Storytelling and narrative design are core to what we do as designers. It is especially powerful when done right. I once explained to a mentee why this is a critical skill to continuously hone:
“From how you present yourself, your career pivots to your body of work, it matters a lot that you can tell a story. It’s what makes people different. I also think it’s what no one else can take from you.” — Myself
2 ways to teach remote storytelling in UX
- Introduce goal-oriented pair designing
Taken directly from the method famously pioneered by Cooper Design, pair designing is a collaboration between two types of role: the generator and the synthesizer. The former is tasked to think of ideas, lots of ideas while the latter challenges it by asking all the important questions. The whole point of it is to come up with the best solution possible for a specific problem with a specific type of user in mind.
This is especially critical in the discovery phase. Stakeholders need to embrace ambiguity, and designers can lead with that.
How? Before the session, assign roles and some expectations. Prepare some of the available research work, and write down some reasonable product goals.
During the session, with the goals in mind, discuss possible solutions. Get bad ideas out of the way for as much as you can in the limited time. You can be as flexible as you want with the schedule. Embrace the obvious constraints such as time and resources and use them to your advantage. Help yourselves focus by having a timer to keep track of your schedule.
Suggestion: It’s best to really start with user flows, and work off that for the wireframes.
Questions to ask:
- What is the problem we are trying to solve?
- Who are we solving this for?
- What scenarios should we consider for this?
Tools to use: Miro, InVision Freehand, Figma
2. Host a multi-person storyboarding session
Everyone has ideas for how a product should work, and should be built. Each stakeholder has their own set of priorities to consider, goals to achieve, and OKR’s to hit. For a collaboration to be truly fruitful, objectivity should be present.
Part of practicing empathy is accepting that each person you encounter is speaking from a very unique perspective. Therefore, differences of opinion are inevitable. It’s not a bad thing, if you can leverage that. In fact, diversity of voices can be an incredible superpower in a team. As a designer, you need to make sure you know when and how to harvest that and storyboarding is a great way to do so.
How? Arrange for a 30–45 minute meeting for the product stakeholders. You ideally would want a representative from the major departments involved: engineering, design, PM’s, marketing, etc. Have a clear objective in mind and define them.
During the session, have a strong advocate for the user and customer by starting with the most critical parts of the product such as Onboarding, Checkout, Product Discovery, Account Creation etc. If you have a journey map, you can use that as a guide. In the Smashing Magazine article, The role of storyboarding in UX Design, author Nick Babich suggested a simple framework for this starting with plain text and arrows for the story outline. If you have user stories, you can also use those.
“Say for instance, I’m the user. As a user, I would like to __[user goal]___ by ___[product feature]___ so that I can ___[intrinsic value of the product to the user’s life]___”
Questions to ask:
- What would that look like?
- What are the possible blindspots?
- What types of constraints are we dealing with here? (engineering, product, market etc)
- Consider the user’s emotional journey throughout all of this. How can we make sure they end up happy, satisfied, productive and all the other positive things we want them to feel for our product (or features specifically)?
Tools to use: Miro, InVision Freehand, Figma, Zoom… really.. any digital whiteboard + video conference tools
“People ignore designs that ignore people.” — Frank Chimera
Individual duties of a storyteller
UX Design is a multidisciplinary field that knits different types of skills, interests and industries. It’s an incredibly rewarding job to have especially if you can navigate your way around this fast-pacing landscape of digital and tech. Naturally, our storytelling skills should improve as well.
Here’s what I think we should do:
- You have to be sensitive to all types of mediums and platforms that mastered the art of storytelling — the web, mobile, augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality, games, films (classic Hitchcock to Denis Villeneuve masterpieces), audio and sound, even experiences that transcend digital such as the Disney Parks, Broadway theaters etc. Stories are everywhere. Find the ones worth learning from.
- You have to learn from a principles-first perspective — and APPLY THEM TO YOUR WHERE IT MATTERS.
- You have to accept that stories come in all forms, and so do our capacities to contribute — from writing user scripts, dialogues to actually tinkering on some code, we should, at least, familiarize ourselves with anything that captures our curiosity.
- You have to know who the real hero is— and how to make everyone who matters feel like one. From internal stakeholders all the way to your customers, strive for a spectacular experience.
- You have to give yourself more credit — for you too, are capable of producing something that is timeless, inspirational, useful, and original. You just need to allow yourself to.
Thankfully, we are living with the greatest storytellers of our time. With access to information, and knowledge, there’s nothing stopping us from learning, and ultimately, applying them directly to our work.
If you need a hint for where to start, find the people who bravely challenge the status quo. Historically, they’ve always been the creators of the best stories the world has ever experienced.
Thank you for reading,
Nikki is an Independent Product Designer and UX strategist based in New Jersey. In the last 2 years, she has helped design & build a holographic platform, contracted for a research team inside Fidelity Investments, worked in the Design Operations side of an e-commerce company, mentored brilliant design students/career-changers, advocated for UX best practices at RookieUp, have co-taught UX courses at General Assembly and have also contributed directly to the growth of the Mentorship program on UXPA-New York. Designing for a better world is her life. She also runs her own newsletter, working title, about her thoughts on the future and more.