Storytelling for User Experience Blog

Crafting Stories for Better Design

Posts written by Whitney Quesenbery & Kevin Brooks

  • Getting out into the world

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    Now that the book is out in the world, Kevin and I are coming out from behind the screen as well.

    On May 24, we will be in Munich with an evening tutorial at the UPA conference. It’s a chance to think about how and why stories are so powerful and practice crafting a few stories of your own.

    You can also catch us:

    Later this summer and fall, we are planning more events – workshops, webinars and interviews. We’ll list them on our Events page as soon as we have the details organized.

    See you there!

    Storytelling for User Experience is now on sale

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    There is a FedEx delivery person who will never look at my front door the same way again.

    When I saw a small box just about the right size, I began jumping about like a maniac. (I did manage to refrain from hugging him.)

    A few seconds later, I held a copy of our book my hands.

    And now, you can, too.

    You can get a copy of Storytelling for User Experience in a variety of flavors: one package (US$36) includes a lovely four color paperback and a screen-optimized DRM-free PDF; the other (US$22) is a pair of DRM-free PDFs (one screen-optimized, the other for you to print yourself).

    Storytelling for User Experience illustrations now available on Flickr

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    We’ve made all the images in Storytelling for User Experience available via Flickr and under a Creative Commons license. View, download and use in your own presentations, make them your desktop background… whatever suits your fancy.

    The book is now at the printer, so it should be available in about four weeks! Sign up to be notified when it’s on sale, and we’ll email you a discount code to use when purchasing it directly from Rosenfeld Media.

    A moment of contemplation…

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    The book went to the publisher this week and we get a little break to reflect while we wait to see it in print.

    We started writing this book because we both believe that stories are a powerful tool in user experience design. They can be used in many ways to improve both the process and the products we create.

    At first, storytelling may seem simple: you write a story and then you tell it. But stories are a much richer way of communicating. They come to life in the imaginations of the people hearing them, in a triangular relationship between storyteller, story and audience. It is these relationships that give stories so much of their power to explain, to engage the imagination, to create a shared understanding, and to persuade.

    No one who has done user research will be surprised to hear that the best stories in user experience design start by being a good audience and listening–really listening–and observing. In fact, when you get in the habit of listening carefully, you may be surprised to find stories all around you.

    When you take the time to listen and observe real people, you have more opportunities. And when you listen deeply, the stories you find will have more resonance and will be more useful as part of design process. They can go beyond simple anecdotes to express important aspects of behavior, goals, or culture. Many stories in user experience design originate in observation of, or really listening to, other people.

    Although storytelling may first appear in a user experience design process with user research, that is not where it ends. We shift from a role as a story listener to a role as a story creator and storyteller. Stories are used throughout the process, contributing to the work of understanding the context and goals of a product, sparking design ideas, providing scenarios for evaluation, and as part of the work of sharing concepts and designs outside the UX team.

    User experience stories serve a dual role of opening doors to help the audience imagine a new idea while being grounded in data. You might choose to tell a story to get beyond demographics, technology, data, and opinion and show how they translate into a user experience. You may be showing how the current experience is…well…lacking; or changing the ending to a happy and satisfied one by changing that experience.

    In the book, we’ve tried to make the case for stories as a good way to communicate. People are natural story listeners, so it’s an easy way to share information. Stories can include rich information about behavior, perspectives, and attitudes. They are an economical way to communicate contextual details. This is because when people listen to stories, their minds are engaged in the process of painting in the details. This engagement sets the stage for persuasion or a call to action.

    Despite all these reasons why stories are a valuable UX tool, it can still be hard to change your own ways of communicating, especially if you are part of a team. Habits and established templates are difficult to change. It can be hard work to get to the heart of a story, to tell it in just the right way for the audience. But we hope that you will try adding stories and storytelling to your work, or using them in some new ways.

    We’ll keep the conversation going here as well. Sharing story resources that we find and great uses of stories that we hear about.

    How is a picture like an interview?

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    I met Julie Kertesz (or joyoflife, as she is known on Flickr) for a photowalk around the London Borough Market. I wanted to know how she manages to create such open and personal photographs of real people from the streets of London.

    Her London Diversity collections have thousands of images. What’s striking about them is not the sheer size and scope of the collections, but the way her photos seems to tell a story about the people in the images. A man takes a child for a talk. A woman sits and reads. A worker drives a truck. Two friends sit at a café table.

    What was her secret? It’s quite simple: she talks to them. “It’s all in the body language,” she told me. If you are open to them, show them that you are interested in them, they will be open to you. We were sitting over our first pot of tea in a small café. “I’ll show you.” And she called the waitress over. “May I take your picture?” The woman giggled. “Your face is so interesting. I would like to make a photo of you.” She smiled. The woman hesitated. Julie asked a few friendly questions, and as they talked the woman relaxed. Julie took a photo. She showed it to the woman. “See, you are lovely.”

    As we walked around the market, we talked to people and took their pictures. It was hard to find a balance: to keep the conversation going and also take a good photograph. Most of the time, I was better at the interview than the picture. It felt like the first time I ran a usability test–a bit awkward. But it got better with practice. The better the connection I could make, the better the photograph was. It was something we created together.

