Storytelling for User Experience Blog

Crafting Stories for Better Design

Posts written by Whitney Quesenbery & Kevin Brooks

  • Kevin Brooks

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    Kevin Brooks is the co-author of Storytelling for User Experience, a friend, and most of all, an amazing storyteller.

    In January, Kevin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

    If Kevin’s work has touched you – through his storytelling, workshops, or the book – let him know you are thinking about him.

    Laura Packer, his wife and another great storyteller, is keeping a journal on CaringBridge, to let his extended families stay in touch. Silly pictures, random thoughts and any words are welcome: a photo of his first hospital room showed a wall covered with reminders that they are not alone in this fight.

    If you’ve never heard Kevin tell stories, listen to one of them. I particularly love Roller Coaster. It’s the first long-form story I ever heard him tell. It’s about his love of roller coasters, and the story of one particular ride. If you’ve ever dragged someone along on your obsessions, if you’ve ever tried to get someone (or a group of people) to see why something can be scary and exhilarating all at once, it’s 11:21 minutes well spent.

    Kevin always throws himself into his work with invention and verve. Who else would hold a surprise wedding. His own. His story Tomato Paste, recorded at the MassMouth Story Slam, is another example of putting a little bit of yourself into everything you do.

    Update Friday March 28. Laura wrote to say, “It is with immense sorrow and overwhelming gratitude that I tell you that Kevin Brooks has moved onto his next adventure. Prior to his death, Kevin had many sweet hours holding hands, hugging and kissing those who love him. His passage was peaceful. He was surrounded by family and close friends who sang him into the next world.” Read the rest of Laura’s message.

    Kevin M. Brooks, we will miss you.

    Storytelling for UX: Designing with experience plotting

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    Are you looking for a way to plan the structure of your UX stories better? UX Toyko’s Experience Plotting might be the answer. It’s a way to map out the framework of a story that lets you decide how to incorporate your story elements into a structure. The goal is to quickly visualize the material that will go into the story and identify how they fit into a series of clear, compelling scenes.

    • Start with the story fragments, or short anecdotes, collected in your UX research.
    • Select a few, and identify the activity, context, emotion, images and specific story elements for each anecdote.
    • Map the anecdotes onto a story structure like the hero’s journey, in a quick whiteboard sketch, or a structured matrix.
    • Identify the scenes or sections of the story, with one anecdote in each.

    The final matrix also adds the device used in each scene – a great way to plot the user experience journey for activities that happen over time or across different contexts and devices. Now you are ready to create a story that shows how the experience unfolds and can be a trigger for design ideas.

    There’s more about Visualization of UX with Stories on the UX Tokyo blog (in Japanese)

    Thanks to Yoshinori Wakizaka (@wackiesrock), the translator of the Japanese edition of Storytelling for User Experience for sharing these links and the UX Tokyo journey to create Experience Plotting.

    We create stories (and songs) together

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    Some of my first musical memories are from Pete Seeger’s children’s concerts in New York many years ago, where I screamed “Abiyoyo” with an auditorium full of kids. If you don’t know his name, just Google it. You’ll find him described as America’s best-loved folksinger and a lot of other superlatives.

    One of the things that’s special about a Pete Seeger concert is the way he introduces each song with a story. He talks about where he heard it or how he thought up the tune or why the lyrics are important to him. His delivery is so understated that it’s easy to miss what great stories they are. At a recent concert I could feel the whole audience holding their breath through each story, waiting for the moment when they could connect the story to the song he was about to sing. Sometimes he timed it perfectly: the pieces didn’t fall into place until the first banjo note. And we all exhaled the opening lyrics with him.

    That’s the other thing that’s special about a Pete Seeger concert. He can get everyone in the room to come together in song, even those of us who rarely sing outside of the shower. Pete’s getting older and doesn’t have much of a voice left. But all he needed to do is remind us of the story, give us the tune, and let us sing the song. He makes music into a participatory act of community by acting less like a performer and more like a facilitator or leader.

