Summary: Effective storytelling involves both engaging the audience and structuring stories in a concise, yet effective manner. You can improve your user stories by taking advantage of the concept of story triangle and of the story-mountain template.
“We need a story that starts with an earthquake and works up to a climax.” This is a quote attributed to Sam Goldwyn, a Hollywood movie producer. Even though most UX professionals are not working on a scenario for the next blockbuster, they do need to capture other people’s attention and interest, to share insights in a memorable way, and to get everybody else in the organization to support their endeavors. Storytelling is a powerful tool that can accomplish all of these.
In UX, user stories build empathy by putting the audience in the users’ shoes. They also establish a common vocabulary and, because they emotionally involve the audience, they are memorable and often get audience members to buy in the UX endeavors behind the story.
Great stories, however, are not easy to come by. Not everyone is a confident storyteller at their workplace. But the good news is that you can learn how to create good user stories. This article presents two tips for improving storytelling:
- Plan for an active role of your audience in the story.
- Use a story template.
The Story Triangle
Effective storytelling is a dynamic exchange between the story, the storyteller, and the audience; these three elements form the story triangle. An engaging story is a conversation rather than a one-way broadcast. The same story can be understood differently by different audiences because each will make slightly different inferences and fill in missing information based on highly specific prior experiences.
Imagine that we are sharing a story about a user, Mary. Mary is deciding whether to take a bus or a taxi to the central station after an evening concert. It is getting late and the perspective of missing her train is not very appealing to her. We are telling this story with the intent to pitch a bus-tracking app, which could compete with ride-sharing apps and promote public transportation.
Some people in our audience will instantly empathize because they know what it feels like to miss a train and be left freezing on the train platform. (Even if the story did not mention the weather, the season, or the type of the station, it is easy for people to imagine such details.) In our audience, we might also have people who never take the bus and would always prefer a taxi. They are convinced that buses take longer. Others assume trains always run on schedule and the biggest challenge for Mary will be to easily access the schedule. All these inferences could be made by our audiences while they are listening to the story and could affect what part of the story stands out for them.
This example illustrates the active role of the audience — people make associations between the stories they hear and their own motivations and lived experiences. The storyteller should invite audience members to share their assumptions by providing space for feedback and accounting for the possibility of misinterpretation. In the bus-tracking–app example, if we were to incorporate audience feedback, we might get ideas for new features such as a real-time comparison between waiting times for the bus and for a ride share.
The active role of the audience can, however, be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gives storytellers the opportunity to tap into people’s experiences and to appeal to their emotions; on the other hand, it leaves room for distortions and misunderstanding. Think of the telephone game — the first player whispers a word to a second person, who whispers what they heard to the third, and so forth. What the last person hears is often astonishingly different from the original word!
We do not want that to happen to our user-experience stories, so we try to keep them simple, structured, and with the appropriate level of detail. Too few details leave a lot of room for the listeners to imagine, and an over-active imagination can easily sidetrack the audience. Too many details may force the audience onto a too rigid path and give people little opportunity for emotional involvement or for dreaming up new solutions or ideas.
The right amount of detail will also depend on your goals as a storyteller — do you want to keep your audience focused on a very specific problem (like it may be the case when your story is about particular usability hurdles)? Then give as many details as possible. Do you want to allow people to imagine new solutions, ideas, situations (for example, because your story is meant to justify the purpose of a new app)? Then give only as many details as needed to keep the story going.
The Story-Mountain Template
One time-tested and highly successful story structure is presented in a visual known as the story mountain. The story mountain is often associated with Freytag’s pyramid. Published in the middle of the 19th century by Gustav Freytag, a German novelist and playwright, this structure originally provided a five-part map for a tragedy: introduction, rise, climax, return or fall, and catastrophe. In his version of the pyramid, the plot ends with a catastrophe; this part has become denouement, resolution, or conclusion in modern interpretations.
The story mountain, or the hero’s journey, is widely used to help students from elementary school to college to structure their thoughts before writing a story. A story following this template includes five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
The story-mountain template, adapted for UX stories
In UX, you can follow the story-mountain template to create stories for your internal team:
- Rising action. You work your way up the mountain to communicate the problem your users face. In our example, Mary needs to get home and she must figure out how to get to the train station in time. Should she wait for the bus or get a ride share? You can raise the stakes and escalate the story to emphasize that the train station is quite far, beyond a walking distance, that there is usually heavy traffic, and that there is only one evening train that she cannot miss.
- Climax. You hit the top of the mountain — a turning point that shows how the problem has affected your users. Here, you can take our story in several different directions, depending on your goal.
- Falling action. You head down the mountain, showing the steps that are taken to solve the problem. In our example, you can expand on how Mary is on time because the app provided her with all the information she needed in order to make an informed decision: the bus schedule, the estimated arrival time, live traffic information, and a comparison chart with the expected ride-share travel times.
- Resolution. You end the story by showing whether the product or the process worked. In our example, you could say whether Mary got to the station on time and recommended the app to a friend or whether she was left annoyed with yet another gimmicky app that did not serve its purpose.
Exposition. You start out at the bottom left of the mountain to establish your users and the setting. You introduce the user, give her a name, for example Mary in our bus-tracking–app story. You can add additional details about Mary if they are relevant to your story. For example, you might want to share whether Mary is looking for wheelchair-accessible transportation, how she first heard about the app, her level of technological literacy, her age, how often she has to commute for work or leisure. The more details you fill in, the less will be left for the audience to imagine. Remember that any detail should be deliberate and serve the purpose of the story!
If we wanted your audience to get excited with your concept and align everybody towards a shared vision, you would emphasize the benefits of your new bus-tacking app. You’d describe how Mary decides to use the new app, which shows her that the bus is only 3 minutes away on a live tracking map. She is not worried about her transportation and feels confident that she will make it on time to the station.
If you wanted to get your team to pay attention to the customer feedback and to the bugs in your product, you would share an unsatisfactory, disappointing experience. Mary decides to use the app, but it requires her to log in. She forgot her password and her password manager does not recognize the app. When she eventually restores access, she needs to type the bus-stop number and her destination bus-stop number. While she is busy interacting with the app, Mary misses the bus and must order a ride share, which already has surge pricing.
If, in your story, your user either decided not to engage any further with the product or was left in a difficult position without a resolution, you need to offer your audience a roadmap towards mitigating that situation.
The story-mountain template is a recipe for good stories. It helps the storyteller add necessary setting, introduce the user, describe the problem and how it is affecting the user, build tension throughout the story, and finally show what steps were taken or can be taken to resolve the situation. The resulting story has a main character with clear problems or goals and a clear resolution, which brings closure and actionable recommendations for the audience.
Good UX often implies skillful storytelling throughout the design process — from defining the problem to sharing stories with our stakeholders. However, all stories, especially the user stories we tell in our organizations, live in the minds of our audiences. This means it is our responsibility as UX professionals to clarify and craft stories that help our audiences make them their own. One way to do that is by following the story-mountain template.
Learn more about other storytelling templates for sharing research and designs in our training course Storytelling to Present UX Work.
Joe Bunting. 2020. Freytag’s Pyramid: Definition, Examples, and How to Use this Dramatic Structure in Your Writing. Retrieved March 28, 2022 from https://thewritepractice.com/freytags-pyramid/.
Ellen Lupton. 2017. Design is storytelling, New York: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
Whitney Quesenbery and Kevin Brooks. 2011. Storytelling for user experience, Sebastopol: Rosenfeld Media.