    My favorite photograph came near the end of the day. I had tickets to see to Waiting for Godot. A concessions stand in the lobby sold photographs and programs. The woman managing the stand was dressed in a black jacket with a black brimmed hat. She told me that she found the hat at a thrift store soon after she learned that Godot was coming to her theater and saved it until the play opened. She looked perfect for the play.


    It’s not a perfect photograph. But it will remind me of this person, and her story, and my day on a photo walk in London.

    Julie’s photos from the market and mine.

    Aha moments: insights in what someone doesn’t say

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    We put out a call for stories of “aha” moments during user research, when something observed in the context illuminates an entire aspect of experience. Nancy Frishberg sent us this story. It’s a wonderful example of how people may not call attention to adjustments they have made in their environment.

    Here’s Nancy’s story:

    I did a series of home visits with people who had been diagnosed with a particular chronic illness. This illness causes joint inflammation, painful movement and fatigue among other symptoms, and can be controlled with various medications (and perhaps by diet).

    I was investigating questions about how the illness affected the person’s work life, family life, participation in social activities, whether any regular activities had been curtailed, and what changes the doctor recommended to the drug regimen or diet or other adjustments.

    I worked with one woman who had been living with the illness for at least 7 years. Throughout our time together, she told me that the illness had little or no effect on her activities, and that she was healthy for all external purposes. Instead, we talked about our mutual enjoyment of the movies and she described a recent reunion with high school girlfriends, now all approaching retirement.

    She owned a hairdressing studio, and felt responsibility to her (aging) customers to continue to provide them with service, though her husband had already retired. Her customers didn’t know the extent of her illness, but just that she had aches and pains from time to time.

    On my last visit with her, she asked if she could blow out my hair. I thought about it, and couldn’t figure out why not. I hadn’t taken the time to do anything other than let my chin-length straight hair air-dry. So we spent the final 20 minutes of our visit with her styling my hair.

    Where’s the aha?
    She stood, while I sat. She used an ionic brush, an electronic dryer that looked something like this – different from the ones I’m used to.

    She worked with both hands: The dominant hand holds the dryer-brush for blowing warm air, shaping of the section of hair at the same time, while the non-dominant hand uses the tail of a comb to separate out sections of the hair for attention.

    What’s most noteworthy is that the device is about half the weight of an ordinary hair dryer (1.1lbs vs 2-3 lbs), which means that she had figured out a way to continue her work while reducing the physical demands of holding a heavy device.

    She did not make any verbal reference to the difference in effort, but merely recommended that I might like to try this device at home, and that it was her favorite at the salon as well.

    Stories pack information into tight spaces

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    One of the values of using stories is how much information they can pack into a few words. The IBM Knowledge Socialization Project has an example:

    “My sister-in-law went shopping at Nordstrom’s
    at Christmas time. Later, they discovered that their
    packages had been lost or stolen….”

    Look at how much information is packed into this short story fragment. Their web site has a list of facts that are either explicit, or implicit.

    • Some are simple, like the basics of the plot: shopping, Nordstrom’s, December.
    • Others look at the implications of the facts in the story: she was not held up at gunpoint (because they discovered the loss later).
    • Still others are cultural implications: She is shopping for Christmas presents (and celebrates Christmas). She is relatively well off (Nordstrom’s is a high-end department store).
    • Or communicate relationships: I am married, and communicate with my sister-in-law.

    I re-created this exercise in my chapter on “Narrative and Storytelling” in John Pruitt and Tamara Adlin’s The Personas Lifecycle. I used this 53 word story fragment based on the book’s running case study:

    Tanner was deep into a Skatepunkz game-all the way up to level 12– when he got a buddy message from his friend Steve with a question about his homework. He looked up with a start. Almost bedtime and his homework was still not done. Mom or Dad would be in any minute….

    If you deconstruct this story, a lot of the cues are based on implicit cultural messages about the structure of families and the use of technology.

    • He’s a kid (he has a bedtime)
    • He’d good at games (level 12)
    • He has regular access to a computer and to the internet (budy message)
    • He has some privacy (Mom or Dad would be in any minute)
    • But he also has rules (bedtime, homework)

    For even shorter stories, there are several sites (and books) with 6-word stories.

    There are compressed plots like these two from “Fat. Drugs. Skinny. Rehab. …Fat again.” – Rustan Crane or “Coma. 20 years. Awake! Divorced…Suicide” Ben Ng (On

    Some are juxtapositions that suggest the events that led up to them. The most famous is from Ernest Hemingway: “For sale, baby shoes. Never used.” Other examples of this sub-genre are: “Indian engineer in America; drives taxis,” “She left for another. Incentives mattered,” or “Seeking ride to New York, one way.” (All on Marginal Revolution)

    There are now several books of 6-word memoirs. You can see a collection of them from famous and obscure writers in the video on Smith Magazine – scroll down to the bottom of the right column.

    Some try to tell a whole story, not just hint at one:

    “How does lunch sound?”

