Storymapping: A MacGyver Approach to Content Strategy, Part 2

March 25, 2014

In Part 1 of this series on using a storymapping approach to content strategy, we told you about how a local nonprofit, Urban Arts Partnership, brought us a frequent client problem: their need to better understand, organize, and maintain the content for their EASE Program. We explained that, even though there are tried-and-true methods that we could have used to solve this problem—specifically, conducting stakeholder and user interviews during a typical discovery phase, leading to the creation of personas and a content inventory—they wouldn’t have worked for this project. We had realized that, given the short amount of time they had allotted for the project and the small budget that was available for our time, we needed to figure out a new way to help our clients get their heads around their content. So, we introduced our idea of adapting an old approach, storymapping, to solve Urban Arts’ problem on time and on budget.

Now, in Part 2 of our series, we’ll take a deeper dive into the research behind the narrative, storymapping approach, provide further insights into why we chose this approach, and provide details about how we used this approach with our client.

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Introducing the Narrative Arc and Storymapping

But first, a digression. Many years ago, Donna was in film school, showing one of her first projects. The screening should have been a walk in the park because this was graduate school, and she had already made many films as an undergraduate, studying and winning awards for—you guessed it—film. To her surprise, her classmates and professor were quite disappointed by her short. The biggest criticism: the flow. The story had no discernible narrative arc. It took too long to get going, then once it did, it never really went anywhere, and then, it kind of just ended. The result? Her viewers were disengaged, which was definitely short of her goal.

Engagement. Sound familiar? It’s something that most filmmakers, as well as UX professionals, tackle on a daily basis. A good story engages. A good user experience engages, too. While a good story can be quite complex, the essence of engagement is simply this: a story must have a strong narrative arc. And while such a narrative arc can sometimes emerge innately from the things that we create, if we don’t consciously think about it, it might not emerge at all. This is what happened to Donna.

Parts of the Narrative Arc

While crafting a strong narrative arc may seem daunting, doing this is usually pretty quick and easy—it just requires some planning and thought. First, every story has a beginning, middle, and end, with the middle typically taking up a longer period of time than the beginning or the end, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1—The parts of a story
The parts of a story

Then, every story has an arc that looks a bit like that in Figure 2.

Figure 2—A story arc
A story arc

While the X-axis in Figure 2 represents time, the Y-axis represents the action. In other words, what Figure 2 illustrates is simply this: stories build in excitement and the pace of their action increases over time until they hit a high point, then wind down before they end. When they don’t wind down and instead end while the action is still rising or at a peak, we call the story a cliffhanger.

Every narrative arc has key points, and while an avant garde story might meander and break the narrative-arc model whenever possible, traditional stories have key plot sections and points that map nicely onto this arc, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3—Action on a story arc
Action on a story arc

Let’s break down each key part and point in the narrative arc.


This is how all stories begin and get set up: they introduce the world, the characters, and the genre, theme, or general feeling. Usually, in the exposition, all is well in the world. Why? So something can go wrong later—the inciting incident. One example we like to use is Back to the Future, which has a pretty simple exposition: Marty McFly is a guy who lives in Hill Valley—any suburb USA. Doc is a mad scientist and has a time machine. Cool!

Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is a moment where something goes wrong in the world of the story. At that point, the protagonist of the story goes on a type of journey to right that wrong, and we spend the rest of the story seeing how it all pans out. In Back to the Future, the excitement of a time machine doesn’t last long; a gang of misfits shoot Doc in a parking lot. Not good. In an attempt to escape, Marty ends up driving the time machine to 1955, then finds out that he doesn’t have enough fuel to get home. Really not good!

Rising Action

Like a good essay, a good story builds over time. Rather than making the most exciting thing happen right after the inciting incident, with the rest of the story remaining flat, storytellers build anticipation and excitement as the plot gets more and more interesting. During the rising action of any good story, there is also some friction to keep the audience engaged. Without friction, endings come too easily, and the audience is unconvinced or bored or both. In Back to the Future, Marty sets out to find 1955 Doc, and they try to get Marty home.


