Let me start by telling you a story.
Once upon a time, a woman got lost in a forest. A beast kidnaps her. They eventually fall in love and live happily ever after.
Heart wrenching isn’t it?
Ok, so maybe I missed a few parts of the Beauty and the Beast. A story told with the primary goal of getting someone from beginning to end as quickly as possible just doesn’t have the emotional impact as one that takes someone through the whole narrative arc.
But isn’t getting a user from beginning to end as easily as possible exactly what we do from time to time with our digital projects? We try to minimize the clicks and steps to get users to a particular piece of content. We don’t always put as much thought into the story we want to tell along the way.
As humans, we are much more inclined to forget random facts than we are to forget experiences. According to a study cited in the New York Times article Your Brain On Fiction, a story activates the brain emotionally in a similar way to a personal experience.
As a UX architect for the experience design agency GS, my team is constantly talking about the best ways for our clients to inspire and motivate their customers. The things a company sells may be ingredients in the customer’s passion, but they are very rarely the source of their passion.
Storytelling helps tap into the true source of their passion and open up a much deeper emotional connection than products alone could do.
In this post, I’ll deconstruct one of my favorite sites and explain how to strike a balance between functional and emotional content.
An Example of UX Storytelling Done Right
However, of the two, I have a much deeper emotional connection with Salsa Cycles because of the way they weave storytelling into their experience.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love BikeTiresDirect.com. They have great prices, a nice loyalty program and an easy website that gives me the data I need to make a purchase. But there is very little about the BikeTiresDirect website that fuels my passion or helps me dream.
Compare that with how Salsa Cycles weaves storytelling and experience into nearly every aspect of their brand. The website details countless epic rides while the printed product brochure showcases a collection of stories that perfectly compliment their product offerings. They even offer in-person demo rides to give customers (or prospective customers) the opportunity to create their own experiences.
Photo credit: Salsa Cycles
Both of these companies have a place in my life. I’m not prescribing that everyone should necessarily have the same approach to how they relate to their customers. But the questions I want to propose are:
- At what level should your company be emotionally engaging customers?
- How can helping your customers fuel their passion provide you with a more profitable relationship?
- How can you slow down the experience to weave storytelling into a customer’s interactions?
How to Apply Storytelling Without Reducing Efficiency
Storytelling shouldn’t make the interactions feel less efficient. Here are a few things you can do to ensure storytelling is seamlessly integrated in the overall UX.
1. Understand your users’ motivations and needs
Performing user research such as interviews, surveys, and/or contextual inquiry is essential to creating the clearest picture of user needs and behaviors.
For instance, if we were designing the Salsa Cycles website, we could interview 5-10 cyclists of varying backgrounds (from beginner to pro-am) to understand their passion and needs for cycling equipment. From there, we’d start to see our main personas (e.g. Greg the Beginner, Sarah the Weekend Warrior, James the Aspiring Pro Rider).
The interviews would also help reveal the core tasks common to all persona groups such as browsing items by price, finding on-sale items, etc. We’d also understand the emotional and functional reasons for why they chose cycling as a sport (e.g. to escape corporate stress, to live out larger fantasies of adventure, to exercise outdoors, etc.)
2. Be clear about your story
Once we know the core tasks and persona types, we can start to stitch together a cohesive narrative.
My favorite approach is the story mapping approach advocated by Jeff Patton.
Photo credit: Jeff Patton
As Patton recommends, we map out user stories on a timeline based on the following categories:
A high level user story. For example “As a beginning cyclist, I want to find an affordable bike so I can test out the sport”.
Now you can break down the details for the user story. For the above user story, you’d include functional tasks like “Browsing pictures of bikes”, “Comparing prices for bikes”, “Checking reviews of bikes.”
You’d also want to include persuasive tasks like “See cycling adventures” because our beginner user is still unsure if the sport is the right fit. Multimedia stories might help them live vicariously for a moment, thus emotionally persuading them to move towards purchase.
iii. Task Details/ Sub-Tasks
You describe how you might execute the task (e.g. the preferred UI patterns). For example, “Browsing pictures of bikes” might entail task details like a lightbox gallery and HD photography.
3. Define an overall messaging model.
Once you’ve created a story map, an overall messaging model helps guide the tone and type of content to clarify when it’s appropriate to inspire and when it’s appropriate to inform.
We might learn from user interviews that all bike riders seek inspirational material to plan their next trip, which then informs what gear they will buy.
- Salsa’s messaging starts by inspiring riders to get out and do something they have always wanted to do.
- Next the brand speaks to how they can help riders make that happen with their portfolio of products.
- Moving deeper into the products, the content changes to be much more informational and a little less emotional.
- Finally, the content explains how the features and specifications of a particular product benefits each rider.