Storymapping: A MacGyver Approach to Content Strategy, Part 3

April 21, 2014

In Part 2 of our series on using narrative storymapping to create a high-level content strategy, we told you about our narrative approach and how we extracted storymapping from it. This let us get our work finished in a short amount of time, using few resources—just like MacGyver. We also described in detail how our storymapping process works. Now, in Part 3—the final part of this series—we’ll tell you about the results we got from using our narrative storymapping approach. We’ll explain what worked, what did’t, and what this means for those of you wanting to try the same or a similar approach, and let you know how we’ve moved forward. So let’s jump right in!

What Worked

The narrative story map that we created with our client helped us to see things that would otherwise have been difficult, time consuming, and perhaps even impossible to discover by conducting a traditional content audit. Visually mapping content on a wall, along a giant narrative arc, let us quickly and clearly identify what we now recognize were glaring gaps in the EASE program content. For example, we had only one piece of content that led users into the EASE story: a video that introduced the program. This would have to change. Our narrative story map showed us that we needed some additional content—for example, a short description of the program and photographs of educators and students using the program in the classroom—to fill out the beginning and develop a full exposition of our story.

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The second thing that our storymapping approach allowed us to see was that critical parts of the program’s story were pretty boring. For example, we saw that, while EASE had content that covered the important, or climactic, parts of the program’s story, that content was weak and less than engaging. Where the high point, or climax, should have been happening in the EASE story, we lacked content that would grab our audience and keep them engaged in the program. On the other hand, our narrative story map also let us see content strengths. For example, we were able to see that EASE had a robust listing of program activities that, even though they were’t in an ideal format, were at least in a format that they could distribute online to support the story. Thus, we were able to see content strengths and weaknesses very clearly from our map.

In addition to helping us to uncover content gaps, strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities, using a narrative story map enabled us to create a content roadmap extremely quickly and efficiently. Once we had assessed all of the content needs, we conducted a prioritization exercise that let us prioritize content development based on organization goals, user goals, and the level of effort that creating or updating specific content would require. This prioritized list of content would become our roadmap and inform the next phases of content production, research, and most importantly, grant-application writing.

Lastly, our narrative story map exercise worked for us: the EASE team asked us back to do more work for them. They are currently in the process of writing a grant application, which our prioritization exercise not only made easier, but helped the team to see that having people like us around helped them to be successful in their content-development efforts. A true win-win!

What Did’t Work

While structuring our engagement as a series of collaborative, rapid-fire workshops was successful overall and helped us to create a strategic vision and content roadmap in a very short period of time, there were some downsides. First, while we engaged key stakeholders within the organization and made sure that we did all of our work collaboratively, we could’t engage all key players in our process, as we would have liked to do. We prefer, whenever possible, to include lead designers, developers, writers, and anyone else who will play a key role in a project early on, so they can provide their input and we can get everyone’s buy-in. However, since we were not able to include all of these players, it’s possible that the team might not be able to reap all of the benefits that the workshops could have provided.

The second downside to working so quickly was that we did not get the chance to get out of the building, talk to users, and validate our hypotheses. Yes, our educated guesses were especially well informed because of the sound structure that we established through the mechanism of mapping the content as a narrative story map, but they are still just our best guesses until they are proven otherwise. Likewise, while the program managers were able to provide amazing insights that helped us to craft provisional personas that we used in ranking and prioritizing content and informed our roadmap, these are just sketches until we prove that our solutions are right for the users.

A team’s hypothesizing about what the stories might be for their users is an amazing exercise to go through, but stories are most powerful when they come directly from user research. At its best, storymapping is less an exercise in creativity and more one of recording research data in a visual, logical, and highly structural manner; as stories that flow, have key plot points, and a beginning, middle, and end. At its second best, it’s a tool for recording well-considered hypotheses that you will have to test, because even the best storytellers can sometimes be off the mark.

What We Learned

The entire experience was full of learnings, both large and small, but in this article, our aim is to tell you about our most poignant takeaways and powerful insights that can, hopefully, help you in your work.

The first thing that we learned was that the EASE team actually got way more value out of the week than they or even we had expected. In fact, we got much more value out of the week than we had expected! Basically, we had hypothesized that the week would be successful, but we did’t fully foresee the impact that we’d have. We had assumed that, walking away from the week, the EASE team would have a better understanding of their content and how to go about prioritizing it, which, in fact, did happen. But going beyond that, the team actually learned to think about the content that they already had and that they needed in a different way. We observed them actually rethinking many of the program’s content decisions that were already in place and changing them based on their new understanding of their program’s narrative.

