Rule number 4 from Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling

22 rules of User Experience

Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling adapted for UX — because both are about creating great experiences

Valeria Spirovski
Oct 8, 2013 · 13 min read

Updated 22/2/2015 — expanded on themes and added new insights.
published in Thoughtworks’ Insights.

In 2011 Emma Coats, a storyboard artist at Pixar tweeted the ’22 rules of storytelling’. They did the rounds and became well known and were also recently re-done as image macros.

As I was reading them I felt drawn to the message Emma was trying to convey. Stories create experiences — great stories make for great experiences. Put heart into your stories and consider your audience.

In the field of UX it’s similar but different. We’re trying to understand our users’ stories, but then craft a new one for them that makes them happier and makes their life easier. The stories and worlds we’re immersed in have an impact on the experiences we create. As I thought about this I saw that the 22 rules Emma had come up with could almost be applicable to the field of UX.

I made some minor changes to see if I could adapt them.

#1: You admire a UXer for their iterations more than for their successes

Successful UX is about making assumptions and then testing to validate. We do this with user research, we do it with stories and we do it with prototypes. The key is to define assumptions, test, refine and repeat.This always yields better outcomes than spending six months work on a ‘Ta-da!’ piece, and your UX process is what smart employers will be looking for, as noted in this article by Whitney Hess.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as a user, not what’s fun to do as a UXer/designer. They can be v. different.

This is basic but something we are all tempted to forget. It can be exciting when you’re in Photoshop and motivated by the latest new interfaces to go haywire and design the most beautiful and exciting feature set to date, but we know that this isn't what excites our users or makes them happy.

Keep your users in focus before you start designing — otherwise you’ll get carried away and fall into the trap of being attached to something you've invested too much time in.

#3: Trying for consistency is important, but you won’t see what the user’s story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now research.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to create a sense of consistency within their product — it’s something we cling to, a basic principle that we feel will make things ‘easy’. I see this a lot — many people new to experience design focus on this idea of ‘consistency’ as it sounds safe and makes them feel comfortable.

In reality, consistency only works at a specific level and doesn't work on the level of interaction design or product design. There are existing design patterns that are helpful to start from as they generally play to users’ expectations of how things will behave, but arbitrarily going for ‘consistency’ without consideration for it’s impact on usability or experience is dangerous — especially if you don’t validate with testing.

#4: Once upon a time there was ____. Every day, ____ so that ____. One day ____. Because of that ____. Because of that ____. Until finally ____.

Tell the story of your user. People can relate to stories — they’re a powerful way to convey the feeling of the experience, and empathy and understanding of someone else’s perspective and context. This is important when you can’t bring everyone on the team with you to research sessions — you need to be able to bring the team on the journey in other ways, stories being one of them.

It helps to define the baseline state, a user’s day to day life and work. Define the events and edge cases that would make a user behave differently. Explain the reasons for particular behaviour or choices.

The ending is about how you craft an experience that improves on their existing one.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine features. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

This was a key lesson for me as I journeyed through different projects. Features seem to feel really important when you come up with them — and you feel like you need to account for absolutely every angle. The experience starts to get muddy and complex — but what do you get rid of?

It actually takes a lot of courage and focus to strip away the unnecessary and simplify experiences — because it feels like you’ll be missing something. The truth however is that users are generally happy to go without ‘bells and whistles’ — because as long as they can do what they needed to smoothly and seamlessly, they’ll be happy.

This is clearest in the example of the iPhone. When I worked as a phone salesperson a long, long time ago my team and I would agonize over the fact that while the iPhone seemed to lag behind in both specs and features — customers would still pour in to buy it.

Why? Because it was such a streamlined experience with a focus on things users would do most and a clear separation and delineation of the different sections of the interface.

#6: What is your interaction/design good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at it. Challenge it. How does it deal?

Getting comfortable and assuming for the best is the worst thing you can do with a design or interaction.

Interactions don’t always go smoothly — in fact a lot of the time your planned interaction falls apart under the ‘killing field’ of usability testing. The kindest thing you can do for your design is to find the lowest common denominator and test the interaction with them.

Similarly, designs don’t always hold up in the ways they need to. Consider how your design needs to hold up on different devices or screen resolutions — or what would happen if someone with vision impairment needed to increase the font size.

#7: Come up with your product strategy before you figure out your design. Seriously. Goals are hard, get yours working up front.

Your product needs to deliver a particular value proposition, experience and business benefit — and these need to be defined before you start designing.

The questions of ‘how do we deliver this benefit?’ or ‘what value proposition will engage users?’ or ‘what does the experience look like?’ are fundamental and need to be explored first as the answers will have a huge impact on the design.

If your design isn’t based on the answers to those questions, it’s very likely that it may not succeed in delivering business benefit or enticing users to use it — no matter how beautiful or usable.

#8: Finish your prototype, let go even it it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

The question here is ‘how fast can you go’? In lean & lean UX the term used to describe the minimum needed to learn and move forward is ‘Minimum viable product (MVP)’.

This doesn’t mean creating a prototype that is so flimsy that it can’t be used as a test, but it does mean considering what excess can you strip away from your prototype/test cycles.

Stay away from Photoshop and Axure in the beginning — these will slow you down. It’s not about deliverables anymore — it’s about being lean, communicating within your team and avoiding ‘perfection’.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN'T work. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

What isn’t right? What’s the experience you wouldn’t want your users to have — or what wouldn’t they do? Sometimes if you go through this process the answers will emerge in the negative space.

#10: Pull apart the experiences & designs you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you've got to recognise it before you can use it.

