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Storytelling in UX Research: How to Craft Compelling Narratives

Advice from a professional storyteller on ways to create action from your research insights.

Few skills are more essential to the job of a human insights professional than storytelling. Telling a story about a customer—their pain points, their unique solutions, their background and context— is part of most projects we undertake. Stories are a useful frame or structure for delivering our insights and recommendations.

The problem is that “storytelling” is both overused and under-defined, leading to confusion about what it actually means to “tell” a user’s story or leverage storytelling for our work. We recently chatted with a professional storyteller—Leyla Farah—about how user researchers can better weave this core human information transmitter into their work. 

Leyla led the storytelling team at Salesforce and knows what it means to use a story to create actionable results. These are her recommendations for creating stories that stick.

This is a recap from our user research event: YouX. Stream every session on-demand.

What is storytelling?

Story’s impact is diluted without definition.

Like “innovation” or “human-centered,” “story” has many meanings, especially for the business world. Although this variability speaks to the inherent use and application of storytelling within organizations, a tool in a toolkit—like storytelling—works better with an attached process and best practices for use. Without these things, the approach can lose meaning and value, or even can work against our goals to gain influence and visibility organizationally. 

Simply saying “we are storytellers for our users” is not enough. In order for “storytelling” to remain useful for researchers, we need a definition that helps practitioners understand what makes for a “good” story, when to use it, how to use it, and why. 

This usually means starting with the goal and audience.

Different goals, different stories

What is the reason for using a story and who is the audience? Is the goal to generate empathy? Persuade? Interrogate assumptions? Each of these goals will require a different kind of story.

If we’re using story in a marketing landscape, we are trying to persuade. And that story has a specific kind of structure. That is a different story than one designed to show my leadership that our customers are using our products in a was we didn’t expect them to. That’s a story about a hard truth and accepting change. ~Leyla Farah

Know your audience

Similarly, the audience of a story should shape its component parts. An audience might be more persuaded by a deep dive into the characters or heroes of a story, or maybe the conflict or action is where they pay the most attention. Still other audiences might want to learn—in detail— about how a conflict is resolved. Stories will have all of these elements, but the framing, priority, and data used (more on that later) will change.

Thinking about storytelling as we would any other research method—one with best practices and steps for use—turns this from a catch-all phrase into an impactful approach to translating research findings into action.

Three narrative structures to help you create the right story.

Just like there are different frameworks for analyzing open-ended data (jobs to be done, personas, grounded theory), there are different ways of approaching a research story.

Here are three popular ways to structure a story:

Pixar Story Spine: Something in the world (of your product, users, etc.) changed, and the way we (the company) are used to doing things no longer works, and we need to discover a new way that will help resolve the tension in the world.

The Pixar Story Spine (source).

South Park Story Spine: Two (or more) things are true at the same time, but that contrast one another. Because both things are true, something happened. Because the two, competing things are in tension, the story explores the outputs of that tension.

The South Park Story Spine (source).

Hero’s Journey: Once things were all good in the kingdom (or company, product), something (disruption, opportunity space) requires a hero to go on a quest, making alliances along the way to defeat an enemy or obtain a sacred item to save the kingdom.

The Hero's Journey story structure (source).

Use stories to support the broader narrative

The elements of your story should should work together in service of a larger narrative—one that is encapsulated in a mission statement or a product strategy. No matter the kind of story we tell with user research data, it should allude (or speak directly to) these larger narratives. This connection gives stories relevance, impact, and coherence—especially in organizational context.

The narrative is the overarching idea, the universal truth being told. Our stories should stack underneath the narrative, holding it up. When we tell a story, the narrative should be at the heart of it. Without that, the story doesn’t make sense or resonate in the same way. ~Leyla Farah

A narrative could be a company-wide value,  a team-specific strategy element, or even an OKR for a quarter. Connecting a story to these wider narratives imbues it with translatable and understandable action. Your stakeholders should see the reason this story (and its recommendations) is being told and what they should do to apply its lessons and learnings.

Stories can affect how AI might impact research

Generative artificial intelligence (AI) technology is already affecting many aspects of research: changing parts of our workflows or processes, helping new-to-research folks uplevel their skills, and of course creating new exploratory projects as we investigate AI’s role in our product experiences.

And storytelling has also been impacted by the rise in adoption and application of AI.

“AI is challenging our notion of what it means to be human, what it means to be conscious, and what it means to be alive.” ~Leyla Farah

Although this rapid use of AI is real and will change how many of us do our work, it’s important to consider the stories we tell ourselves and others about this change. AI is another tool—like a laptop computer or a shovel—and how we use it is still very much up for debate and determination. Too often, the stories we tell about AI paint that future as already determined…and mostly negative (replacing jobs, reducing quality, scaling biases).

This is decidedly not the case, however. Our stories cannot necessarily change the technology itself, but they can shape how it is used and what we believe about that use. 

Insisting that AI is destined to have certain effects might just help ensure those effects come to pass. But what if, instead, our stories describe a future where this technology is helping user researchers, designers, and product managers better advance the principles of design thinking and human-centered research? 

There will be competing stories about the future of AI for our work and world. Let’s not doom-say preemptively. Doing so relinquishes control and influence we still very much have.

Resources on user research storytelling:

Ben Wiedmaier
Senior Content Marketing Manager
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