Image from Matthew Winkler’s TED Talk

How to Use the Hero’s Journey as a Design-Thinking + Foresight Tool

Leah Zaidi
Sep 4, 2018 · 4 min read

Storytelling has become a critical tool for organizational success, and more companies are turning to storytelling devices and techniques to accomplish their goals. For instance, Warby Parker uses storytelling to connect with its customers, Airbnb uses stories to inform its expansion strategy, and Google uses fiction to explore possible futures.

One of the most recognized story structures is the Hero’s Journey. It goes something like this…a hero receives a call to action, leaves home, crosses a threshold into a new world, faces adversity, achieves victory, and goes home transformed.

Seem familiar? It should. The Odyssey, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings (and many more stories) all contain the elements of the Hero’s Journey. It’s no coincidence that these stories are deeply resonant and captivate us. The Hero’s Journey is a simple, familiar structure that holds within it the promise of a new and exciting world that challenges us and changes us at our core. Its the sort of adventure many of us dream about.

Rethinking the Journey

Beyond its archetypal appeal, the Hero’s Journey makes for an excellent design tool that can help organizations better understand how to address the wants and needs of a user.

User journeys are stories. Users are like protagonists and, by exploring their stories, we seek to understand how they interact with us, our designs, and/or the world at large. This often includes examining users’ actions, emotions, thoughts, and the challenges they face. By doing so, we attempt to identify design opportunities and interventions that create new value for our user, but also for our organization, client, etc.

The Hero’s User Journey

I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a broad spectrum of projects over the past year, and have found that a simplified version of the Hero’s Journey is an effective design tool.

The Hero’s User Journey

Define Your Hero: Is your hero a customer segment, partner, employee, etc.? What are your hero’s key characteristics? What differentiates your hero from others?

Call to Action: What prompts your hero to come you? E.g. an RFP, referral, advertising, etc.?

Refusal to Engage: What discourages them from engaging with you? What tempts them away? E.g. competitors, complicated process, lack of awareness, etc.

Crossing the Threshold: What happens when your hero enters your world and engages with you? E.g. work with you, visit your store, etc.

Challenges: What problems is your hero experiencing? E.g. needs, wants, pain points, etc.?

Transformation: What problems do you help your hero solve? How is your hero better off by having engaged with you? E.g. save time/money, improve relationships, etc.

The Return: What happens when they leave your world? What do they leave with? What makes them want to come back? E.g. great service/product/experience, etc.

If you see value in adding other steps of the Hero’s Journey to your user journey design, go for it!

Example

This is a quick, high-level journey of a student applying for college/university programs. The key here is to take the perspective of your hero whether you are a university looking to attract prospective students, a brand looking to win over emerging adults at a critical point in their lives, or policy-makers analyzing the future of higher education and the systemic barriers to it.

The Hero: A student applying for college/university

As you may have noticed, you can easily dig into some of the insights and create entirely new user journeys around a single point of interaction. For instance, you could analyze the online university application process, or design a memorable campus visitation experience, or design systems of support that help ease stress and anxiety. You may want to use this model in combination with personas or a value proposition canvas to better understand your hero.

Uses

Approaching a user journey through the lens of the Hero’s Journey allows us to leverage the power of storytelling in our designs. It provokes difficult conversations, challenges assumptions, and can lead to new insights through a simple framework that resonates with many people. This model is useful for (but not limited to):

  • Experience design
  • Service design
  • Brand/narrative design
  • Digital journeys

For those looking to compare their preferred user journey to the current state (i.e. do a bit of foresight work or a gap analysis), I recommend using a nested version that you can label according to your needs:

Label the outer ring as future state and the inner to compare and connect the two. Any number of rings can be added to create transitions between states. Alternatively, you could derive a sub-strategy (e.g. brand strategy) from your organizational strategy by labelling the sub-strategy in the inner ring.

Conclusion

The model presented above is a simple derivative of the Hero’s Journey and can be expanded to include other steps from it. You can also add complexity in other ways. For instance, it may be helpful to indicate what a user may think, do, or feel by using different coloured sticky notes.

Whether we are creating a new product, designing a public service, or creating a memorable experience for visitors, this model is a useful first step towards understanding a user’s experience. By positioning our users as ‘heroes’, we champion them and empathize with their perspective through an archetypal story. We acknowledge that, once the journey ends and our hero is transformed through our efforts, the next adventure begins.

Follow me on Twitter: @leah_zaidi

NYC Design

A publication for designers in New York and followers all around the world. Design thinking is what makes us write here on Medium to share with the designers of the world.

Leah Zaidi

Written by

Leah is an award-winning futurist from Toronto. In addition to working as a foresight strategist, she designs experiences from the future.

NYC Design

A publication for designers in New York and followers all around the world. Design thinking is what makes us write here on Medium to share with the designers of the world.

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