Juicy Stories Sell Ideas

Universal Usability

Putting people at the center of design

September 6, 2010

Stories are hot. And why not? We all know how to tell a story. Stories are a lot more interesting than most other ways of sharing information. And they work. Stories are a great way to introduce a concept in an imaginative way or sell an idea to your team or management.

Storytelling fits into the design process in many places. You probably know that collecting stories is key to user research and ensuring your UX designs tell a clear story makes the resulting user experiences better. But in this column, we’ll focus on that big moment when you have something to share and want everyone on your team to pay attention.

Here’s an example of a case where a story is worth a thousand arguments. All of us have likely been there:

You’ve been testing some concepts for a new product design. Your team is excited about the ideas. Unfortunately, your users aren’t. When you take this disappointing news to your team, your report is met with skepticism. They might say, “You must have found the only people on the planet who don’t love this idea.” Or perhaps, “Your tasks must have been wrong.” Or, “You’ve just misunderstood them.” You know the design concepts won’t work as they are, but you just can’t convince the team.

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Once your team gets in that place, no amount of persuasion seems to work, and the discussion can degenerate into a battle of opinions—what Steve Krug calls “religious wars”—which can break out even over how to respond to user research or usability tests. Our usual business tools—charts, graphs, and rational argument—don’t work very well when you have to convince people on both a rational and an emotional level. You might be able to overwhelm them with data, but to do that, you have to have a lot of data. You can work through a dialogue with your team to resolve such issues, but this takes a long time and is impractical if you need to persuade a lot of people at once. That’s where stories come in.

Storytelling as a way of communicating ideas isn’t just our idea. There’s a whole community around storytelling as a way to lead. Steve Denning, a former manager at the World Bank, says a story can act as a spark for an idea. In his books The Springboard and Radical Management, he describes the way you can use stories to introduce new ideas into an organization and get people to listen to them. He thinks they are the key to a new style of leadership that abandons command-and-control for teamwork.

What makes stories work in a business context is the way they engage the imagination. The same thing works in user experience. A good storyteller invites listeners to enter into the world of the story and make it their own. Figures 1–4 show how this works.

Figure 1—First, the storyteller shapes the story.
First, the storyteller shapes the story
Figure 2—Listeners form an image of the story in their own minds.
Listeners form an image of the story in their own minds
Figure 3—As the story unfolds, the storyteller and listeners also interact. Energy flows back and forth between them, and each affects the others, shaping the story they create together.
As the story unfolds, the storyteller and listeners also interact. Energy flows back and forth between them, and each affects the others, shaping the story they create together.
Figure 4—In the end, the most important relationship is between the listeners and the story. They are part of the story each time it is told.
In the end, the most important relationship is between the listeners and the story. They are part of the story each time it is told.

From Whitney Quesenbery and Kevin Brooks. Storytelling for User Experience. New York: Rosenfeld Media, 2010. Illustration by Calvin C. Chan. ? All rights reserved by Rosenfeld Media.

Once your listeners have engaged their brain and their emotions, they’re ready to join you in a new idea.

Here are three examples of how short, targeted stories can engage your team or your management as you explain user research results or present a design idea.

Use Stories to Explain Pesky Realities

Real people have a habit of surprising us with unexpected attitudes or behavior. When you have to share counterintuitive or subtle user research, don’t drown your team in data. That sets you up for an argument—and a few data points probably won’t convince anyone on their own. Instead, use a story to present the idea from a different perspective. When crafting your story, you can use this simple structure:

  1. Start with a fact.
  2. Suggest an explanation.
  3. Use a juicy fragment from your user research to illustrate the point.
  4. End with a conclusion.

Here’s an example:

We were ready to be disappointed. We’d tried a discussion forum before, but nurses were more interested in people than technology. They used the Web, of course, but didn’t see social media as something for work. Only a few of them had phones that did more than make phone calls. Some didn’t even have Web access except at home. So, we were taken by surprise when one nurse after another got enthusiastic about some concept sketches for mobile health sites.

Gina gave us the first clue. A nurse manager for the county health system, she told us: “I’m on the move all day, and I have a huge case load. Patients are always throwing new questions at me. Yesterday, I really struggled to sort out a problem one patient was having with side effects. Though I speak a little Spanish, I just couldn’t remember the correct medical term to explain a new adjuvant the doctor wanted to try. It was so frustrating. I’d like to know it all, but there are difficult cases and new drugs. I always try to make sure I get all the specifics right, so I don’t give anyone the wrong information.”

What Gina wanted was targeted and practical: Spanish translations of medical terms, information about side effects, and dosing guidelines. She pointed at the sketch, saying, “I don’t have a phone that will do all that—yet. But if it’s really that simple…”

Instead of our team’s arguing about adoption rates of smartphones among nurses or whether medical professionals are Web savvy, our story put the data into context. The problem wasn’t what technology the nurses have, but understanding how they think about technology on the job. Stories from your research data that illustrate the real people and real contexts behind the data can be a starting point for productive discussion and brainstorming—and, in this case, a mobile Web site that would really work for this audience.

