Storytelling for User Experience Cover

Storytelling for User Experience

Crafting Stories for Better Design

By Whitney Quesenbery & Kevin Brooks

Published: April 2010
Paperback: 298 pages
ISBN: 978-1933820-47-7
Digital ISBN: 978-1933820-03-3

We all use stories to communicate, explore, persuade, and inspire. In user experience, stories help us to understand our users, learn about their goals, explain our research, and demonstrate our design ideas. In this book, Quesenbery and Brooks teach you how to craft and tell your own unique stories to improve your designs.

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More about Storytelling for User Experience


Storytelling has always been a critical part of human communication. And, it has often played some part in designing human-computer systems. As the scope of human computer systems continues to increase to new form factors, social contexts, and cultures, storytelling techniques are becoming ever more important throughout the design and development process. In Storytelling for User Experience, the authors present the User Experience practitioner a wide range of useful techniques and advice about storytelling. The book is liberally sprinkled with material taken from real world cases both from their own experience and from that of other practitioners. It is quite readable and should prove extremely valuable for anyone interested in making products that are actually useful and usable.

John C Thomas, Ph.D., IBM T. J. Watson Research Center

Stories facilitate a level of communication that is as close to telepathy as you can get. Kevin and Whitney guide you to use storytelling in `how to’ scenarios so smoothly that you may never realize how far you leapfrogged ahead and never know the mistakes you didn’t make because of this book. It’s that good.

Annette Simmons, author of The Story Factor

For more than two decades I’ve taught that usability is the key to creating an accessible user experience for people with disabilities. However, Whitney and Kevin have opened my eyes to the incredible power of storytelling; how communicating user needs combined with empathic listening is the bridge that closes the gap between software design and accessibility. Storytelling creates the light bulb moment that says, `Ahhh…Now I understand.’ And that is what everyone wants—to be understood.

Mike Paciello, The Paciello Group

A very practical, readable survey of ways to use one of the world’s oldest and most powerful transmedia forms—storytelling—to increase the coherence and effectiveness of digital artifacts. Brooks and Quesenbery offer concrete strategies for creating a richer design process and more successful user experiences.

Janet Murray, Director of Graduate Studies, Digital Media M.S./Ph.D. Program, Georgia Tech

Storytelling is as old as humanity. We seem to have forgotten this communication art, its wisdom, and its pleasure, in an era of action-movies with mindless superheroes and heroines. Quesenbery and Brooks help us to remember the power of effective and affective storytelling in all phases of product/service development, from research and analysis, to design and evaluation. All the roads of storytelling lead to better understanding of oneself, of users, of stakeholders in the success of the user experience. This useful and innovative book treats the key components of good storytelling in developing user experiences and provides smart, focused advice for putting techniques into practice.

Aaron Marcus, President, Aaron Marcus and Associates,Inc. and Editor-in-Chief Emeritus, User Experience

This book fills a gap that I didn’t know existed until I read it! Clearly, we are engaged in story telling as part of exploring, understanding, and bringing alive the user and the user’s experience. With this book, we can now add, if we aren’t doing this already, this tool to our UX toolkit. Going beyond the concept of personas and use cases, storytelling, as the authors illustrate so well in the book, can be applied to any part of the design and development of the product: from conception through birth and beyond.

Carol M. Barnum, Director, Usability Center and Director, Graduate programs in Information Design and Communication, Southern Polytechnic State University

I have been tantalized by the power of the story to impact so many facets of the user experience process. The arrival of this thoughtful, actionable, and wide-ranging book is a glorious day!

Steve Portigal, Principal, Portigal Consulting

Whitney and Kevin clearly articulate the power and effectiveness of storytelling for understanding users and communicating their real experiences to all project stakeholders. Their guidelines for integrating storytelling into user research and design have already given me new ways to help my clients better know their users and deliver great products and services. This is a reference I will be reaching for regularly.

Karen Bachmann, Partner, Seascape Consulting

The user’s experience is not confined to a single point in time, but is built up over many moments and contexts. Designers must be able to explore this continuum, and return with information that helps design teams, and entire organisations, build better products and services. Most of us know the power of the story, but we may not appreciate how applicable story-telling can be to the work of the designer—in understanding users, communicating with business stakeholders, and in envisioning and creating. This book discusses how and when you can use stories, as well as the mechanics of story-telling, with plenty of examples. The authors do not advocate any particular design methodology, but show how you can enhance your current toolkit by thinking more deeply about stories and their application. In recent years we’ve moved far from the desktop paradigm that defined our design thinking in many ways. Many designers have embraced elements of ethnographic study, conducting field trips and creating scenarios and personas. In effect, we’ve become story-tellers, but often without realising or acknowledging this fact. One of the great benefits of this book is that it helps us become more analytical and more organised, hence more effective, in our approach to storytelling. Read this book, and put the power of the story to work for your projects.

