Storytelling for UX, an Interview with Whitney Quesenbery and Kevin Brooks

By Daniel Szuc

Published: November 1, 2010

“I tell stories to my work teams when I have something really important to say or something I really want to share with them, and I want them to experience it.”—Whitney Quesenbery

I had the good fortune of speaking with both Whitney and Kevin about their new book Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting Stories for Better Design. According to Rosenfeld Media:

“This book looks across the full spectrum of user experience design to discover when and how to use stories to improve our products. Whether you are a researcher, designer, analyst, or manager, you will find ideas and techniques you can put to use in your practice.”

Now, onto the interview…

Daniel: Why the book?

Whitney: Because thinking about user experience as a form of storytelling and, more importantly, thinking of our own process as a form of storytelling is something that was out there, but no one had really collected up in a coherent form. So I thought this was a chance to look at storytelling that way.

Daniel: What makes for a good story?

Whitney: I think maybe the most important thing is: you have to care about and really know about the subject you’re telling the story about. So I find I tell stories to my work teams when I have something really important to say or something I really want to share with them, and I want them to experience it. I think you can tell a good story when you have thought pretty deeply about what it is you want to say or want to share.

“A lot of what makes a good story is when storytellers believe in what they are saying.”—Kevin Brooks

Kevin: A lot of what makes a good story is when storytellers believe in what they are saying. What also helps is storytellers knowing what they themselves are adding to the stories—what their physical presence and their telling of the story is adding to the story material itself. It’s kind of the left hand and right hand working together, so that’s important. One measure of a good story is when the audience loses track of who they are. When the storyteller knows how to bring them out of themselves, how to appeal to them, how to string ideas together, and use all of this in concert to create a great experience. Every storyteller knows that telling a great story is for the benefit for the audience, not for their own benefit.

Whitney: When you are telling a story as part of a work team, I used to suggest keeping it short, but I think that’s the wrong answer. I think you’ll be aware when you’ve told enough and can stop now, because the people who are sharing the story with you get it and are ready to process the meaning themselves and talk about it themselves and do something with what they have just heard. So knowing when to stop is an important part of a good story.

“In some form or other, we’re already weaving storytelling into all of our user experience work, so what we can do is use it more consciously—use it more effectively, so the power of storytelling can work for us.”—Whitney Quesenbery

Daniel: How do you both see storytelling being implemented or woven into product development?

Whitney: Well, I think woven into is the right way of saying this. We sort of joke that we’re not proposing story-driven design. I mean, everybody seems to pick up something that works for them and make that the centerpiece of their new methodology. But I don't think we’re saying that at all. I think what we’re really saying is that, in some form or other, we’re already weaving storytelling into all of our user experience work, so what we can do is use it more consciously—use it more effectively, so the power of storytelling can work for us. I think, a lot of times, when we talk to people in the field of user experience—it doesn't seem to matter what we’re talking about—the first question is always Yeah, but how do I convince someone to let me do that? One of the things that stories do very nicely is that they persuade. But they persuade in a very benign way—by inviting someone into a world you are creating. So instead of arguing about details, you can tell a story about how your vision of the product might play out or how the technique you want to use might play out.

“Storytelling … can take rational ideas that may be about numbers or math and bring them more fully into the world by giving them a human context to affect people. So one of the best things about stories is that they inspire other stories.”—Kevin Brooks

Kevin: What storytelling does is: it can take rational ideas that may be about numbers or math and bring them more fully into the world by giving them a human context to affect people. So one of the best things about stories is that they inspire other stories. Stories are a way for people to be constantly breathing a form of life into a very rational process.

Daniel: How do stories complement other UX methods or tools toward reaching an end point?

Whitney: Well, for one thing, it can tie them together. So you might start with a story that’s an idea and—by getting someone to tell that idea in a story form, instead of saying I have this technology idea—it might change into an idea that’s got a person in it. Then, you might go out and do some user research and build some personas. You might want to think about how each of those personas reacts or interacts with this developing story of what a product is. You can spin out scenarios that explore the design in the context of the story. So maybe your ideas are crystal clear, but your design isn’t, and you need to think about what design metaphor really works. One of the ways to do that is to tell stories. You might then want to test the design prototypes, metaphors, and concepts.

“Start with a story that’s … got a person in it. … Do some user research and build some personas. … Think about how each of those personas reacts or interacts with this developing story of what a product is. … Spin out scenarios that explore the design in the context of the story.”—Whitney Quesenbery

Kevin: Telling a story and making the context of that story wider basically gives you a set of glasses—a different sets of glasses—that allows people to grow in different ways and, therefore, because the world is different or wider or bigger, whichever you prefer, the problem takes on a different shape.

Daniel: If there were a few critical learnings or key takeaways you’d want people to have after reading the book—or, for people who are interested in buying the book, what they could expect to learn—what would they be for both of you?

Kevin: The key takeaway? It’s about the power of the audience as much as the power of the story. The power of the audience informs the storyteller, enabling him or her to tell a better story. The power of the audience shows the storyteller how the story is going to work. And by teaching the storyteller that, by understanding the audience’s role, you go along way toward understanding how people can be affected by storytelling. Which is why the book starts with listening—doing what the audience’s role is. A lot of it is about listening and being present.

“The power of the audience informs the storyteller, enabling him or her to tell a better story, … shows the storyteller how the story is going to work. … By understanding the audience’s role, you go along way toward understanding how people can be affected by storytelling.”
—Kevin Brooks

Whitney: I think I’d be happy if people walked away thinking: This is just as simple as it sounds. I think I can do it. We get interesting, mixed reviews when we do presentations. We get, “Oh, that was fabulous,” which is very gratifying. Then, we get people who say “Well, that all seemed obvious,” which always makes me think about a situation I was in many, many years ago, when we were talking about user-centered design at a large investment bank in New York City. One of the development managers said, “That all seems like mom and apple pie. What’s special about this?” I answered, “Well, do you do it?” And they all laughed and said. “No.” So I think, if people just know there is a way to talk about what we do without getting formal about it, that’s a great outcome.

Kevin: Thank you! This has been fun!

Thank you to Jeff Parks and Suzanne Lowry for helping with the transcript.

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