First Impressions: Storytelling in Design

“Consuming is an experience, and we must design with this in mind,” asserts Alisa Taylor for Vectornator, and while her specific discussion of this truth comes up in the interactive design portion of her piece, one could argue that it applies throughout usage of storytelling for design.  After all, storytelling is an experience, and it’s more and more talked about in design than ever for numerous good reasons.

Taylor takes us back to cave paintings to ground her discussion in pre-history: “Storytelling has always been part of the human experience,” she writes, contending storytelling was a way for us to “share, record, and understand… experiences.”  Modern storytelling in design serves the same purpose, only with different tools.

Storytelling for Strong UX

User experience, Taylor goes on, requires targeting an audience, and in order to provide that audience an impactful and satisfying experience, one must make them a part of the story.  In fact, when the “user becomes a co-creator in the story” by completing a quiz or otherwise “collaborat[ing] with the digital experience, their engagement with the story (and the brand) is higher than ever.

Before you design an interactive experience, however, it’s important to know what story you’re creating with your users, and ensuring that it fits both your brand and the interests and needs of your customer.  Oliver Lindberg urges a careful approach to this, writing that “it’s important to figure out the story first, then how to tell it afterwards.”  In other words, Taylor’s right that IX (interactive experience) is a highly effective means of reaching an audience—but Lindberg counsels certainty on what story you want that audience to experience before you set your mind to implementation.

Invoking UX designer Anna Dahlström’s book Storytelling in Design, Lindberg underscores remembering the fundamentals of storytelling (the ‘elements of traditional storytelling’) to “define, design, and deliver your product or service experience.”  These include characters, which means your protagonist and everyone else with a role in the experience; plot, or the structure of the narrative; theme, the “North Star” of the product or service experience; and setting, or the world and context in which the experience occurs.

To make this work, talk through your story.  Lindberg quotes product designer Benjamin Hersh as saying “Just putting ideas into words can be illuminating and often humbling… Researchers have found that explaining difficult problems to someone else is an effective way to solve them for yourself.”  Just because the ‘elements’ feel straightforward and the story seems to work shouldn’t be enough to convince you it’s perfect, and saying it out (even to your dog) can be the decisive factor in finding an area to revise.

You Think This is a Game? Good.

Carrie Cousins adds a discussion of gamification to storytelling, providing an advanced version of interactive experience that can infuse entertainment into your design experience.  Admitting that this might not always be an option (its usefulness depends on your brand and story), she points to an Acura game that uses the practice perfectly.

It “feels a little like a car commercial (one of those closed course ones) and as you level up you get to play the game in realistic Acura automobiles.  The game shares the car company story and what options they have for you, plus the fact that driving their cars is fun,” she explains.

Whether or not you’re a gamer, we’re past the point in history (the era circa Pong and earlier) when you could make a convincing case that games don’t tell stories.  In this case, you (the consumer) get to be an Acura driver (the protagonist) in a story full of speed, excitement, and increasingly cool cars.  These happen to be some of the top attributes Acura would like you to associate with its brand—so playing that story, and becoming those attributes, is a fantastic way to get audiences interacting directly with the brand.

Emotion: The Bedrock of Storytelling

Dr. Rafiq Elmansy offers some truly complex visualizations to display the role of storytelling in the design process, but his simple summation is actual just as useful (if not more so).  He writes that storytelling “enables us… to understand more about our emotional experiences,” something that even when thought of in dry, heavily clinical language like “gather[ing] personalized emotional data about our consumer’s experience” still carries weight.

Elmansy is basically reminding us that storytelling is—despite even his own heavily data-based approach to it—a fundamentally simple exercise for most people.  A story is positive or negative, funny or sad; sometimes we don’t even know exactly why we like a story, but we know that we do.  That’s what keeps us coming back to a myriad of media—a non-specific feeling that this story is worth our time.

What does this mean for the designer, looking to employ storytelling?  It means that your design story—whether it’s interactive or not, or a game, or relies on classic storytelling elements—needs to stir emotion sufficient to engage customers.  This emotional baseline should be the bedrock of your storytelling, and the above approaches should help you get there.

Designing toward gamification leads your product to be more entertaining, and create joy in engagement.  Traditional storytelling elements can make consumers feel comfortable, and approach you brand with a low-risk, open mindset.  Interactivity can create feelings of empowerment through co-creation. 

Design needs to incorporate storytelling and focus on the experience of the user or customer up front, and not be a road into other storytelling avenues.  Chances are good that your marketing efforts employ storytelling deeper in your funnel—testimonials and other well-crafted stories almost certainly exist around your offerings just past your landing page.  Make sure your landing page—and any design element where the customer might first encounter your brand—contains the right storytelling to propel customers into that funnel. 

How do you employ storytelling in design?  Do you agree that it is a crucial first step?  If not, what design elements would you propose in place of storytelling?  Do you see design as the first of several carefully curated stories, or simply a road into your brand’s “real” storytelling?