Your story doesn’t have to be long and involved. A simple, juicy fragment lets your audience get the flavor of a real person with a real point of view. Here’s what you need:

  • a sympathetic character—Make sure you give a few details, so your audience can identify with the person in the story, no matter how far the character seems from your listeners. For example, our listeners may not be nurses, but everyone can identify with a chaotic, busy workday like Gina’s and having to deal with a constant stream of new information.
  • a clear situation—Include enough context to set the scene, but make sure there’s room for your listeners to imagine their own small, contextual details. In our example, our listeners would be able to imagine working in a busy county health center and the challenges of low health literacy, so they wouldn’t need much help to understand Gina’s perspective.
  • rich imagery—Focus on details that evoke sensory images. You want to communicate what the person’s experience is like, not the details of the activity. Gina is on her feet all day. She’s rushed. Her patients can be difficult to communicate with. The information she needs is always somewhere else.

Finally, keep your story short. You can always build on the basic story if people ask you to elaborate or answer questions. The shorter the story, the faster it is to deliver and the easier it is for your listeners to hold it all in their mind and consider it like a gem. The longer the story, the greater the risk that it will take on a life of its own and drift away from the point you are trying to make.

Stories Can Spark Ideas

Another situation where stories can be useful is in brainstorming ideas for something new. To tell a story that helps your team collaboratively create a design idea, you can start with a problem, tell a story that imagines what if, then let your design show how that story might become reality. For example:

Mary is always writing down notes—on slips of paper, on Post-its on her desktop, on the calendar by the front door, and on the organizer pad on her desk. She’s called her own home phone to leave a message for herself. She’s even written reminders on her hand. As a research scientist and mother, she’s gotten to be a first-class multitasker. But somehow, whenever she’s rushing through the grocery store on her way home, she can never remember whether she’s out of milk or has three cartons in the fridge. Or if today’s the day she’s picking up the kids from their soccer game or rushing home in time for a call from... Where is it this week? It’s not that she doesn’t have a calendar. She’s got three—or is it four? What Mary wants is a way to put everything together and keep track of it in one place—no matter where she is and no matter whether she’s wearing something with pockets or carrying a bag. From anywhere, anytime. If only she had…

This story provides context and communicates a problem. It hints at some detail, but not too much. Why? Because you want the people hearing the story to fill in the gaps for themselves, so they can start thinking about a solution that would finish the story, thinking about all the Marys out there with the same problem. Let’s look at the structure of this story:

  1. Set the context. Mary is an overloaded person who is trying to get organized. She is a mother with a professional job, who just doesn’t have enough time. Use details from your user research to keep these images grounded in real experience.
  2. Describe the problem. Mary has too much going on in her life, and even though she has a lot of tools, they don’t all work together. Plus, she doesn’t always have access to them.
  3. Close with an opening to explore. “What Mary wants is…” a different experience. The story doesn’t offer a solution. It just points in a general direction. This lets the team fill in the gaps by coming up with their own ideas for devising a solution to this problem.

Notice that this story doesn’t include too many details. Unless you are brainstorming specifically about, say, merging kids’ sports schedules with a business calendar, you should leave room for your team members to think about all the different people Mary represents. If there are too many specifics at this point, you run the risk of Mary’s representing only Mary—just one person.

When you start with an in-a-perfect-world scenario, you get to paint that perfect world and the technology that drives it. Your goal should be to spark your listeners’ creativity and imagination. If a great new idea is only your idea, you’ll have to carry it through the gauntlet of resistance alone. But if a great new idea is everybody’s idea—if they’ve all helped dream it up—that idea has the combined momentum and diverse creative input of the group to carry it through.

Stories Set a Context to Sell an Idea

Let’s roll forward a little bit. You’ve done your user research. You and your team have come up with an innovative new design. Now you have to convince management it’s the right solution.

If you frame an idea with a technical explanation, it’s easy to get off track, discussing technology instead of the user experience. Furthermore, not specifying a technology yet leaves room for managers to connect to the questions your innovative idea really addresses—like Why is it that people like to keep separate calendars for different parts of their life? How could a calendar help enforce someone’s effort to have a life that seems less busy and more sane?

It really helps if you can connect your story to the sorts of real events management can understand. Here’s one of the stories we created to sell the idea of a collection of intranet tools:

At the beginning of this project, we found the head of the support staff sitting on the floor in her office, sorting through a collection of product boxes, trying to figure out what we sell—in which countries, under what name—to answer a customer’s question. Yep. Sitting on the floor reading labels was faster than finding someone to run a query on the product database. Why can’t she do this herself, on an easy-to-use Web site? Here’s the future we imagined:

February 17, 3:23 pm, London, England: Susan Bentley needs product information. She just received an inquiry from a pharmacist, concerning a customer who is on vacation in San Francisco and has lost his allergy medication. He needs to find a place to purchase the product in the US or identify an alternative. Sue uses the Product Encyclopedia, which includes the entire consumer-product database. A search by product name, ingredient, and country produces a total of three different options. She contacts the pharmacist and forwards the information.

