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Good UX is good storytelling...Or is it?

Updated: Jan 20, 2023

Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust, Unsplash

From identifying the problem to presenting your solutions and documenting decisions, stories take on different roles in the design process. So much so that, thinking design is all about storytelling wouldn’t be too far off the mark.


Before we go on, let's do a quick poll:

  • If you believe storytelling is THE skill to master to achieve success, raise your hand.

  • If you think telling user stories will help you sell solutions quicker, raise your hand.

  • If you feel all of UX design (or most of it) hinges on storytelling skills, raise your hand.

I wouldn't blame you if your hand went up all three times. Mine did too, up until recently. Then I read this haiku :

prayer bells

wondering which want

to plead for

- Shobhana Kumar

In so few words, its effect on me was profound. I could picture a whole world, filled with softly blowing winds, bells ringing somewhere in the distance and the dilemma of choice the deity would have felt. At that moment, I realized two things 1) The beauty of Haiku lies in how it is listener-centric, not author-centric 2) Good storytelling is one of those things you learn not by telling more stories, but by doing the opposite, learning to listen better.

Better storytelling = Better story listening

What makes Haiku a gold storytelling standard is precisely its nature to not tell a story. Had I not known that bells are rung when someone offers prayers, or the associated actions when offering a prayer, I doubt this haiku would have made sense to me. The Author made a risky bet or crafted a verse that would evoke a flurry of mental associations in the listener. In other words, the storyteller briefly became the listener.

Vague aphorisms aside, what Haiku can teach us about good storytelling and how we engage with them has also been proven scientifically. Nobel laureate Professor Daniel Kahneman, through his research, tells us that ability for understanding relies on two distinct cognitive systems.

System 1 is the one associated with intuitive thoughts and automatic actions

System 2, is associated, with intentional thoughts and actions that require mental effort.

Since system 1 is based on associations and meaning, it can be thought of as a story-telling system. It gives a structure to the world and how our actions are affected by it using internal stories. This system creates and reinforces associations between concepts and emotions that lead to intuitive responses. To engage System 1 use visuals and music to imply meaning and to engage System 2, build an air-tight case with research and data.

Better Listening = Stronger emotional coherence
“As communicators, we need to convey the information in a way that is understandable for our audience. We need to chunk the information down, have a clear message and present it in a way that is understandable.” - Angela Morelli

While clarity in logic and well-defined structure are important, it is equally important to speak to System 1 of our audiences. To evoke a response in the audience, emotional coherence is as powerful as the logical or scientific coherence of the story. In other words, communicating evidence is necessary but not sufficient to evoke a response in the audience. Listening to how people frame sentences and thoughts can help us identify the broader spectrum of emotional associations. The more associations we evoke through words/pictures/music or other media, the stronger and clearer our messaging becomes.

Stronger emotional coherence = Relatable stories

When we shift from product-centric storytelling to user-centric storytelling, having a strong emotional core can elevate our stories. It also changes how we frame our problem statements Shifting from “how this product solves X problem” to “how John uses this product to solve X so that they can achieve Y” opens up many avenues to tell the same story in different ways, as long as the goal of “achieving Y” is fulfilled. You could, in theory, use the same subject and create How-to posts, Share knowledge with tips and tricks, Create a Product/Feature update document or ask the user to share their experience in a video.

Relatable stories = User centric journeys
Like the Haiku, good UX is user-centric, putting user motivations, challenges and solutions in the centre. But unlike the verses, user stories can and sometimes need to be longer (I wish every user journey were a haiku, sigh!). In some cases, communicating ideas only through words becomes a barrier alienating those who don’t speak the same language. So when in doubt, use visuals, sound, icons and all that you have in your arsenal of multimedia tools to evoke the intended emotional response in the listener. Better UX is listening to the user’s emotional associations and designing a narrative experience that takes them through a transformative journey.

How do we find the right associations? How do we find the right logical arguments? We will get to the concepts and role of semantics and semiotics in the next blog, until then repeat after me:


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