The story culminates at the point of maximum friction—what we call the moment of crisis. It’s the point of no return. Something really bad happens, and the story either has to right itself or end. In Back to the Future, this is the point at which Marty is close to getting home, but starts to disappear. He has to right the wrong that he’s introduced in the space-time continuum by getting his parents together. Otherwise, he’ll never be born in the altered future.


Just as it sounds, the climax occurs at the top of the story arc. It’s the most exciting part of the story and the point at which something cool happens that makes us realize that all might be well with the world again—but not quite yet, because the story still has to reach its end. Often in stories—especially in movies—the crisis involves a kiss between two characters, as in Back to the Future. Marty’s parents kiss; they dance; so now it just might be possible to get home. But wait! There’s more! There’s a clock tower and lightning. Will Marty be able to get home?

Denouement, or Falling Action

This is how the story ends. Because you usually can’t just end at the climax. (Remember, if you do, it’s a cliffhanger.) The action starts slowing down in pace. Sometimes, as in Back to the Future, you literally see falling action—in this case, from the top of a clock tower and leading to Marty getting home. It’s how everything in the story gets wrapped up.


Quite literally, this is the end. Often, stories end with the protagonist coming home after a long journey, as in Back to the Future. Marty McFly arrives home in present-day Hill Valley. Sometimes this resolution sparks an entirely new narrative, or sequel, which brings up the topic of serial narratives. In the world of user experience and product design, designing for serial narratives is a great way to tackle long-term engagements and repeat use cases. Sadly, serial mechanics are too complex a topic to cover within the scope of this article. We know, we know! Cliffhanger!

Storymapping Content for Engagement

Now that you know a bit about the narrative arc and mapping stories to it—that is, storymapping—to ensure your audience is engaged, fulfilled, and delighted, let’s look at how we discovered a fit between this method and our work helping Urban Arts to organize and understand the EASE program’s existing content. We mentioned in Part I of this series that the main reason we went with the storymapping approach was because we were working with a very short timeline and a very small budget. But there was another big reason that we went with this approach: if it could unearth patterns and bring together a cohesive story that engages audiences in the world of entertainment and film, why couldn’t we use a similar approach to engage audiences in a nonprofit program’s content? Further, why couldn’t we use the storymapping approach to show our client’s internal team what content fit within the program’s story, what content was missing from the story, and what particular content in the story we should present in an analog or digital format to successfully engage the audience? We were confident that we could use this approach in this way!

Our Approach in Detail: The Workshops

As UX professionals, we all know that, before we can get a high-level overview and understand all of a program’s or organization’s content, we first need to understand the content at a more detailed level. In addition to knowing that we needed to understand the content we’d be working with, as we mentioned in Part 1, we also knew that our project goals were to do the following:

  • Create a prioritized list of EASE program goals.
  • Achieve a baseline understanding of user needs and goals.
  • Conduct a well-organized and prioritized content audit.

Therefore, to understand the content, as well as meet these goals, we combined all of our tools and tricks into three half-day workshops. Now, let’s review exactly what we did.

Day 1: Setting Goals and Defining User Needs

We used the first day to meet the team and introduce ourselves, then set goals and expectations for the project. Next, we facilitated a session in which we had the individual team members come up with the overall goals and activities for the EASE program. We then brought these individuals together as a group and asked them to pitch their goals to us. In this way, we were able to prioritize program goals and check off the first item on our list.

Next, we moved on to defining our users. We did this by facilitating an ad hoc personas exercise, in which we had the team members define the user types in their own language, then recategorize them using I want or I need statements, and finally, to reorganize them into want- or need-based user types. This allowed us to achieve a baseline understanding of the main user goals and needs that were associated with the EASE content.

Last, we worked with the team to understand the people with whom they could potentially partner to foster the development of the program’s content. This was a simple brainstorming activity.

The most important thing to note about Day 1 is that we included everyone in these activities as much as we could. Even though the CEO of the company had limited time, he was still available for the initial project-goals discussion and was able to add his input to and help direct those project goals. We invited everyone who came into contact with the program in any way into the discussions and activities and encouraged them join us whenever they could. This enabled us to build a solid foundation on which to continue our work throughout the rest of the workshop.

