Storytelling in UX gets your audience emotionally invested in your product. Usability leaves an impression, but your product’s story keeps it relevant and relatable.
How often have you turned off a movie because it wasn’t sucking you in? Or have you ever watched a movie all the way through when it started strong, but didn’t stick the landing?
Our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter (thanks TikTok…). The actual statistics vary, but a 2020 report from the Nielson Norman Group estimates that you only have 10 seconds tops to catch and keep your users attention.
So, how do you visually convince your user to keep scrolling when they rarely look below the fold? Should you try to cram all the information into the header and hope they read everything?
No, dummy! No one (and we repeat NO ONE) is going to read all that. When it comes to getting your user hooked, your digital product needs a captivating and well-structured story.
5 Tips for Storytelling in UX
- Choose a genre
- Consider the scenarios
- Treat the story as a hero’s journey
- Learn to love editing
- Focus on world-building
What Makes a Good Story
Every person or brand has a story. Whether or not the user gets invested in the story depends on how you tell it.
Most stories (especially movies) follow a three-act structure: Set-up, confrontation, and resolution. This structure could translate to a website or digital product, but not every story needs three clearly defined acts.
If you’ve ever taken an English or creative writing course, you might have seen the mountain story structure chart. It maps the entire plot from beginning to end, starting with the exposition, followed by rising action leading to the climax.
After the story reaches its peak, everything starts to settle by wrapping up plot points and reaching a resolution.
Let’s apply this structure to a brand story (using Spotify as an example):
- Exposition: Spotify was founded in 2006 in Stockholm, Sweden by Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon as an answer to the music piracy problem in the early 2000s.
- Rising Action: Spotify starts earning revenue through their “freemium” business model and selling ad space. They also started acquiring other music discovery platforms as early as 2013.
- Climax: Though their focus was primarily on music from the beginning, Spotify started offering podcasts in 2015 when they reached 60 million active users.
- Falling Action: Spotify continues to acquire podcasting companies, along with platforms for sports, entertainment, and pop culture media. Podcasts become a cornerstone of their media library.
- Resolution: By Q4 of 2021, the number of monthly active users grew by 18% year-over-year. This roughly translates to 406 million users.
Of course, this isn’t the ONLY way to present your personal or brand story. Iconic movies like Pulp Fiction (actually, most Quentin Tarantino movies) are notorious for not following the three-act structure. And plenty of stories function as short vignettes instead of having a strong central plot (looking at you, “On The Road” by Jack Kerouac).
But if you’re not a wildly acclaimed author or Oscar-winning screenwriter, these structures can help any novice writer with storytelling in UX.
5 Tips for Storytelling in UX
So you’re putting together a digital product. You have all the flows sketched out and all the steps the user needs to take to accomplish a goal. Now, you have to give your user a reason to follow through.
How do you give the user the right incentive to stay to the end and come back for more? By telling a story along the way that hits all the right beats and resonates on a personal level.
Every product has a story to tell. But if you’re not sure where to start, you can always follow these five simple tips for storytelling in UX design.
Choose a Genre
It’s safe to say that there’s no such thing as a “general audience” in UX design. The best digital products have a focused niche that solves problems for a clearly defined demographic.
Just like science fiction novels are a bigger hit with the comic con crowd and some people can’t handle ultra-gory horror movies, a digital product’s story works better when it’s tailored for its intended audience.
You can start by defining the purpose of your product (an app for finance management, an integration software for client management, etc). But that’s just the beginning. The story should always have additional layers for a more distinct personality.
Once you identify the product’s target audience, consider how you’re going to communicate with them, how you’re going to establish and structure the goals, and how you’re going to pitch your solutions to your potential users.
Consider the Scenarios
You could write the best novel ever that wins every literary award under the sun, and some people would still rather wait for Netflix to adapt it into a TV show. Why would someone rather binge a TV series when the source material is so much better?
They might not be big readers, to begin with. Or they might not have time to finish a 1,000-page from end-to-end. How do you get your audience to take that crucial first step with all those figurative “blockers” in the way?
