Storytelling and UX: Separated at Birth

Plate Design pre-800 A.D. Nazca tribe, Cusco Peru
Plate designed 0-800 A.D. by Nazca tribe, Peru

In 2004 I introduced my ideas about story-thinking to a bunch of design engineers who responded  “no, no, that’s design-thinking.” So I fell in love with design thinking…genuises like Dan Lockton (101 patterns for behavior change), Jan Jursa and UX Storytellers (free ebook with personal UX stories) create designs that are stories. Perhaps story thinking and design thinking are not an exact match but the steps of find/share/refine from UX, Agile,  and Scrum sources are delightfully nonlinear (story) compared to the decision routines I learned from management by objective techniques (i.e. SMART goals) and I like the conversations of UX people.   They ignite the imagination to pursue goals we can’t yet see.

I have an issue with the UX term “cognitive bias” because EMOTION should be in there somewhere and “bias” makes humans sound like stupid cows who might follow a cattle chute wherever it goes. Even cow chutes can fail until a designer understands the stories cows tell themselves (see Temple Grandin). Human patterns of interpretation can utilize rational tools but our patterns irrevocably reflect the DNA of physical experience and emotional reasoning. Every “cognitive bias” makes as much sense as any stereotype makes sense. It shouldn’t be universally applied, but it comes from an organic place.  I’m happy to know that Dan Ariely says his term “predictably irrational” refers to the idea that it is irrational to think you can predict your own behavior. It is not a blanket disdain for these patterns of behavior. Emotional reasoning is and forever will be more powerful than rational decision making and I see that as a good thing because our future will be much better when we learn to blend emotions like empathy, compassion and love into our ratios.

Before demand for content reduced storytelling to a sequence of linear explanations and numbered bullets, it was mostly taught in person.

Learning storytelling in a group from an experienced storyteller provides an experiential sense of story that can’t be captured with a set of procedural instructions.  There are great courses out there.  We can learn a lot online…but if we want to understand something as deeply human as storytelling its ideal for humans to interact with other humans.

Here’s why: A story blends emotional, visual, kinesthetic and rational reasoning routines without separating them.  Personal stories illuminate insights that are specific to a situation’s people, complexity, texture and relationships. A vibrant true story delivers a hologram of culture, nature, nurture, space and time from an embodied human point of view: WAY more information than a story formated via a hunt and peck search for hero, quest, obstacle, helper and journey.

The job of a storyteller is two-fold. First, a storyteller notices the emotional, visual, and kinesthetic patterns that produce perceptions (i.e. what makes some facts feel more important than other facts) and interpret conclusions (I “know” him therefore he is more trustworthy).  Second, a storyteller must be able to re-create this perceptual/emotional point of view so others share the insights and the feelings as if they were physically there.

Yes, any story that provides your listeners with a vicarious experience of your facts in time and space makes your facts feel more “real” …with all the benefits of that, but to me, the real value of storytelling is the way it allows us to aggregate contexts and shift perspectives so we make better decisions.  When rational objective reasoning is allowed to over-rule subjective story reasoning we end up with projects that should’ve worked, but didn’t because emotions and perceptions rule human reality.

More than a set of tool to persuade, story-finding and storytelling skills increase the variety and quality of scenarios we can imagine to produce the results we seek – sometimes revealing even better goals in the process. Any story that narrates a relevant “Significant Emotional Event” (without some imposed structure) helps us S.E.E. important patterns, better test prototypes, and understand user experiences.

Designing cattle chute stories/interfaces that only lead to pre-determined conclusions is not engaging it is coercion. Narrating stories with the priority of understanding (not controlling) true human experiences releases listener conclusions to be creative and more meaningful to you both.  It means showing faith in your listeners (always appreciated) and sharing responsibility for mutually creative interpretations and actions. There is no “right story.” If you look for the perfect story you sacrifice the process of mindful attention to what is, in favor of what you want to see.  Both are valid…but I’m thinking we could all do a better job of understanding what is.

So to all my UX colleagues, please don’t let your understanding of storytelling get distorted with contrivances created to package and sell storytelling advice.  User experiences with emotion and unpredictability intact are too valuable to the process of innovation to be reduced to fit existing categroies. Be bold.


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