Gerry Gaffney, Director of Information & Design ( and producer of the User Experience podcast (

Table of Contents

  • Chapter 1: Why Stories?
  • Chapter 2: How UX Stories Work
  • Chapter 3: Stories Start with Listening (and Observing)
  • Chapter 4: The Ethics of Stories
  • Chapter 5: Stories as Part of a UX Process
  • Chapter 6: Collecting Stories (as Part of Research)
  • Chapter 7: Selecting Stories (as Part of Analysis)
  • Chapter 8: Using Stories for Design Ideas
  • Chapter 9: Evaluating with Stories
  • Chapter 10: Sharing Stories (Managing Up and Across
  • Chapter 11: Crafting a Story
  • Chapter 12: Considering the Audience
  • Chapter 13: Combining the Ingredients of a Story
  • Chapter 14: Developing Structure and Plot
  • Chapter 15: Ways to Tell Stories
  • Chapter 16


These common questions about storytelling and their short answers are taken from Kevin Brooks & Whitney Quesenbery’s book Storytelling for User Experience. You can find longer answers to each in your copy of the book, either printed or digital version.

    1. Why stories in user experience design?
      Stories have always been part of user experience design as scenarios, storyboard, flow charts, personas, and every other technique that we use to communicate how (and why) a new design will work. As a part of user experience design, stories serve to ground the work in a real context by connecting design ideas to the people who will use the product. This book starts with a look at how and why stories are so effective.
      See Chapters 1 and 2.
    2. Is storytelling a new UX methodology?
      No. We are not here to promote a new methodology based on using stories. Whether you believe in user-centered design, goals-based design, or even a more technical approach like domain-driven design, stories have a place in your work. Stories can be a part of almost any user experience activity. The middle section of the book is arranged in a loose lifecycle, so you can dive in at whatever point you are in your current projects.
      See Chapters 5-10.
    3. Can I start using stories in the middle of a project?
      Yes. Although user experience is improved by having good user research (and the stories you will collect), there are many reasons why you might find yourself working on a design or running a usability evaluation without a good collection of stories to draw on. The chapter on using stories in the design process includes several techniques for working with, or creating, stories.
      See Chapter 8.
    4. I don’t think I tell stories well. What do I do?
      You may not think you tell stories, but you probably already do. Most of us tell stories as a way to explain a perspective on a problem or describe an event. The goal of this book is to help you learn to use stories in a new way. We hope the varied stories in this book will be an inspiration. Your storytelling will improve with each telling opportunity.
      See Chapter 2.
    5. How do I create a good story?
      Creating a story isn’t hard. Your first ones may feel awkward, but storytelling gets easier–and your stories get better–with practice. Storytelling is a craft as much as an art. If you start by knowing your audience, add character, perspective, context, and imagery, and put it all together within a structure, it will all come together.
      See Chapters 11-15.
    6. How much does the audience matter?
      Knowing your audience is critical. Whether you can plan in advance, or have to adjust on the fly, you can’t tell a good story unless you can get the audience involved. After all, the goal of the story isn’t to tell it, but for the audience to hear it and take away something new.
      See Chapters 3, 10, and 12.
    7. Is it OK to use other people’s stories?
      When we do user research, one of our goals is to bring back a useful picture of the people we design for. Telling their stories is one way to share what you have learned. But you have to remember that they are human beings who must be treated ethically.
      See Chapters 4 and 6.
    8. Is this a book about performing stories?
      Not really. For performance storytelling, the crafting and telling of stories is a goal in itself. Nor is the book about scriptwriting or writing short fiction. While some of the story structures and ingredients covered in the last section can help add drama to stories, that is not our focus. When we use stories in user experience practice, we borrow from these worlds, but put them to use in new ways.
      See Chapter 15.
    9. Do you cover storytelling in games?
      This is also not a book about narrative hypertext, games, interactive fiction, virtual reality, or immersive interfaces where stories and storytelling are a central feature of the user interface. Although we believe that every interaction tells a story (even if only a mundane one), this book is not primarily about how to weave stories into a digital interactive experience.If you are interested in how stories are woven into user experience and hypermedia narrative, we can recommend two excellent books: Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace by Janet H. Murray, which looks at how hypermedia and other new technology can make new forms of story possible, and Computers and Theatre by Brenda Laurel, a seminal book on Aristotelian storytelling as the basis for user experience design.
    10. What’s next for storytelling in user experience design?
      While working on this book, we have been excited to watch storytelling take off as a useful concept in many more aspects of user experience design. People have started talking about how to make the product tell a story or use story structures to help structure the user experience. Others have borrowed ideas from filmmaking to add emotional resonance to applications and make the concept of designing a better experience more concrete. And there’s a swarm of people writing on the topic of storytelling and business management, which touches on some of the same issues as user experience. There’s always another story waiting to be written.


  • Chapter 11 (PDF)


I’ve been talking about stories and scenarios—and how useful and powerful they are—for a long time. And I’ve been wishing for a book that would both make the case for stories in user experience and help us all become better at collecting, crafting, telling, and using stories in our work.