Audible is an excellent example of turning those user pain points into opportunities (we promise this isn’t a sponsored post 😜). A huge online audiobook library helps literature enthusiasts enjoy stories without taking time out of their day to sit down and read.
These scenarios also apply to the accessibility of the product. It helps to put yourself in the user’s shoes and think about when and where they need to use the product (on the bus, at the gym, or in a crowded nightclub). What flows or messaging would assist them or drive them away in these scenarios?
Treat the Story as the Hero’s Journey
The kids call this “main character syndrome” — but when we’re out to accomplish a goal, we’re only thinking about our needs and wants. Whether the user is booking a trip or launching a business with your digital product, they’re your Batman, Wonder Woman, or Luke Skywalker as long as they’re using your interface.
Let’s break down the hero’s journey to see how it could apply to your digital product.
- Call to adventure: The user stumbles upon your product and takes in the information.
- Refusal of the call: The user may have trepidations about taking the first step. How will you incentivize them to begin the journey?
- Meeting the mentor: Your chatbot or onboarding process is your Obi-wan Kenobi. Show the user they’ll have a guide along the way.
- Crossing the threshold: The user heeds the call by creating an account or beginning the conversion process.
- Tests, allies, and enemies: Gauge the user’s wants, needs, and ability levels, direct them towards what they want, and steer them away from what they don’t.
- Approaching the inmost cave: The user’s doubts and fears may crop back up before they move forward. How will you help them soothe those anxieties?
- The ordeal: The user draws upon their skills and past experiences to accomplish their goal, buy a product, start a campaign, etc.
- The reward: Reward the user with any incentives you provided earlier (product discounts, a month of free membership, etc.)
Back to the Ordinary World
- The road back: Reward in hand, how do you help the user get back to “the ordinary world” (AKA, the starting point)?
- The resurrection: How do you incentivize the user to come back to your product?
- Return with elixir: How do you get the user to keep seeing your product in a positive light? How will you represent how they’ve improved or succeeded on their journey?
Learn to Love Editing
The first draft of a story is never perfect, EVER. Your favorite novel probably went through several rounds of edits by the author, their peers, or their publishing company.
When the novel is finally released, that’s it (at least, until the publishers decide to run a re-release). If there are typos and grammatical errors, you can’t fix them and automatically publish like you can on a WordPress site.
But with storytelling in UX, your product and content can go through several iterations until the story is flawless and leaves a lasting impression on the user.
Yes, internal reviews, user testing, and revisions take some time. But it’s a valuable opportunity to polish and fine-tune your product’s story.
Focus on World-Building
If we’ve said it before, we’ll say it again...Version 1 of your digital product is just the beginning. It’s up to you if the saga continues.
You don’t have to plan out an entire extended universe like Marvel, Star Wars, or Lord of the Rings, but think about how you can build upon the existing story with a sequel. It could be a new product that answers a different user need or a feature that gives your product a whole new layer of usefulness.
Sequels get a bad reputation for never being as good as the original, so proceed with caution. Do lots of research and spend plenty of time at the drawing board before releasing your own The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, or Shrek 2.
Just like a business grows and improves, so does the user. They have the potential to discover new abilities and possibilities in the digital world. Always be thinking long-term instead of reveling around in your short-term success.
Using Storytelling in UX to Make Meaningful Products
There’s an intention behind everything in UX. Every button, color, link, and word is meticulously placed to engage and guide users through their journey. And nothing makes a user feel more “seen” than a relatable story.
After all, whenever you’re talking to a friend and they start telling a story, they’re not trying to direct the attention back to themselves. That’s them trying to relate to you and empathize with your struggles.
Through storytelling in UX, you give the product more context and create a sense of familiarity with the user (even when there’s no actual human interaction). Your product story, both in and outside the interface, is the heart and soul of the user experience.
A functional, good-looking product is only half the battle in UX design. Use storytelling to give it a colorful past, immersive present, and promising future.