    Peggy Seeger, Pete’s sister and a singer-songwriter in her own right, was there, too. Leading an folk song, Dear Old Buffalo Boy, she made us get into character. The song is a conversation, alternating verses between a man and a woman. The first time we sang it just fine, but without much emotion. Then, she told the audience about the context of the song and the social setting behind the humor. With a character — a persona — to imagine, the song got funnier, deeper, more alive, and so did our singing.

    The whole concert was a great example of how we create stories (and songs) together.

    Empathy and connection

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    What’s the difference between a scenario and a story?

    I’ve always thought those sorts of definitions are trick questions, especially when we are struggling to find words to match our ideas. Perhaps it’s inevitable that we sometimes use the same word in different ways…and different words to mean the same thing.

    If we look at three ways of creating stories in UX today, we can see a difference in both the quality of the story and what its value is.

    Lets start with Agile user stories. The classic form is something like:

    As a [role] I can [do something] so that [benefit]

    Like many story forms in designing technology, the goal of these stories is to find the simplest way to express a requirement. We want to know who, what, and why, so that our design (and development) work can be grounded in that context.

    Many of the abstract modeling tools — swimlanes, flow diagrams – use case diagrams – have the same goal: to strip away the casual differences and show the underlying core.

    The next type of story is what I would call a scenario. They describe the sequence of events, adding how to the story. Whether they are storyboards that walk through an interaction, a narrative use case, or any other form, their focus is on the plot. They answer the question, “What happened?” or “What will happen?”

    Finally, we can add rich detail that lets us understand the human perspective and response. Imagery, emotion, contextual details, and deeper motivations all take us into the point of view of the characters. These stories are often tied to personas, building on the demographic and behavioral data they embody.

    When we include not just the basics of who, what, why, and how, but also the rich texture of the experience, we have created a story that is both useful and helps us connect to the people who will use the products we create.

    That’s the power of story.

    If you’d like to know more, I’m giving a full-day workshop on how to use stories and personas to design with users in mind.

    Using Personas and Storytelling Effectively

    May 7, 2012
    American Institute of Architects
    Washington DC

    Story-tastic. An example from scientific research.

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    One of the best things about teaching workshops is getting to hear stories from so many people. This one is from Francis Rowland, describing his excitement in finding stories “in the wild.”

    This morning, a friend in the bioscience research institute next door to where I work made some time for me to come over and do a bit of ethnography. It was a lot of observation, with some prompting and questions from me – straight contextual enquiry.

    I am really keen to learn more about the context within which lab-based scientists like her use some of the online tools and other pieces of software produced by institutes like the one where I work.

    One of the major design problems in my work is the wide range of vernaculars and concepts that exist between and amongst different kinds of biologists, even when they work on the same topic. If we present data and info for one type, another type just doesn’t get it at all.

    So after learning more about the context in which my friend uses online applications and the like, I asked her about this communication issue.

    What it boiled down to is stories.

    She told me that, just as she had just done with me, she would tell a collaborator a story about her research – the findings, the data, the clues, the leads, the implications…

    This would frame the research from her perspective. The collaborator can obviously interact with that “story”, and help to build it into something that they share. It isn’t just that the data or the research can tell a story about some wider scientific subject. The scientists have to use stories so that they can communicate.

    Just the sort of thing that you described in your workshop, of course, Whitney! But it was exciting to see it being portrayed as exactly that without any prompting from me.

    UX Story Cards

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    Looking for a handy pocket guide to crafting stories for user experience?

