Stories have always been around to help us understand and make sense of the world. It goes from the stories we used to listen to as kids to the regular ones of our daily lives either in marketing, Saturday night dinners with friends, or even our work environment. Stories are part of who we are as humans, being at the core of how our minds work and interpret the world. A good user experience strategy considers the powerful impact of storytelling, once it can guide the user through a compelling narrative by adding value to an app or website, and consequently, to the whole business.
In this article, we will navigate through storytelling strategies and learn how it can improve the user experience. Curious? Stay tuned!
First things first: what is Storytelling?
A more simplistic explanation would be to say that storytelling is the act of sharing stories. However, the concept of storytelling can be used in many different fields and contexts (such as marketing, politics, and public relations); thus, a single definition would not cover this word’s extent. Storytelling is an art form, which can be oral, visual, written, and digital. Moreover, as humans, we share a story based on how we interact and express ourselves. Since it is an act of sharing stories, it necessarily includes a storyteller and an audience. In other words, it involves a two-way interaction, and at its best, results in a meaningful connection between both parties.
The roots of Storytelling
Stories powerfully stimulate the emotional connection we have with what surrounds us. The format we share them - unlike the content - is continuously changing. In other words, while a story is always a story, it is never told in the same way; thus, the way we experience it will also differ.
Starting with the early forms of visual storytelling, illustration is one of the oldest ways of communicating. In fact, since the early prehistoric engravings in 30,000 BC, we have been using and exploring many forms and formats to share stories. It led us to Gilgamesh (a major hero in ancient Mesopotamian mythology) carved into city walls in 700 BC; to the first fairy tales in the 17th century; to mass media magazines in the 20th century, to photography, followed by television in 1927; and last but not least, to where we are now. The 21st century is a century highly characterized by information and technological advancements.
As just said, it has been a long way of sharing stories, yet their power to impact remains the same. The Internet has allowed us to explore and benefit from all forms of storytelling, turning the oral, written, and visual traditions of storytelling into digital. Let’s travel a bit in time and take the following example: the oldest form of storytelling is visual, and it dates to more than 36,000 years ago in the Chauvet Cave, where you can find paintings of rhinos. The information we got from those paintings remains a vital record of humanity’s evolution since then, providing us with knowledge about how our late ancestors lived. Nowadays, visual storytelling continues to be an essential form of communication and knowledge sharing. However, instead of having a limited number of caves to disseminate information and entertainment, we have the Internet, with more than 1.8 billion websites.
We would expect that having access to an absurd amount of information would make us more rational and conscious of our decisions in the Digital Era. However, having communication purely and exclusively based on facts was never enough for us humans, and it most likely never will be. According to Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist and professor, “With technological changes, there have also been changes to irrationality. We have been bombarded with more information, so making decisions is tougher than ever. Not only that, but we have a strong chance of regretting our decisions.” - and we couldn’t agree more!
Our affections drive us to make rational or irrational decisions upon a specific service, product, or even about the football team we choose to support, being continuously influenced by the stories we share. The human mind is addicted to stories, and narratives remain part of how we process and interpret our experiences.
“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead”.
Tell me your story, and I will tell you who you are
The psychological aspects of storytelling allow us to create meaning. People tend to think in a story-like format, and the way we interpret narratives can be considered a mental process of linking and constructing stories that unfold over time. It can be the stories we shared on a first date, in a job interview, or even with fellow travelers while exploring the world. All those stories say something about an individual and are part of a narrative.
When we share stories with others either in person or digitally, we give someone the chance to get to know us personally and professionally, while in return, we also want to get to know them. Maybe, with a bit of luck, we are a match! Everyone and everything has their own story. After all, it is what defines us. Just like our identity is a consequence of our stories, the same thing happens with businesses. Meaning, companies may have similar products or services, but in the end, it’s their story that truly defines them. A successful UX Strategy helps businesses design narratives on online platforms like websites or apps while ensuring the user has a positive experience and does not get lost along the user journey. After all, no one likes that person who keeps going back and forth in an unclear way, losing track of what they say.
