stand up, slowly, and dust yourself off. Squinting ahead you can see the wolves are now stalking towards you with their teeth bared, the sheep all but forgotten.
You draw your weapon and take a defensive stance.
Somewhere… a Dungeon Master smiles.