Day 2: Mapping Content Journeys

During Day 2, things started to take shape. We had figured out and prioritized the program goals, as well as user needs, so could start to talk about content. We kicked off this discussion by mapping the content journeys of the various user types. This is where our narrative arc came into play. We explained the narrative arc to the team, then asked them to determine, individually, what the different parts of the narrative arc looked like for the content’s various users. We asked them to sketch out the ideal narrative arc that the users would follow. Next, we had them show their narrative arcs to each other and work together to combine all of them into one arc that would not only fulfill our users’ goals, but would also uphold our business and program goals.

Now that we had one narrative arc, we could begin to talk about the specific content that we needed to uphold the story and that we could map to the different parts of the arc. We gave the team Post-it notes on which to write down a piece of content that a user type would need at each point in the narrative arc to fulfill that part of the story. We invited them to write down as many types of content as they could think of that would be necessary to bring the user through each part of the story. In essence, the team generated content ideas to ensure that the users could use the program’s content to make their way through the storymap and be engaged along the way. The team wrote down ideas that included content that already existed and content that didn’t yet exist.

We then had the team map their Post-its to the narrative arc that they had created, so we could visualize a content map that would create a holistic user journey. The team members posted these pieces of content on the narrative arc, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4—Content on the narrative arc
Content on the narrative arc

Next, we asked the team to write down the pieces of content that already existed in digital format on Post-it notes, shown in Figure 5. Then, we asked them to do the same for content that they already had in analog format, shown in Figure 6. We posted these types of content in their own rows beneath the ideal narrative arc and the content that they ideally needed. From this mapping, it was easy for us to see where we had content gaps—that is, where we needed to create or update content—and also where we should remove content. This half way met our third goal of a prioritized and organized content audit. We had organized the content, but not yet prioritized it.

Figure 5—Mapping existing digital content
Mapping existing digital content
Figure 6—Mapping existing analog content
Mapping existing analog content

The last thing we did on Day 2 was to revisit the partner discussion in which the team had grouped and prioritized potential program partners. This discussion would feed into our next steps.

Day 3: Content Prioritization

During Day 3, we tackled content prioritization, having the team prioritize the content first by business need, then by the needs of specific user types, and finally, by complexity—that is, how hard it would be to get a particular type of content into its ideal state. This allowed us to rank the pieces of content based on the intersection of these priorities, thereby giving our client a prioritized and well-organized list of content that they needed either to create, make digital, or update to achieve the ideal content journey for specific user types.

We finished Day 3 by looking at the actual content and could clearly see what content we could and should tackle first—based on our priorities—and also by determining what content partners they should be reaching out to.


Our storymapping approach set the team up to begin the long process of getting their content in line and enabled us to position ourselves for a potential Phase 2 of the project that would include research to validate the user types that we had created.

So there it is. Like MacGyver, we had accomplished our goals in a brief time—only twelve hours—and with limited resources. But that doesn’t necessarily mean this approach worked in our favor—or did it? In Part 3, we’ll talk about the results of our experiment with storymapping—what worked, what didn’t, and how to make it better. Stay tuned! 

Managing UX Strategist at Iteration Group

Independent Consultant at Hubert Experience Design

Portland, Oregon , USA

Lis HubertAs an independent consultant based in New York City, Lis helps to bring understanding to businesses of all sizes, ensuring that their products and services meet both business and user needs and making them both successful and enjoyable to use. Her consulting business has served clients such as ESPN Mobile, espnW, and ViacomMedia Networks, improving their brand and product experiences. Lis is a frequent contributor to the UX community’s knowledge and serves on the advisory board for Future Insights. In addition to the work that Lis does behind the scenes, you’ll also find her speaking and writing about her experiences in the field, in cities ranging from New York to Prague.  Read More

Independent Product Strategy Consultant

Brooklyn, New York, USA

Donna LichawDonna is a product management and UX strategy consultant, advisor, speaker, and educator. She specializes in mobile, tablet, responsive Web, and mobile-first product strategy—getting the best results by helping teams to think big by starting small. Donna has worked with a variety of businesses around the world, from startups to nonprofits to established Fortune-500 companies such as Seamless, Citi, Bloomberg, Apartment Therapy, WNYC, Atlantic Records, The New School, and She has previously taught at Parsons The New School for Design and Northwestern University and currently teaches at NYU and General Assembly in New York City.  Read More

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