Storytelling in UX Design

Mithila Tople
Jan 4, 2018 · 6 min read
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The narrative arc as shaped by the beginning, middle, and end of a story.

I want to tell you a story about the importance of storytelling in design, not just because it’s a good story, but also so I can gain a better understanding of how to use these skills in a large enterprise UX team. So, here we go …


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Exposition: introduces important background information

I am a User Experience Designer at VMware AirWatch. As part of a diverse multi-disciplinary design team, I work on a variety of projects where I talk to Product Managers, Developers, and Quality Engineers every day. I consider it a part of my job to keep up with the changing nature of design and to read my fellow designers’ experiences, which in turn helps enhance how I approach problems, work towards potentials solutions and incorporate ideas in my overall process.

[Related: Inside the Mind of a UX Designer]

Inciting Incident

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Inciting incident: the event or decision that begins the story’s problem

Recently, the term ‘storytelling’ kept cropping up in conversations and articles that I’ve read related to design. As a fantasy/fiction buff, my interest was naturally piqued. I have always enjoyed storytelling in various forms: performing on stage to tell stories through dance and theater, binging on complex television shows and following multiple characters, and working on various projects about digital books when I was in college. This motivated me to embark on a journey to better understand this discipline and how we could possibly add it to our team’s arsenal of design skills.

[Related: Storytelling for Influence]

Rising Action

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Rising Action: a series of events build toward the point of greatest interest

So, the adventure began. First, I started reading whatever was accessible on the internet in design blogs, guides and videos. Most of it was along the lines of how cool it is to incorporate storytelling into your design process. But, I wanted something more. I wanted something that provided me with more information about what exactly storytelling is and how to use it effectively.

Early this year, I attended Interaction ’17, a design conference organized by IXDA, and luckily was able to sign up for a workshop on Storymapping by Donna Lichaw. The workshop lasted a full day and focused on storytelling fundamentals such as the narrative arc and a hero’s journey. The biggest takeaway for me was how to use these fundamentals to write user stories, develop story concepts and how to involve your teams in helping create these stories. It was a great introduction to how concepts from storytelling can have practical applications in product design.

[Related: Great customer experiences start with story — the right story.]

Then, I enrolled in a course called Storytelling for Influence by Jenn Maer from IDEO. This amazing, hands-on course helped me refine the skills required for telling stories in a coherent and cohesive manner. We walked through how to clearly define the story you’re telling, how to identify who your audience is, what they care about and what they’re trying to achieve, how to prototype your story, and how to make it emotional, personal and ultimately influential.

Armed with all this information, I was ready to unleash storytelling into our R&D team.

And then, that’s when I found myself right back where I started!


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Crisis: a point when the conflict reaches its highest tension and must be resolved

Having learned all about the principles of storytelling, I knew how to use the narrative structure and how effective it was, but I had no idea how to actually apply this skill in my day-to-day life, where it could be incorporated in our process or how to make this an effective tool for my team to use. It was frustrating and I felt like I had hit a roadblock.

To add to that feeling was the awareness that we are a relatively small team of about 20 designers working with about 600 engineers. How could I justify spending time on storytelling when there were deliverables that needed to be completed yesterday?

[Related: Building Great Technology Starts with Building a Great Team, Part 1]


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Climax: a decisive moment or a major turning point in the plot

I decided to shake this frustration off and just look around my company, a complex, mature B2B organization with many stakeholders and decision-makers. It dawned on me that we don’t have just one single story to tell, we tell multiple stories about our complex products every day. These stories are all interconnected and interdependent. Storytelling is one of the most important things we do.

Suddenly, I started spotting stories everywhere. The product roadmap our directors are making is a story. Planning a release and figuring out priorities tells a story. Creating a vision so that everyone is aligned is a story, and ensuring that everyone stays on track to reach that vision is another story.

What we really needed was a structured method to tell these stories. But, if all these stories lived in the form of presentations, JIRA boards and email chains, how could we extract these fragmented bits of information, compile them and make them actionable? How could we weave these threads together to illustrate where we are and where we want to be and how to get there? Clearly we had plenty of work to do!

[Related: The Art of Storytelling]


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Denouement: the final outcome of the story, generally occurring after the climax of the plot

After this revelation and going through this process, I discovered some aspects of storytelling worth sharing.

As designers, we can build personas in the form of stories. In doing so, we’re able to identify our users, what matters to them and how we can affect change in their lives.

Customer journey maps can also be framed in the form of a story. The format allows us to identify the current state of a system along with a users’ journeys throughout.

Wireframes can also be tied to user stories so solutions to users’ problems can be outlined from start to finish. Framing the flow as a story also allows us to gain insights from developers and product managers about how it can be made better than a series of static wireframes.

Cross-functional presentations can incorporate the principles of storytelling to help make a connection with the audience. Framing assertions in your audience’s perspective not only helps a presentation come across on a more personal level, it also gives them the license to take action toward a common goal.

Case in point, storytelling certainly manifests itself when you’re writing blog posts, and want to show off your newly acquired knowledge!

[Related: Custom Web Development in a Crunch]


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End: the final conclusion to the story

To summarize my journey, I learned about a shiny new thing called ‘storytelling in design’ and realized that it is both a skill and a tool to be used in the design process. We use storytelling in our organizations and in our workflows already, we may just not be identifying it as a different skill.

So, take moment to look around your organization, and I bet you’ll be surprised by the stories you’ll find. Regardless, I strongly recommend brushing up on your storytelling skills. It’s not only a handy skill to have, but it can play an instrumental role in framing your design story the right way to ensure it has the desired impact.

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Special thanks to Jeremy DeJiacomo for helping with the wonderful illustrations for this post.

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