When a successful storytelling strategy is applied, users become immersed in a compelling narrative, and everything feels more like a real experience. In other words, it feels “closer” to us. Emotional responses, such as sympathy and empathy, are incredibly powerful and persuasive. Think about your favorite book, movie, or even song. Is it by any chance the one you had stronger feelings for? Is it the one that moves you? We like to think we are rational human beings who make decisions purely based on numbers and statistical analysis. However, it is not that simple. (Un)Fortunately, we are also highly driven by more complex and affective processes.
How Storytelling can create memorable User Experiences
To create a good user experience, it is crucial to have a great storytelling strategy. In addition to being highly related to emotional responses and connections, stories are also associated with memories. For example, I frequently need to write down a supermarket list (the struggle is in remembering what to add to the list). Long story short, I always forget something, yet I can still sing “Stan” from Eminem back and forth. It is stuck in my memory! The song tells a story about a character, Stan, who identified with Eminem’s lyrics and became obsessed with him.
Don’t get too excited. UX and UI designers probably won’t use beats and rhymes to tell stories. However, each step from the Research Phase to the Technical Assessment (check the different phases in our Product Design Process book), aims to communicate the business identity and provide a positive user experience, always considering the end-user. Consequently, by being able to do so, the impressions and feelings the end-users will store in their memories regarding a particular business will also be positive, making them more likely to return.
The ability to provide a memorable experience is one of the ultimate challenges for every business, especially considering the massive amount of information we are exposed to daily. Storytelling elements and techniques can be applied to help the UX/UI Design as a way to communicate and share stories through digital platforms. That is why some methods (such as creating personas, mapping the user journey, creating wireframes and mood boards) are used immediately from day one.
How Storytelling can help Designers
In the context of UX/UI Design, the designers’ goal is to craft the story to meet specific objectives and communicate without being misunderstood.
Ideally, a powerful story will be clear, simple, easy to follow, authentic, and emotional. Even though there is no magic key, the designer can use some storytelling elements such as plot, character, theme, dialogue, melody, decór, spectacle, and theme to design a memorable narrative experience. These elements were proposed in 300BC, way before the Digital Era, by Aristotle in his work “Poetics”. After analyzing numerous greek tragedies, the philosopher was able to identify a framework that constitutes a good story structure.
Despite not being an exact science, storytelling elements can help designers create a good user experience and understand how to align the business story with the online presence throughout each step. Therefore, it is not only how the designer tells a narrative: it’s how the narrative helps the design process being defined and developed.
For instance, personas are fictional characters created during the design process so that the designers comprehend to whom they are crafting an experience. The character’s story helps each team member (both developers and designers) have a common understanding of the end-users’ personality and how they will respond and navigate in a specific app or website. Thus, contributing to the development of a strategy that meets the fictional character.
On the other hand, the dialogue focuses on what and how the information is transmitted to the user. It helps UX designers decide upon the design voice and tone (which can be formal, funny, informational, and so on) of a website or app. Being aware of these storytelling principles and their elements can help designers keep a human-centered approach and continuously think about the user flow throughout each step.
In sum, due to the technological advances, the way businesses present themselves either on websites or through apps can have a crucial impact on the overall customer experience. Users have limited time and a wide range of options; thus, facts and scientific arguments will probably not be enough to get their attention. Communicate them, of course, but maybe go a bit further: tell the world what makes it unique and differentiator.
A UX/UI design strategy can develop an experience that understands and shares that story with the end-user. Storytelling is an opportunity to engage with users on a deeper emotional level, rather than merely a way to disseminate information. The more coherent the storytelling strategy across all the team members is, the more aligned developers and designers will be to conduct a meaningful experience to the end-user.
In the end, it’s always about people, and each step of the design process is human-centered. People tend to live for stories, and sharing them helps them know each other. Therefore, we must do so incredibly well by using storytelling elements along the design process. And don’t forget: a positive experience with websites and apps can make users return or recommend it to other customers.