User stories are a powerful tool for building empathy and bringing your research to life.
Compare the following two statements:
1. A small proportion of people using Facebook Marketplace depend on the product for part of their income.
2. Jen is a mother of three and her husband recently lost his job. Now she’s doing everything she can to keep her family afloat. A few months ago she began making a small income selling cupcakes within local Facebook Groups.
While the first statement is clear and significant, the second one is much more likely to stick in people’s minds. Combining the two is ideal — ultimately, you want stakeholders to understand your insights and to remember the human impact they represent.
Team members connect with and recall specific human stories more intensely than they do sets of insights and recommendations. But as a researcher, it can be scary to provide individual examples. What if your teammates latch onto that one person’s reality, taking it as the truth for all users? How do you share memorable details from someone’s experience while protecting their privacy?
At Facebook, we’ve found some ways to mitigate the risks of sharing user stories while maximizing their impact.
Favorite Storytelling Methods
We share user stories in a number of different ways. Here are a few highlights:
1. UX storytime: At this monthly lunch-and-learn event, researchers share five minute stories that didn’t make it into their research reports but deserve discussion. At a recent event, I shared the story of a small business owner I interviewed. Because she didn’t fit the recruiting profile for the study I was running, I didn’t include her in my report. But she was displaying an extremely interesting behavior: using a commercial product to adapt our system to better suit the needs of her small business. In the UX storytime session, I presented her story and introduced the team to the product she was using. A data scientist who was present then did an analysis showing that a lot of posts were being created every day with this same adaptation. Thus a user story led to an interesting insight backed by data.
2. Story collections: Once you have enough user stories floating around, it can be helpful to collect them in one place. For example, I created a deck of story cards that gathered stories from a wide variety of the sellers we’d spoken to that year. This included people selling on Facebook Marketplace in multiple countries, for various reasons, and at dramatically different volumes. Each card had quotes, goals, and pain points along with critical differentiators like location and selling volume. Teammates wanting to look for, say, “high-volume sellers in the US” could quickly find the cards relevant to them. Faced with a collection of cards, the team could connect with individuals’ stories while also seeing that no single story represents the full picture.
3. Empathy panels: Empathy panels bring stories into the office — in person. The events are open to the entire organization, with a panel of users, a moderator, and time for open questions from the audience. To facilitate conversation, we typically seat panelists and team members at shared tables. Broad ice-breaker questions help the team start to get to know the panelists as people. When the conversation turns to pain points and successes, team members are naturally invested in improving their product for the new confidant sitting right next to them. Consider following up the panel with a free-form one-on-one time, which lets teammates follow up with a specific panelist to brainstorm or dig for more details about an experience with their feature.
4. Outtakes from the field: When we do field research we generally bring along a few teammates. Many researchers assign them to not only take notes, but also to write a story about one user they met that day and send it back to their team. This helps create a variety of stories, ensuring that the team won’t take one person’s story as the whole truth. It also helps the team back home feel like they’re participating in the trip — and whets their appetite for the research insights readout. I recommend reviewing each story before it’s shared to make sure it includes only observations and makes no claims to universality or themes.
5. User story videos: In typical research videos at Facebook, the footage is organized according to insights, providing compelling evidence for the researcher’s claims. By contrast, user story videos focus on the story of a single user. These require considerable investment and are used for longer-term stories we want to tell to a wide audience. For instance, in my research with people who sell at high volumes on Facebook Marketplace, I came across amazing stories like people supporting their families through rough times, people selling their designs to pursue their creative dreams, and so on. After the research, we returned with a videographer to capture some of these people talking about their lives, how they use our product, and the impact that has on them. These inspiring videos were shown at our all-hands meeting, helping everyone in the Marketplace organization connect to our mission of economic empowerment.
6. Stories as examples: User stories can live on their own, but they can also bring your research presentation to life and help stakeholders better understand and connect with your insights. I often select a few short stories to share in the intro of a presentation to show the different users we met. In one study I talked to a variety of merchants, from a one-person home business to an employee of a multinational business with 20+ employees. Showing this diversity and then showing where needs align makes an even more powerful case for your insights and recommendations. I also sometimes use user story examples midway through a presentation to underline a specific insight.
Sharing With Care: A Few Key Principles
1. Protect participant privacy: It goes without saying that you should never share a story with your team without explicit consent from the participant, and that stories should never be shared externally. Also, while you want to share enough information to create a compelling and memorable story, don’t share any more information than is necessary. For instance, using pseudonyms and changing some details won’t detract from your story. For example, remember Jen, the mother of three who sells cupcakes? You lose nothing by calling her Ana and saying she sells pastries. Cut out any extraneous details that could identify your participant — concise stories are more memorable, anyway. Using photos can also be problematic; you can use illustrations or avatars, or simply stick to words.
2. Go for volume: The more user stories your team sees, the better they’ll understand that each individual story is just that — valuable and important, but not sufficient for making product decisions. If you bring two stakeholders on four days of field research and assign each stakeholder a story a day, you’ll come back with eight different stories. The deck of user story cards I mentioned contained 20 stories from a variety of different research studies. In a typical research report, I’ll share three or four stories. There’s no magic number, but you do need enough stories to make sure people don’t get fixated on any single user. On Facebook Marketplace we have many researchers producing stories, so it’s easy to achieve the kind of volume that makes a culture of user stories possible. At a smaller organization, you might consider collecting stories over time and only sharing when you have sufficient volume and diversity.
3. Build stories into a framework: Situating your stories within a framework or segmentation that explains common user differences can help stakeholders make sense of them. With the user story cards I created, each card clearly stated the seller’s country, number of employees, category of items being sold, and the number of unique items being sold. For a study I did around Marketplace sellers, I set up the participants along a range of business saviness and then shared stories from each end of the spectrum, as well as the middle. If your story is about an outlier — which can be a useful way to show alternate use cases or ways in which your product might break down — be sure to call that out.
4. Include only the right information: The most memorable stories include enough specific details for people to form a mental picture of that person and their life — and leave out unnecessary info that doesn’t advance your story. This is an art, not a science. Going back to Jen and her cupcakes, the facts that she’s a mother of three kids and her husband recently lost his job are essential because they help convey the importance of her Marketplace income. In a story about a business owner struggling with employee retention, such family details would be less relevant. Instead, you might want to include how the person had dreamed of being an entrepreneur since childhood. Keep in mind that specific details are more memorable than generic ones; if I’d said that Jen sells “food” rather than “cupcakes,” you’d have a hazier image in your mind and would be less likely to remember her story. Also be sure to include that person’s experience with your product, any struggles they have with it, and any adaptations they created to make your product work better for them. Sharing the context around a user’s needs is a powerful way to make those needs resonate.
What methods and techniques have you found to be the most effective when sharing user stories? We’d love to hear about your own experiences in the comments.