    There are a lot of sites with collections of these stories. As you read, it’s hard not to think about how much information is packed into each of them.

    How about a collection of 6-word stories on user experience?

    “Click. Back. Click. Back. Next site.”

    “Great suggestions. Just what I want.”

    Add yours in the comments.

    Tell stories. Eat more broccoli.

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    Researchers at St. Louis University have been investigating whether topics as important as mammography, colorectal cancer risk reduction, and general cancer education can be improved with storytelling.

    One of the challenges in healthcare today is to reduce what folks in public health call “disparities” – the tendency for African-Americans and other ethnic minorities to get sick more often, get less effective healthcare when they do get sick, and to be less knowledgeable about how to prevent illness.

    So, the Center for Cultural Cancer Communication wanted to know what whether they could create more effective health communication. In an area of St. Louis that sees twice the expected number of late-stage breast cancers, they tried using storytelling.

    It’s not just that the information was in the form of a story. They captured on videotape the stories of 80 African-American breast cancer. So the stories were real. They were personal. And they were in the women’s own language. They incorporated images, fact, and expressions of cultural norms and beliefs.

    The results aren’t surprising to anyone who has tried stories as a way of sharing information:

    When videos included stories, people were more engaged. In fact, the longer the video lasted, the stronger the effect of stories.

    • Women who saw information about mammograms that included personal narratives were more likely to plan to get a mammogram themselves. And more of them actually did.
    • 3 months later, they still remembered the key messages and still felt the emotions of the video: proud, inspired, sad and worried.

    If stories can help increase the number of women who take the time to get mammograms by 50% (up from 54.5% to 75.6%), or double how many fruits and vegetables people eat (from 0.59 to 0.96 servings per day), just think what they can do for your user experience projects.

    You can learn more about the Center for Cultural Cancer Communication, which was funded by the National Cancer Institute, at

    Thanks to Cindy Lollar for telling me about this project.

    “The single, most powerful communications tool you have”

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    That’s a quote from Andy Goodman in a talk on storytelling as a way to communicate the value of a non-profit’s work. It’s the story of changing a presentation from facts, figures and tiny print to a story. It’s not that facts and figures aren’t important. Or that you don’t have to have the data to back up your work. It’s that you need to start with something that lets the audience understand the result before you launch into how you got there.

    The story he tells is about an organization that changes the lives of young people through their programs. But it could just as easily be about how a new design idea will change the experience.

    How often have you heard a presentation that started with something like “if we deploy a new content management system with semantic tagging, we can enable a fully personalized experience”?

    There’s a place for discussing the technologies and techniques that make our ideas possible. But, if you are trying to explore a new idea, start with a story about the world it will create. Once the audience is excited about the idea, you can back up and talk about what it will take to make the idea happen.

    Goodman’s newsletter, free-range thinking, has a report on a study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. It compared the impact of two charitable appeals. One started with facts and figures, the other with the story of one child.

    Which one would appeal more to you?


    Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than three million children. In Zambia, severe rainfall deficits have resulted in a 42 percent drop in maize production from 2000. As a result, an estimated three million Zambians face hunger.

    Four million Angolans–one third of the population–have been forced to flee their homes. More than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance.


    Any money that you donate will go to Rokia, a 7-year-old girl from Mali, Africa. Rokia is desperately poor, and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support
    of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed her, provide her with education, as well as basic medical care and hygiene education.

    In the study, the second was more effective. People who saw the Rokia’s story (and a photo) donated almost twice as much money. A story – a recognizable person to donate to – is more compelling than what the authors call “statistical victims.”

    This sounds a lot like what makes personas work. Even though a persona is a composite person rather than a single, real, example, the principle is the same: It’s easier to connect to a story than to statistics.

    Special thanks to Ginny Redish for pointing me to this resource.

    Starting with Structure – Tomato Paste

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    I am blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to storytelling support in the Boston, MA area. There are a number of different organizations, gatherings and venues, one of which is MassMouth. This fall MassMouth started running Story Slams, which are like poetry slams loosely based on The Moth model. In Story Slams, storytellers have 5 minutes to tell a story on the topic of the evening, which is announced weeks ahead of time. Then the stories are judged by a panel of 3 groups of 3 judges each (9 total), Olympic diver style. On Nov 24th the slam topic was “Eating Disasters” and I was a judge that night. I was also asked to tell a “featured” story that was not to be judged. Judith Black, one of the other judges, started off the evening with a kick-ass story about eating in her family. In the second half of the evening, I told this story called Tomato Paste.

    I am not naturally good at telling 5 minute stories. I studied under the Brother Blue model, which means that my stories start at about 8 minutes and get longer from there. In the previous month’s story slam I competed with what I thought was a 5 minute story – it went about 6:10. Yep, you get points taken off for going too long. So even though I wasn’t competing in November, I wanted this story to be better. The funny thing was that I made up just the outline of the story that afternoon. While I normally write out each story, this one only had an outline of 3 short sentences. I actually made up most of the ending while on stage in front of the audience. I’ve since written out the story and included it in chapter 14 of the book, along with a bit of structural deconstruction. In the video, you can see hints of me working out the story as I tell it.