Really this is about stealing like an artist. No design or experience happens in a vaccuum — what we enjoy is a product of our culture, what we experience and what is around us.

Whenever you respond to a design, the things you feel are ‘cool’ or ‘trendy’ stem from things you’ve been exposed to. If you dig into these you’ll identify design patterns, trends which are actually frameworks which you can then use to branch out from and create new designs.

This means you need to explore. Find designs and experiences that inspire you. Look at some of the best new content on sites like behance. This starts to create a library in your heart and mind that you can draw on to inspire you when you need to start crafting something.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

I didn’t have to change the words for this one — it translates perfectly. It’s just so applicable across disciplines.

Have you ever had an idea you thought was so great — and you spent a lot of your time trying to stand up your idea and defend it?

Hopefully this happens to other people and not just me. It’s a bad habit— you tighten around your idea and become closed off to other peoples’ ideas. You also don’t see the flaws in your idea or ever explore it.

Getting things on paper — and not just you, your team as well- is a great way to shine light on ideas, share ideas, bounce off each others’ ideas and create great new ideas that no one could have created alone.

There’s no such thing as the ‘solo genius’ — beware of anyone who tells you otherwise. Don’t feed into your own delusions of grandeur — I am constantly surprised and amazed when I open up and share my ideas and listen curiously and openly to the ideas of others.

Be the person helping others get their ideas down and sharing gold, rather than the hoarder trying to progress their own.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th — get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

It’s really important to go broad when you ideate — because as soon as you get hooked on a concept or idea and start to converge and move forward, all the possibilities you didn’t look at never get a chance to be explored and you could potentially be missing a better solution.

I’ve heard people say that if you can get your surface thoughts out, the new ones that arise spontaneously are some of the most creative. There are some great workshop techniques that help facilitate this such as affinity mapping and design studio workshops.

#13: Give your personas & stories depth. Summarised might seem enough to you as you design, but it’s poison to the team.

You need to understand your user base — but you also need to facilitate and share this understanding with your team.

If you haven’t done sufficient research and don’t really understand the people you’re serving you can’t really explain this to your team. The stories you tell and the personas you explain won’t have depth or substance — and this will impact the decisions the team make and the meaning they feel their work has.

Don’t become the fountain of opinions — find empathy and share it with your team.

#14: Why must you create THIS experience? What’s the belief burning within you that your ideas feed off? That’s the heart of it.

Sometimes we create experiences that drive off deep seated beliefs. We have to be aware of ourselves and what influences us so that we can understand if it’s coming from a place of wisdom or somewhere that is fuelled by strong but not necessarily valuable opinions.

#15: If you were your user, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

Sometimes your team will go ‘really? REALLY?’ when you tell them that this isn’t going to work out for a user. Why? Because it’s hard to understand the perspective of a layperson when you’re in the position of expert.

This again is about storytelling and conveying emotion. If you can explain how a user feels and the underlying motivations then your team are more likely to understand and share your view.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the user. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

Communicate the risks, the user’s frustrations and intentions. Practice your storytelling, bring people to your research sessions. Give your sponsors and colleagues a reason to care about the experience.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on — it’ll come back around to be useful later.

Always participate in activities that are adding value. If you cannot understand how what you’re working on now will add value to the project you’re on, stop and find something else to work on. Don’t be afraid to let go of something.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Creating an experience is testing, not refining.

Check in with yourself. Hello? Are you getting carried away in design land?

I do it all the time. I looove designing, spending time in Photoshop, trying different design angles. This is all very well and good — but check in with yourself and get up and test what you’ve done. Check in with users, check in with the team, and then you can get back to designing with the insight and direction your team and research provides.

#19: Hypotheticals to get users into trouble are great; hypotheticals to get them out of it are cheating.

This one’s pretty simple — you can’t make excuses for major design and usability flaws in your interface.

I’ve heard it before — ‘We’ll provide training’ or ‘it was only one user’. Don’t make excuses and don’t rationalise a position that’s really based on not questioning the design, not spending more time and money on getting it right.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of an experience you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

This is a great exercise to do when going into a project. If you can take apart similar or existing experiences/solutions and understand what makes them poor (or what makes them good) you can use this to inform the direction you take when building a new experience.

It’s not necessary to limit it to your preferences either — it’s extremely useful to conduct UX tests on competitor or existing systems to understand flaws or current behaviour patterns.

#21: You gotta identify with the context/users, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

When you research properly, you get to a point where you have a felt understanding of what a users’ context is. Meaning that you intuitively and experientially understand how they feel, what their circumstance is, and what drives behaviour. When you get to this point you’ll know it. From this point you can ideate from a platform of real understanding and have the potential to create a real experience — one that people see and agree that it’s the most obvious and common sense approach.

#22: What’s the essence of your experience? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Define the core and simplest version of the experience you want to create. This will help you focus when you start diving down into creating the interaction design and identifying priority user stories. If you know that a successful experiences only needs a core set you can deliver that — as fast as possible and then expand from there if necessary.

Thanks for reading :) this is the current incarnation of the 22 rules — it’s been through a lot of revisions and improved over the years. If you have any feedback or comments, or just want to shout out, I’d love to hear from you.

Human Insights

My observations or insights into Experience design, subjectivity, philosophy, people

Valeria Spirovski

Written by

Product Architect, Designer, Researcher, & Change Agent. Blending Agile, Design Thinking and Lean UX to continuously steer teams toward success.

Human Insights

My observations or insights into Experience design, subjectivity, philosophy, people

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