WritersUA - Training and Information for User Assistance Professionals

Using Stories for a Better User Experience

By Whitney Quesenbery and Kevin Brooks

Bookmark and Share


Click a link below to jump to a particular section; click any "CONTENTS" image following a section heading to jump back here.

Introduction    Link to contents

Stories can help you collect, analyze and share qualitative information from user research and usability, spark design imagination and keep in touch with your audience. Storytelling and story listening are not a new methodology, but something you can add to your current practice to deepen and richen your understanding of users and their experience.

Three places where stories are a good fit are:

  • Collecting stories from your audience to create a richer picture of how, when and why they use your products and documentation.
  • Adding stories to personas to share your audience analysis, blending facts and information to make an emotional connection.
  • Using stories for more naturalistic usability testing (planning those stories, or gathering them on the spot).

We All Tell Stories    Link to contents

As a part of user experience design, stories serve to ground your work in a real context. They let you show a design concept or a new product in action, or connect a new idea to the initial spark. But most importantly, they help you keep people at the center of your work. However you start a project, in the end it will be used by people. Stories are a way of connecting what you know about those people (your users) to the design process, even if they can't always be part of your team.

Whatever process or methodology you follow in your work, you are probably already hearing stories. Many different approaches use story forms as a way of communicating information about the user experience.

  • Ethnography and all the usability methods derived from it is focused on understanding how people tell their own stories and how they experience the world around them.
  • Many design methodologies include stories: as scenarios, as Agile story cards, as use cases.
  • Usability testing often relies on scenarios or tasks which are a form of story.
  • Storytelling is an important part of good business communication.

Stories can be used in many ways throughout any user experience process stories help us understand the world by giving us insight into people who are not just like us. They can even persuade others of the value of our contribution.

When you are collecting input
Stories help us gather (and share) information about users, tasks, and goals.
Anytime you work with users, you have a chance to listen for the stories they tell about their home or work lives, how they can work better, and what they want.
With your "juicy story filter" turned on, you can quickly collect stories that reveal perspectives, context and attitudes.

When you are exploring user research data
Stories put a human face on analytic data
Shared stories indicate a shared experience. Look for clusters of stories as you analyze user research material.
Now, you can begin to craft stories that will
· Put this data into a human context
· Show actions and behavior
· Explore motivations and conflicts.

When you experiment with design ideas
Stories can spark new design concepts and encourage collaboration and innovation.
When you start to work on the design, you can use the personas and their stories to spark new design ideas.
Or you can start from story fragments and see how they might be put together into a new design idea.

When you want to test your work
Stories can be used to create a realistic test scenario.
These same stories can provide a context or task for usability evaluation, seeing if the real people you work with experience the design as the story anticipated.

When you need to share (or sell) your ideas
Stories are a way to share ideas and create a sense of shared history and purpose.
As you share your design idea, stories become part of the connections between the user research and design (see Figure 5.6). They can explain why a design will work because they connect the design with the inspiration for the designer's idea.

Three places where stories are particularly easy to integrate into your current process are:

  • Collecting stories from your audience to create a richer picture of how, when and why they use your products and documentation.
  • Adding stories to personas to share your audience analysis, blending facts and information to make an emotional connection.
  • Using stories for more naturalistic usability testing (planning those stories, or gathering them on the spot).

Collecting Stories    Link to contents

Stories in user experience design are not "made up" - they are based on real user data and then distilled to effectively illuminate the design process. It all starts with collecting stories during user research.

The stories you hear from users give you a first-person view of the world from many unique perspectives. They help you understand the goals, motivations, and preferences of the people you design for. They help you understand their personalities and their quirks, which you can use to create a rich, textured experience.

The best stories come from being there. When you work directly with users, you can observe and listen to them, thinking about what they say (and do) and what they leave out.

The trick to collecting stories is to listen for them. If you leave time in your interviews, conversations or meetings, you will often find that people are happy to share their stories with you - all you have to do is be ready to hear them.

Here's a structure for an interview that give you opportunities to not only collect important task details, but also leaves room for stories.

Do this... Like this...
Start with a question that establishes the activity you want to talk about.
This question can be simply answered with a yes or no.
"Have you ever [done something]?"
Then ask questions that build up a picture of how this activity fits into their work or life.
You can even suggest answers from a standard list for these questions.
"How often do you [do that thing]?"
"What makes you decide to [do that thing]?"
"Would you say this is something you mostly do at work or at home?"
Now, ask a question to get them to think about a specific example. "When was the last time you [did that thing]?"
Once they have a specific event in mind, you can repeat the situation, to be sure you have it right, and then ask for the whole story. "Tell me about that."

Using Stories in Personas    Link to contents

Personas are a popular way to assemble user research into a usable form. They help the team focus on specific users, not on broad demographics. The best personas are based on good data, but also have stories that bring that data to life.