Well, here it is. You are holding a book that combines the stories and skills of a professional storyteller who designs user experiences and a user experience designer who tells stories.

Just as personas make users come alive for user experience designers, stories make users’ lives real. User experience design is about experience. Stories are those experiences.

As Kevin and Whitney say in this book: We all hear stories. We all tell stories—every day in all parts of our lives. What happened in school today? What happened at work today? How did you manage that? What would you do if…?

As Kevin and Whitney also say, you are probably already hearing stories in the user research that you do. If you write scenarios for design or for usability testing, you are already telling stories. This book will help you do what you are doing—even better.

Stories are immensely powerful, as I realized many years ago on a project to help an airline company understand what happens in travel agencies. For four months, a colleague and I crisscrossed the U.S., spending several hours in each of many types of travel agencies around the country. We watched and listened as travel agents took calls, helped walk-in customers, and told us about their other clients.

When we sifted through our notes back at our hotel at the end of each day, we found ourselves reminding each other of the stories we had heard and seen. Part of the drama in those stories was in the life of the traveler: The father who had promised his daughter that their trip to Disneyland would include renting a red Mustang convertible… The gal who wanted to visit her boyfriend for a weekend but needed a cheap fare… The reporter who had to get to the scene of a disaster in another state immediately… The family planning a once-in-a-lifetime trip to France…

The other part of the drama in those stories was in the work of the travel agents, especially in how difficult it was for them to meet these customers’ needs with their current software.

When we reported our findings to the client, we had facts. We had numbers. We had flowcharts. And we had stories—lots of stories. It was the stories that people remembered. It was the stories that became the focal points for innovation in the software.

I wish I’d had this book when doing the project with the travel agents—and for many projects after that. This book will help you become a better story collector, story crafter, story teller, story user—all in the context of your work in user experience design.

The examples (yes, lots of stories, as you’d expect) and the direct, clear advice will help you become

  • a better listener, so you have users’ words to tell their stories
  • a better observer, so you can include the real context of use in your stories
  • an ethical storyteller, knowing how to craft stories (like personas) that are archetypically true even if they are composites
  • an innovative designer, using stories to help teams see problems and solutions in new ways
  • a person who people enjoy listening to because your stories are both interesting and meaningful for your projects

Have fun!

Ginny Redish,


Every book takes a village and, like authors everywhere, we have a lot of people to thank. In this case, the village includes the people who contributed stories to the book and the many people who allowed us to pick their brains about different ways to use stories.

Ginny Redish gets special thanks. Not only did she agree to write the wonderful foreword, but she was also there from beginning to end, with moral support and helping us shape the book.

A lot of people read the book at various stages. Their comments were enormously helpful: Mary Beth Rettger, Caroline Jarrett, Daniel Szuc, Karen Bachmann, Ben Weems, Ryan Evans, Laura Packer, Jo Radner, and Steve Krug.

Dirk Knemeyer and Juhan Sohin at Involution Studios in Boston took a flyer on us and hosted the first “Sex, Money, and Storytelling” workshop.

We learned a lot from the great group of people as we blended some of our material for the first time. We met Calvin Chan at User Friendly in Shanghai and convinced him to create the cartoons that introduce our stories and the storyteller people that populate the book.

And, of course, Lou Rosenfeld himself and our editors Marta Justak and David Moldawer.

From Whitney

The first time I talked about storytelling in public, I was pretty nervous. Debi Parush, Karen Bachmann, and Basil White sat up with me the night before while I ripped up and rewrote the whole presentation. The next morning, I arrived to find a room full of people and Caroline Jarrett sitting in front, notepad at the ready. Terrifying. But as the session went on, I began to see this just might work. So, thanks to everyone who got up at8:30 a.m. and stuck with me while I felt my way through.

Thank you to John Chester, my ever-patient husband, who kept everything running and listened any time I needed to talk.

To everyone on every project I’ve ever worked on.

To my mother, who taught me to read and to love a good book.

And to my father, who set the bar high and drummed into me that “if you can’t think, you can’t write.”

From Kevin

Physically writing a book is not hard; it just takes time and patience.

Envisioning writing a book, that is, putting the idea in one’s mind and keeping it there through all the ups and downs of the process, fighting to hold it there against all of life’s competing attention attractors, is more than just hard—it’s somewhat miraculous. Fortunately, miracles happen with help.

I want to thank the storytelling community for their talent and support, and all those people who sat through my workshops, helping me hone the thing that I love into concepts I can communicate.

To Laura Packer, my partner in art and life, who has laughed with me in support through all those ups and downs.

Thank you to my children, Cara, Kristoff, and Stephan, who inspire me, and to my mother who has been the teller and subject of many of my stories over the years.

And to Brother Blue, my spiritual father, who opened the door and showed me what it means to live the life of a storyteller.

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