    We’ve created UX Story Cards to help you get started using stories or sharpen your story skills. The cards are based on the book, especially chapters 11-15. Six groups of cards ask questions and offer suggestions for elements to include in your story:

    • Story Basics. Start by answering the basic questions. Who, what, when, where, why, how.
    • Purpose. Stories help drive UX work in several ways. Think about why you are telling the story.
    • Story Context. Ground the story in a specific place and time.
    • Imagery. Give the story emotional resonance.
    • Structure. Give the story a shape to help the audience fill in the blanks.
    • Format. There are many ways to tell a story. In writing or orally. In reports, presentations, elevators. With images or as comics.

    Get your UX Story Cards

    Workshop on Storytelling in UX – Atlanta, April 28

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    Learn how to collect, create, and use stories to make your UX work richer
    A full day, practical workshop with Whitney Quesenbery
    April 28, 2011 – Atlanta

    User experience is full of stories: personas, task analysis, design scenarios and even usability testing tasks. The techniques of storytelling can help you explore user research or develop design ideas that make emotional connections to users. You might be surprised at how many different ways you can use stories in your UX work to make it more persuasive and compelling.

    In this day-long workshop, Whitney Quesenbery, author of Storytelling for User Experience will lead you in a deep dive into all the ways you can put storytelling to work for you, and lots of hands-on practice. Come learn how to collect, create, and use stories to make your UX work richer.

    Want to hear a story?

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    To start the new year, a few places where you can go for stories for and about business.

    Once upon a venture. Stories of entrepreneurs and how they started their business. The topics range from pickles to film production studios, told in stories that are real, yet fun; serious yet funny. These are not lectures on tape; they are the real words of the not-so-famous man or woman who offers you good solid tips from the gut. Podcast or listen online. (Twitter @camelgraph)

    Free Range Thinking – A newsletter from the Goodman Center aimed at public interest communicators. Their slogan is that they help “do-gooders do better.” (Twitter @goodmancenter)

    The Reinvention Summit was the brainchild of Michael Margolis of GetStoried. All the presentations, focused on personal reinvention, are still available online (for a fee). (Twitter @getstoried)

    The Moth StorySLAM is stories told live, with no notes. There are live events in New York, Chicago, Detroit and LA, plus a podcast of the best stories of the year. (Twitter @mothstories)

    London – February 16. Storytelling for Business Leaders Workshop. Shawn Callahan, one of the leaders in the business storytelling community, teaches this workshop for anyone wanting to improve their ability to find and tell their own stories within a business context – about your business or as a company leader. (Twitter: Forever Blue. Any Tuesday evening in Boston, you can drop by Out of the Blue Gallery in Cambridge and join Kevin, Laura Packer, and other storytellers from the area. (Twitter: @storylaura)

    If you are looking for storytelling events near you, the National Storytelling Network is a good place to start.

    Your stories

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    We’ve been talking to a lot of people about stories at UX Book Clubs. One of the best things about those events is the way people use stories to explain their ideas. As we say in the book, talking about stories makes people think of stories to tell.

    We’d like to hear some of those stories in more detail, so this is an open invitation to share your thoughts about ways of creating and communicating stories as part of your UX work.

    What’s a juicy story?

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    One of the perennial questions in UX is how we can get our colleagues to listen to us. To our ideas. To user research that contradicts firmly-held beliefs. To reports of subtle problems that add up to a lousy experience. To new ways of thinking about a design problem. Stories can help. Instead of arguing, they put ideas into an active context, making them less abstract.

    Those stories become juicy when they engage the imagination.

    • A good user story gives you a character, an action and a goal.
    • A good scenario fills in the plot and motivations.
    • A juicy story adds imagery – sensory, emotional, contextual details.

    They are all forms of story, of course. But it’s the details that create the emotional connection. That connection lets us imagine the world of the story and understand the experience it encompasses. And when that happens, we can create great user experiences.

    Want to know more about how to create a juicy story? We have a new article at UXmatters: Juicy Stories Sell Ideas.

    Or, you can get the UIE Virtual Seminar Storytelling for UX (How stories communicate, explore, persuade, and inspire)

    Has a story every carried the day for you? Tell us about your juicy stories.