Let us show you how we think this could work…

This story structure uses the same elements as the first two. We’ve still got a character the managers can identify with. We have a problem they might not have anticipated—that their big SQL database isn’t easy enough to use or fast enough for front-line staff. And we have a vision of a solution that doesn’t just solve Sue’s problem, it can also help sell the company’s products.

Keep the Details Real

Whether you are crafting a story to persuade or to start a brainstorming session, make sure you stick to real details. It’s the way these details ground your stories that gives them some of their power. After all, you’re not trying to win a prize for fiction, but to put storytelling to work to create a product you hope real people will actually want.

Of course, this means you have to know something about those people. If not, you may end up writing mirror stories—stories that are just perfect for the person you see in the mirror every morning.

The previous story has a nice after-story. We got the go-ahead to build the product database as part of a knowledge-management system. Just before it launched, the project leader got an email message from a colleague. “Would we like to consider her idea for that intranet project?” The message contained a chain of messages that almost exactly mirrored the situation we outlined in that story. (Here’s a brief presentationPDF about that project.)

Stories: Any Time, Anywhere

Stories can help you share, explain, imagine, or persuade. The nice thing about stories is that they can fit anywhere in the design process. You don’t have to start telling stories from the very beginning of a project; they can be useful wherever you are in your design process, whether or not you have done rich user research. You don’t have to learn a new method to sell your ideas and persuade your team or management. You don’t have to announce that you are about to tell a story. Just slip a few juicy story tidbits into your presentation or discussion, and you might find the people who listen to them are getting more involved in your ideas. Your first story might be about something unexpected you learned from users or a problem that is begging for a solution or just a way of explaining some aspect of a user experience. All it takes to start using stories in your work is just to start. Your stories will get better with practice. 

Resources for Storytellers

If you’d like to read more about using stories to communicate with management, we can recommend a few resources:

  • For storytelling in business, these books are a good place to start:
    • The Story Factor and Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, by Annette Simmons
    • Managing by Storying Around, by David Armstrong
    • The Secret Language of Leadership and Radical Management, by Stephen Denning
  • Web sites and communities of business-focused storytellers:
    • Golden Fleece has a discussion list and an annual conference.
    • You can meet like-minded people on the Storytelling in Organizations page on Facebook.
    • A Storied Career is a blog about different uses of storytelling, with profiles of people using stories in many ways.
    • Improving Your Storytelling, by Doug Lipman, is a great coaching book that helps you do just that. You can sign up for his monthly storytelling newsletter, Story Dynamics.
    • There are local storytelling groups that meet regularly in many cities around the world.
  • For more about stories in user experience:

And, of course, read our own book: Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting Stories for Better Design.

Principal Researcher at WQusability

Co-founder of Center for Civic Design

New York, New York, USA

Whitney QuesenberyWhitney is an expert in user research, user experience, and usability, with a passion for clear communication. As Principal Consultant at Whitney Interactive Design, she works with large and small companies to develop usable Web sites and applications. She enjoys learning about people around the world and using those insights to design products where people matter. She also works on projects with the National Cancer Institute / National Institutes of Health, IEEE, The Open University, and others. Whitney has served as President of the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA), on the Executive Council for UXnet, on the board of the Center for Plain Language,and as Director of the UPA Usability in Civic Life project. She has also served on two U.S. government advisory committees: Advisory Committee to the U.S. Access Board (TEITAC), updating the Section 508 regulations, and as Chair for Human Factors and Privacy on the Elections Assistance Commission Advisory Committee (TGDC), creating requirements for voting systems for US elections. Whitney is proud that one of her articles has won an STC Outstanding Journal Article award and that her chapter in Content and Complexity, “Dimensions of Usability,” appears on many course reading lists. She wrote about the use of stories in personas in the chapter “Storytelling and Narrative,” in The Personas Lifecycle, by Pruitt and Adlin. Recently, Rosenfeld Media published her book Storytelling in User Experience Design, which she coauthored with Kevin Brooks.  Read More

Principal Staff Researcher at Motorola Labs and Storyteller

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Kevin BrooksAt Motorola, Kevin researches new user interface technologies and expresses them as connected user-centered experiences, using various media. Always interested in both computer science and filmmaking, he hungered for them to become more integrated. While researching how to use both to tell stories, he found the oral storytelling community in the Boston area. As Kevin developed and performed as a professional oral storyteller, then began coaching other storytellers, he learned a lot about storytelling as a pivotal part of the creative, performance, and design process. As a storyteller, Kevin tells humorous and poignant tales from his life for both adults and families, as you can hear on his CD Kiss of Summer. He has been a featured performer at storytelling festivals and conferences and has given numerous storytelling workshops to engineers, designers, and other storytellers. As an undergraduate, Kevin studied engineering, computer science, creative writing, and film production, receiving a BS in Communications from Drexel University. He earned an MA in Documentary Film from Stanford University. Kevin received his PhD in Media Arts and Sciences from the MIT Media Lab, where his area of research was computational narrative and interactive cinema. Kevin has published several papers on storytelling and interactive story design. He is the coauthor, with Whitney Quesenbery, of the Rosenfeld Media book Storytelling in User Experience Design.  Read More

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