For example, you might start with some demographic data about a user group:

Aged 30-45
Well educated
45% married with children
Over half use the web 3-5 times a week
65% use search engines

The problem is that this doesn't tell us much about the people in this user group? Does this list of demographic details give you a good picture of who these users are? Does it give us the right information to make good design decisions?

You could get more specific, creating a profile that incorporates the demographic data:

Elizabeth, 35 years old
Married to Joe, has a 5-year old son, Justin
Attended State College, and manages her class alumni site
Uses Google as her home page, and reads CNN online
Used the web to find the name of a local official

But, your best result will come from writing a story that makes Elizabeth into a compelling character. When you craft the story:

  • The persona as a character provides the perspective
  • The relationships create the context
  • The imagery suggests emotional connections
  • The language can suggest the voice of the persona

Stories in Usability Evaluation    Link to contents

The most obvious use of stories in usability evaluation is to create scenarios. These may be elaborated background for tasks, or might create a context in which the test participant can then work as he or she might in real life.

For example:

If you collected a story about a travel agent like this...* You might create a usability evaluation scenario like this...
Sarah Smith, a 25-year-old travel agent in a small, three-person agency in a storefront in a suburb of Chicago, takes a call from her friend, Jenny.

Jenny wants to go to Phoenix to see her special friend sometime in the next month. She can go any weekend, and she can take Friday and Monday off. But she can only go if she can afford it. Jenny asks Sarah to find the least expensive flights for any Friday to Monday during the next month.
You are a travel agent. Your customer, Jenny, calls to book a flight to Phoenix.

She wants to go any time in the next month, but only if she can find a ticket she can afford. She can go any weekend, and she can take Friday and Monday off.

Find the least expensive flight option for Jenny.

* This story was provided by Ginny Redish

You could also start with a short interview, using the model above, and then turn that into a usability test task, right on the spot. This lets you use a real situation, from the participant's life, and use it to try to do the same thing on your own site.

Of course, you have to be able to think on your feet, and decide whether the participant's story is one that will be useful to observe.

Conclusion    Link to contents

Adding stories to your usability work will add depth and a better understanding your audience. Stories can fill in the gaps that help you build a better experience by being able to consider how they see the world, how they make choices, and how they react to different experiences.

More Reading    Link to contents

Much of the material in this paper, including the illustrations, is from Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting stories for better design, Whitney Quesenbery and Kevin Brooks (www.RosenfeldMedia.com/books/storytellingExternal link)

This article was originally published the Proceedings for the Society for Technical Communications 2010 Conference.

Whitney QuesenberyWhitney Quesenbery is a user researcher, user experience practitioner, and usability expert with a passion for clear communication.

As the principal consultant for Whitney Interactive Design (WQusability.comExternal link), she works with companies around the world to develop usable web sites and applications. Her recent projects include work for The Open University, IEEE, National Cancer Institute and Sage Software.

As an advocate for usability, Whitney has been president of UPA, is a Fellow of the STC, and worked on projects to establish guidelines for usability requirements and test reports. She is on two US Federal Advisory Committees, working to improve the usability and accessibility of voting systems and on an updates of "Section 508", the US accessibility laws.

Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting Stories for Better Design

Whitney and Kevin Brooks recently published Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting Stories for Better Design (www.RosenfeldMedia.com/books/storytellingExternal link).

She is also frequent contributor to industry publications, including UPA's UX magazine, uiGarden, UXmatters, <interactions> and STC's Intercom. Her book chapters include:

  • "Usability Standards: Connecting Practice Around the World" in Connecting People with Technology: Issues in Professional Communication, edited by George F. Hayhoe and Helen M. Grady, Baywood Publishers, 2008
  • Forward to Usability Success Stories, edited by Paul Sherman, Ashgate 2006
  • "Storytelling and Narrative" in Pruitt, J and Adlin, T. The Personas Lifecycle. Morgan-Kauffmann, 2006
  • "Dimensions of Usability" in Albers, M and Mazur, B. Eds, Content and Complexity: Information Design in Technical Communication, Erlbaum, 2003


Copyright © WritersUA. All Rights Reserved.
shannonm *at* writersua *dot* com


The Conference for Software User Assistance

UI Text Design

WritersUA offers cutting-edge training and information to Technical Writers, Information Analysts and Architects, Documentation Designers, Help Authors, Publication Managers, Documentation Leads, Senior Writers and Documentation Contractors, and User Education Specialists. The focus is on software user assistance, which encompasses writing, editing, planning, coding, indexing, testing, programming, localization, and standards development.

WritersUA Home Page First Time Here Contact Us Join Our Mailing List OASIS Member RSS Resource Directory Tools Contractors Training Articles Blogs Web Resources