Because of the team’s having a better understanding of the program’s story, they started to rethink who their content partners are. One quote: “Wow, I never realized how much we rely on them for content! Why am I not having a lunch meeting with these folks next week?” This statement and others showcased the team’s newfound understanding and their willingness to work hard to meet their new goals.

Our second big takeaway was that the key to understanding the entire program started with the content. For many UX professionals, this would not be a new realization. We live and die by the idea that content is king. But, for our clients, this was a huge learning—and our seeing this in action reminded us, in a big way, of the reality that it’s hard for clients to focus on the content.

Eventually, the program team wanted to create a sort of digital presence for their content—whether an application or a Web site—and everyone wanted to go straight to designing that digital presence. (Who has’t been there before?) However, as many of us know, content must sometimes come first because, as in this case, there often is no product without the content.

To define what a digital product for the program could be, we first had to understand what the program’s story was and what content we needed to tell and support that story. Knowing this helps a team to define any digital product. And, although it was hard to focus the team on the content, by sticking to our guns and making sure that content was their focus, we set the program team up to create a killer product that supports their program and takes the users through the intended narrative.

The third main takeaway was our learning that it does’t have to take much to make a big impact. But it does take attention to detail in the moment. Yes, we know it’s a cliché at this point, but this takes knowing the arc of the story that you want to tell to your users. In this case, the EASE program leaders and staff were our users. So, to figure out what the content should include, we mapped it out as a story, as Figure 1 shows. Doing this let us see how the week would need to play out for us to reach our goals:

  • creating a prioritized list of program goals
  • establishing a baseline understanding of user needs and goals
  • conducting a content audit
  • creating a well-organized and prioritized list of content needs
  • planning our next steps

Because we had mapped out our approach at such a high level, when in the moment, we were able to stay super focused on the details of what the client needed, what they were saying, and what the outcomes were. This focus let us move forward very quickly because we were’t expending time on tasks that did’t contribute to our goals.

Figure 1—Storymapping our client engagement
Storymapping our client engagement

The best part, perhaps, is that we were also able to ensure that our engagement was exciting and engaging for all participants—by definition, it should be, right?—addressed problems early on, got more interesting with each passing day, culminated in several aha! moments; and concluded with clear calls to action, solutions, and a roadmap. As we saw in action, the elements that create a good story also engender deep engagement, making all parties involved—especially us, the consultants—want to come back for more. We all want to see what happens next!

Moving Forward

Given all that we learned, our advice for trying the storymapping method—or anything like it—is simple: First and foremost, when attempting any short-term activity like this one, you need to stay focused. So you should start with a very well-defined plan that you’ve really thought through, but not adhere to it rigidly. Your plan should set the high-level milestones and goals, but also allow you to be flexible in the moment and shift paths slightly while still maintaining your focus.

Second, keep in mind that the grand UX process we all know and love—or one of the many subsets or offshoots of brand-name processes that pop up every year—is not set in stone. Our UX process is only a guide—a toolbox from which we can select the right tools, at the right time, for the right users or clients. By setting clear, overall goals and maintaining your focus, you should be able to choose the correct tools for whatever mission is at hand.

Third, do not work in a silo. For this method to be successful, you need to include the team whenever possible. And by the team, we do not just mean the executives and decision makers—although it is, of course, important to include these people as part of the team. But we are also talking about anyone who can contribute to the success of a project. On this project, the people who were working on or with the EASE program were able to come up with needs, goals, and features that it would have taken us months of research to discover. If we hand’t had so many team members with knowledge of the EASE program and its users’ needs in the room, we could not have succeeded.

Last, but certainly not least, map the story. Map the story of the project, of the product, of client relationships. Map anything whose direction is unclear. User experiences exist everywhere—not just for products, but for our clients and our projects. And there is no such thing as a user experience without a story. Just make sure that the story that an experience tells is a good one. The best way to do this is to use this simple process to map the story! You won’t be sorry that you took the time to do this.

In Conclusion

Thank you for traveling along with us on this MacGyver-style journey! We’ve enjoyed sharing our process, learnings, and thoughts with you. Hopefully, you’ll find this information useful in your own UX practice. If you have any thoughts, learnings, or new process points to add, we’re all ears! 

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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