Once upon a time in designStorytelling in UX

Why should designers become good storytellers?

Stories have always been a part of human civilization. We are always captivated by a good story. From a lunch table gossip about the absent coworker to epic fantasies of fire breathing dragons, we have always been fascinated by good stories. They instill emotions within us, familiar and unfamiliar, and help us empathize with the people in the story. Stories of bravery, courage and patriotism are how armed forces recruit the young to participate in wars, stories of deception and hatred are cooked up by corrupt leaders to spread propaganda among citizens.

This instillation of emotions is what designers and advertisers have been cleverly using for some time now, to sell us products we may not need, to make us believe in things we haven’t heard of yet. And in UX circles, storytelling is now considered to be an essential part of the design process. The brand should tell a story, or the design process is explained as a story, and so on and so forth.

Is there a basic structure for UX storytelling?

According to Don Norman, there are three levels of design – Visceral (how you see the design and your first natural instinct towards it), behavioral (how good the usability is), and reflective (what the product makes you feel like once you’ve finished the user journey). It is the reflective level where story telling takes the center stage.

Firstly, we need to acknowledge that different situations calls for different approaches to the way we create stories around our products. Broadly, we can classify them into three:

  1. To explain a novel concept – this will include details of the product or concept and focuses on educating the audience about the problems that justifies the existence of the product. This lays the groundwork for the next steps.
  2. To share your vision and solution – Here you try to persuade your audience into buying the concept. You paint the vision of a future where your product will solve the problems mentioned above.
  3. To visualize the impact of your solution – Here you talk about how you are going to execute the solution. It is better to stay more realistic in this step, as this is where your product will be judged most.

The hero’s journey and three-act storytelling

In my research about storytelling in design, I have come across many articles and opinion pieces on how to integrate it into our design effectively. Many talk about a story arc, where there is a beginning, an incident, a rising conflict, a crisis, a climax and then the end. One can also find references to the Hero’s journey often appearing in many texts.

Even though its not necessary to have the entire journey depicted as it is, its good to be inspired by this process and maybe simplifying it a bit to suit UX needs. The basic premise of a story with three parts, a beginning, a middle, and an end, can be utilized in UX storytelling very effectively.

Adapting to UX storytelling

  • User is the hero: In the beginning of your story, explain who the hero is, and the situation they are in right now. This often goes hand in hand with the first act of the story structure, but giving background details about our hero, like who they are, what are their worries, ambitions and day to day life looks like etc. Always keep in mind that the client or the product is never the hero, they are merely a helping hand, or a guide.
  • Begin with a conflict: Act 1 -This conflict usually reflects user’s (hero’s) pain points and the one which the designers are aiming to find a solution for
  • Obstacles and moving towards resolution: Act 2 – The hero tries to solve his problems and realizes there are certain elements that prevent him, and he looks for creatively overcoming these blocks. The audience is carefully taken through the process while the product is introduced towards the end of this act, as a culmination of hero’s efforts to overcome these obstacles and appear victorious.
  • Impact and Ending: Act 3 – The climax. In the final section of our story, a better world where the hero lives a happier life using the solution is presented. To support the ending, research data and real life impacts are carefully weaved in to the plot.

(Good) emotions are good

The best way to convince someone to buy something is to appeal to their emotions. There are some ways with which we can induce the necessary emotion among our audiences, regardless of the medium. And these emotions are a direct result of certain chemicals being activated in our brains.

  • Dopamine: Focus, motivation, and memory
    Build suspense in your story, making the audience wanting to know more. Give them a hint that there is something big/surprising coming up and build towards it. Human beings are naturally obsessed with change, so we are constantly looking for that moment of change. Create a feeling of tension with a looming threat of change and you can capture the focus of the audience.
  • Oxytocin: Generosity, trusting, and bonding
    The best way to make the audience invest emotionally in the story is for them to be able to relate to the story. Include relatable plot points or characters in the story. And this might be different for different group of people so do your homework and know the audience beforehand. Creating empathy among the audience is the best way for you to gain their trust, and as a result, trust your story.
  • Endorphin: Laughter, Relaxing
    Everyone loves a good joke. A lighthearted moment of joy and laughter. It is often said that we have almost five times negative thoughts than positive ones in a day. Whether this is true or not, pretty much everyone will appreciate a good laugh. Include anecdotes and be cheerful. The way your present yourself as a confident, positive person will have a huge impact on the audience.

It is a good idea to not bring negative emotions through a story unless it is absolutely required in the context. Even loud noises, blurry visuals, flashing lights, bad contrast images etc. and other medium dependent aspects can induce emotions like intolerance, irritability, bad decision making, boredom and a lack of patience.

How to tell good stories in UX

There might not be a strict checklist on how to tell stories in user experience circles, but there are certain things one can keep in mind to be a better storyteller.

  • The story is not about the product itself, but it is about the person/people involved and their lives. The hero of the story is always the user, never the product or the client.
  • The construction of the story is not based on what you as a designer wants to say using facts and research findings, but it is what the audience want to hear, how you want them to feel about it, and finally what you want them to do with that feeling.
  • Show people ‘how this concept will work’ through a story, rather than explain ‘why it will work, through research findings and data.
  • You present a vision and try to recruit your clients or stakeholders to be a part of that vision, by appealing to their emotions.
  • Back up your narration with real world data from research, and present these under a positive light in your stories. Instead of saying ‘only 30% of the product is non-recyclable’, say ‘70% of the product is recyclable’.
  • Write down your stories and prepare them beforehand. And if possible, know your audience too, and adjust the characters and plot of the story based on what they might relate to.
  • Try to resonate with your audience by using relatable vocabulary and contextually appropriate narrative elements. And importantly, a very relatable hero (user) in the story.
  • Use an appropriate medium and artifacts to supplement your story. For example, use an interactive game to connect with children, or a powerpoint presentation in a corporate meeting. Use artifacts like scenario mapping, personas, illustrations etc., for a better recall rate.

Brand Story vs UX story

Branding is essentially creating a story about your product or range of products. When a company ‘rebrands’ itself, they are basically realizing that the way they were presenting their stories have either become outdated or its not reaching the target audiences.

The fundamental difference between a brand and a UX story is that the brand story will remain the same more or less, throughout that iteration of branding.

The best-known example is Apple, who brands themselves as this sleek, futuristic company which is the final word in everything tech. But their products will have different UX stories, like how lately iPad has started to focus more on artists and designers as their audience and more and more of their advertisements start to depict the product as an artistic tool.

User experience storytelling will differ from product to product, and even within a product, it will have changes in the structure and plot depending on who you’re presenting to and what you’re presenting about. Brand storytelling focuses on core values, uniqueness, and appeals to a particular lifestyle.


  • Cover image:
    A Tale from the Decameron (1916) by John William Waterhouse
  • Content:
  • https://uxdesign.cc/https-medium-com-babarsuleman-the-role-of-storytelling-in-design-separating-fact-from-fiction-6e43a42161a7
  • https://www.nngroup.com/articles/persuasive-storytelling/
  • The magical science of storytelling | David JP Phillips | TEDxStockholm – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nj-hdQMa3uA
  • The science of storytelling – Prasad Shetty – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ncTXE7iLUnw

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