Storytelling to Problem Solve

Storytelling has long been a tool for user experience designers, guiding how we craft an experience. What I’m proposing is a bit different: The use of face-to-face conversation to change how we empathize with our audience. It’s a skill we all have and, properly honed, designers can leverage it to better communicate in the digital world.

Let’s say something interesting happened to you this past weekend: You were driving somewhere and a stray dog jumped into your car through the window at a stop light. You’re probably dying to tell the story at work, to your friends, or even to someone you just met. And each time you tell it, you subconsciously assess your audience, their reaction, and your environment. You tailor and tweak the story in small ways based on what you learned the last time you told it.

We don’t typically analyze how we tell stories, it just sort of happens the more we tell them. But this is a powerful tool. Once we’re made aware of it, our innate storytelling gives us the ability to create more engaging digital experiences.

It’s kind of like when we become aware of our breathing; something that was automatic becomes a conscious process. That’s annoying, right? Yet in yoga and weight lifting, people learn to use this to their advantage. Being aware of how we verbally communicate allows us to take advantage of our natural storytelling skills.


Whether we know it or not, each time we tell a story we subconsciously rearrange its fundamental elements – plot, setting, characters, conflict, and resolution. We do this primarily based on our audience.

How much do they know about us? Do they know the subject matter we’re talking about? Do they know the context of the story? This information affects not only the order in which we tell our stories but also the language we use. I certainly wouldn’t casually drop an F-bomb if I were talking to my mother, for example, but I might for dramatic/comedic effect if I were talking with my friends.

Our audience can be our best teacher. They can verbally (and non-verbally) tell us when they lose interest, when they lack information, or when we’ve delighted them. Most of us are so good at picking up on this when we tell a story, that it takes work to consciously think about it.

You’re so money and you don’t even know it.

Trent (Swingers)

So how does this apply to digital? If you know how to properly effectively communicate with a human (or whom/whatever you chose to fraternize with) you should be able to apply some of these same principals to communicating through copy and creative. You’ll understand what makes them tick, what they are receptive to in terms of language, tone, and context.


Another thing that affects our ability to tell stories is context: are you in a noisy subway or a room full of people? Do you have to shout to compete with something? Is there a time constraint or do you have time to fill the story with colorful detail? This, again, affects how we use the elements of our story. Some elements are essential. Others aren’t. We play with the elements of the story like building blocks in order to achieve the desired effect. Stand-up comedians do this all the time.

The users of our websites are no different. They’re distracted or just want to get something done. It’s our jobs as designers and interaction designers to keep their attention and communicate with them in an effective and pleasant way. It just takes a little bit of creativity to transform what you learn from casual discourse into a digital one.

Story time

For example, I recently had a client with a complex business model that needed to be condensed into an easy-to-understand website. It took weeks of discovery to actually understand things myself. Stakeholders struggled to explain what they did. Each person explained the business model from the narrow window of their own roles in the organization.

To better understand things, I took everything I heard and started telling people. It sounds simple, and it is. I grabbed a coworker and told them what I was working on. It started out with me needing a whiteboard to sketch out business flows. After my story, I would inevitably answer lots and lots of questions.

I told people who worked in the industry, people who didn’t, my mother, toddlers, the pets of strangers on the street. Without sitting down with sticky notes, markers, and graph paper, I was eventually able to explain the company’s business (and in some cases inadvertently sell their services) in a way that minimized questions and maximized understanding. It became clear which audiences needed certain types of background information and which audiences required me to “embellish” in order to keep them interested.

Don’t give them 4, give them 2 + 2

Andrew Stanton’s Ted Talk on storytelling

By this point I had learned which elements add up to the big picture. It’s was just a question of taking all of those elements and spreading them out into a digestible format. What culminated from this was a simple information architecture and a concise content strategy.

Practice makes perfect

What I’m proposing – and have started doing – is using my innate skill to hone a story – we all have it – in unison with pure repetition and practice to get to the core of something that would otherwise be complex. Rinse, Evaluate, Repeat. Learn to be conscious of this and you can leverage it for practical applications.

You can apply what you have learned from telling a story, the same way that you would apply any other discovery research (landscape analysis, user interview, contextual inquiry, etc.) to a user experience strategy. Try creating a flow of how you would approach a new person with the story within the context of whatever you are designing (distracted mother in a waiting room, procrastinating office worker, annoyed commuter on a cramped train). Highlight the key points that are essential to the person’s understanding and interest. How can this flow be applied to your UX or business problem? Oral storytelling is a tool to help solve these problems or even find that bit of inspiration you need.

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