What is Narrative UX?

The critical (and underrated) role of words in design


If it weren’t an age-old craft, “storytelling” might easily be mistaken for a recent invention of the tech community. The word has become so ubiquitous — describing all manner of design, brand, marketing, and product— that we’ve largely sapped it of its meaning.

The term might have been buzzed into oblivion, but that doesn’t reduce the importance of the idea: every product tells a story. A good app is, in a sense, a choose-your-own-adventure tale: through a series of choices, the user brings to life a story that reflects their particular way of moving through the product. When we design products, it’s our responsibility to set up a framework that guides them through that story.

Design, in other words, is narrative. Yet the actual writing that a person sees when using an app is rarely the result of careful consideration. For all the lip service paid to storytelling in the tech industry, we pay little or no attention to the language that goes into product design. So what happens when we finally realize that reinventing ourselves as storytellers necessitates bringing writers into the design process?

I work on the product design team at Evernote, but I’m not there to code or design assets or create mocks. I’m there to think about words, all day long, and to hone the story that we tell in our products. My job is to be a walking lexicon of every potential twist and turn in a user’s Evernote experience. I think of my role — writing the words that create our product’s story — as narrative UX.

A brief non-history

The words that make apps work don’t have an illustrious history or, really, any history at all. Typically, user experience is driven by visuals and navigation features— we figure out how the product should flow and what things should look like. Early on in a product’s life, designers and engineers often do the writing. Later, as an organization grows, product managers sometimes take on this task. When no one truly owns the words that make the app work — when front-end engineers and designers and developers and product managers are all inserting language in their own particular style — that product’s voice becomes scattered and its narrative structure fragmented.

Users, shockingly, give us the benefit of the doubt anyway. They attempt to create a coherent story out of loosely translated technical jargon or repurposed marketing copy or unhelpful error messages. And that’s where I come in.

I got my first gig in content strategy and UX writing when I met a CEO who suspected that his tiny company had big word problems. He had a vague notion that his product’s words should be as carefully executed as the code he was writing everyday. “It’s not much,” I recall him saying early on of the text on his site, “just a few sentences here and there.” But my audit revealed thousands of words, hidden in nooks and crannies and popovers.

He’s not alone. Most products and websites have ten times as much copy as their creators believe, largely because writing concisely is far more difficult than writing verbosely. In an age of TL;DR and minimalist design, we might be tempted to discount the impact of language in our products, but words matter even more — as any poet will tell you — when you’re using fewer of them.

Designing words

Narrative UX is the notion that, contrary to much of what shows up in the app world, style and point of view don’t have to mean extraneous pep or fallback irony. Instead, it asks, Who is your product? What values do you want to communicate through language and style? If your product is a character, how does it speak and — importantly — how doesn’t it?

Successful products — see MailChimp — have a point of view that narrates events to the user. Their voice is consistent but also dynamic. They don’t break character, but that character evolves as the product develops and changes.

Users might not detect the sweat and coffee that goes into creating such a point of view, but they will always detect when a product presents a coherent narrative. MailChimp famously makes their brand assets available to the public, and even the legal language that protects those assets conforms to the voice that distinguishes the product itself.

In the instructions for reproducing their mascot, Freddie, MailChimp advises against altering the image, requesting, “Please don’t dress Freddie up (e.g. hats, sweat bands, earrings).” We should, however, “feel free to use winking Freddie for extra personality.” The voice is direct and clear, friendly and non-intimidating, with a levity that occasionally veers into humor. This bit of meta storytelling pulls back the curtain on a product that itself aspires to increase the transparency of email campaigns. MailChimp talks their talk, so to speak.

This integrity of voice and style are key to good narrative UX, but formulating them is a rigorous process — an easygoing tone is by no means easy to achieve. And that’s the point that we so frequently miss when we rhapsodize about storytelling in product design and give ourselves awesome job titles. Writing for products, like most kinds of writing, is ninety percent drafting and revising and throwing things out. After all of that effort, the resulting narrative should be so organic that the user almost doesn’t notice the language that crafts it. The first thing you write will be a chaotic mess, but the words that ship must be chiseled and consistent.

The work that happens in between — finding a voice, creating a style guide, debating the Oxford comma, implementing standards for every word that goes into the product, and then applying it all on a ruthless schedule of releases and launches — is the domain of a professional wordsmith.

This work is a long-term investment. Like architecting wireframes and composing color palettes, designing a narrative experience requires actual training in the medium. A good narrative UX lead not only designs an elegant story but also develops a system for teaching other members of an organization to speak fluently in the product’s voice.

When they’re good, the words that make apps work are a holistic part of the product, not a decorative swirl on top. If we’re going to claim to tell stories with our products, it’s time to wake up and pay sustained, deliberate attention to the language that guides users through them.

You can follow Jessica Collier on Twitter at @verbagetruck.
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