We are inveterate storytellers, ‘who create our own identities around a story’ says philosopher Owen Flanagan. It seems appropriate that story (without the definitive article) is an excellent design thinking tool.
Task and user flows are ubiquitous industry-standard design tools, yet they lack the human factor, leading to a less engaging way of bringing the user journey to life. Using story to map out how a user might interact with a product is a key way of predicting the user’s experience with your product or service.
Storymapping is a powerful, fresh and enjoyable way to map and visualise the user’s journey through your product or service, in a visual and dynamic manner. For the designer and product team, it breathes life into design challenges, opens our mind to ideas and discovers potential obstacles to overcome.
Let me tell you a story
This is a true story about addiction and loss. It’s not quite the Dickensian story you are hoping for, but it is a story of a young boys’ intrepid journey through the digital underworld.
When I was 12, I received a ZX Spectrum 48k as a Christmas present. This was a big deal. It was 1983 and home computers were at their peak of popularity.
Manic Miner was my first home gaming experience, and it came free with the computer. Our protagonist was a cute pixilated Miner who for unknown reasons needed to journey through ingenious mazes and avoid fiendishly complex traps. As soon as the cassette finished loading eight minutes later (image waiting eight minutes for anything), I was hooked by the clunky 8-bit graphics, horrid sound effects and lagging gameplay.
My parents were getting concerned, as I refused to play outside with my friends for two weeks. Occasionally I would even sneak down at midnight to bask in the soothing irradiated light.
I mastered the game quickly, although the last few levels were difficult. There was no option to save the game, and if I died on level 20, I would have to replay all 20 levels again. It was maddening, but I didn’t know any better. I was getting close to triumph, only a few levels to go. What could possibly happen?
In the beginning…
Think of any film, be it a film by Michael Bay or Chan-wook Park. It begins by introducing the character or characters. An event occurs that changes their situation. This causes conflicts that are resolved in some manner by the end. This is story structure.
The origins of this approach go back to Aristotle, the originator of the classical story structure. He told us that a story has ‘a beginning and middle and end’.
In 1863, the German playwright and novelist Gustav Freytag updated the three-act structure by investigating ancient Greek drama and plays of Shakespeare. He identified common patterns and introduced the five-act story arc. He represented this structure as a pyramid, which is still in use today.
Stories are memory aids, instruction manuals and moral compasses.
~ Aleks Krotoski, Social psychologist
Since I am talking about powerful experiences of my youth, let me take Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind as an example. I apologise for the spoilers ahead, but it is difficult to explain a plot without giving something away.
- Government researchers discover a group of lost planes that went missing shortly after World War II in the Bermuda Triangle.
- A three-year-old boy disappears one night.
- Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) witnesses an unidentified flying object.
- Roy meets Jillian, the mother whose child went missing at the beginning.
- They both travel to Devils Tower to discover the truth.
- Roy and Jillian finally reach Devils Tower as an enormous mothership descends.
- A group of government researchers and UFO enthusiasts (including Roy) get ready to greet the alien visitors.
- The mothership opens its doors and begins releasing the disappeared.
- Jillian is finally reunited with her lost boy.
- The aliens finally appear from the mothership.
- They select Roy to come with them on their travels.
- Roy ascends with the aliens.
- Cue closing credits.
- The end.
This is a simplified version of the plot showing Freytag’s Pyramid at work and the many details of the plot become perfectly clear when mapped to this arc.
Donna Lichaw, a strategy consultant, has specifically used Freytag’s Pyramid as the basis for Storymapping. ‘What’s great about “story” is that it provides you with a framework for turning your customers into heroes.’ This is where the use of story really shines for product design. This is the user’s journey, and the user is the hero of our story. Let us venture forth.
The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.
~ Mary Catherine Bateson, Cultural anthropologist
The power of Storymapping
Let’s break down the reasons that Storymapping is so powerful into two parts.
One: Storymapping is about engaging your audience and quickly communicating concepts to the product team. People can grasp concepts far more quickly when presented graphically. Contrast this with the use of abstract feature centric diagrams. Storymapping by its very nature is a highly collaborative and inspirational tool.
There may be some in the audience that think we are descending into some sort of Arts and Crafts design hell by using this technique. Far from it. Renowned psychologist Jerome Bruner argues story provides a means of structuring and reflecting on our experiences. It is an appropriate tool that allows us to organise our stream of ideas and experiences, order them and work out meaning in our design flow.
Two: Storymapping is about uncovering strengths, weaknesses, gaps, and opportunities that you might otherwise miss. We are less likely to fall into the trap of focusing on the ‘how’ things are done when using this tool, but by answering the ‘who, what, where, when, and why’.
It lets us map out the smallest feature, single interaction, full project or even a family holiday. Using the story arc also models how we interact with products as events plotted out with natural peaks and troughs of tension and release. Mapping these user flows onto a story arc helps us see the flow of ideas and interactions as your users might experience them.
Just one aside. This technique should not be confused with Agile Storymapping popularised by Jeff Patton as this technique is more concerned with the prioritisation and implementation of software features.
What’s the goal?
For a story to be worthwhile, it must have a point. The user’s goal is that point. If you don’t have a point, you won’t have an interesting story. I like to use Job Stories for this part.
Job story structure
Let’s discover the user’s motivations and goals first.
When a __________, (the situation that the user is in)
They want to __________, (the motivation of the user)
So they can __________. (the goal that the user wants to accomplish)
Our new job story
When a Project Manager needs a team member to do a task done,
They want to assign a task to a team member,
So they can delegate multiple jobs and make a team member responsible for each project.
All you need to storymap are Post-It Notes, markers, a firm wall or you can use a whiteboarding tool like Miro. Let’s break down the process.
We will take a simplified task flow as our example. At each stage, we have story stages such as ‘Trigger’ and ‘Crisis’, then below these, our user actions on the green cards and psychological biases and principles on the orange cards.
Who is it for and what is their goal?
The user, in this case, could be a manager who needs to assign tasks to his team. This gives us context to move forward.
What is the call to action that drives the user action?
This is a problem our user wants to overcome. If there is no problem, there should be something enticing to make get the user to act (if there is no problem, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it). In our case, the manager needs to create a task.
3. Rising acton
What steps does the user need to take to complete their goal?
This is the journey, and it should build to a climax. There might be many steps or just a few, but the fewer steps to a goal, the better. Our manager creates his task.
What are the impediments to the user’s journey?
These are the potential issues the user may use. It’s the dragon at the gate or the military in your way. Issues here could be difficulty in recalling team members’ names, lack of feedback, too many options. It’s the low point for the user experience.
How do our users overcome obstacles?
This is how the user overcomes the obstacles. The knight comes to the rescue. What we really want here is for the user to never know there were potential issues at all. They can go about their task with a minimum of fuss.
See how I have tied the ‘resolution’ items to the ‘crisis’ points. We can map as many of these as we want.
6. Falling action
What happens when the user completes their goal?
The feedback we give the user at this stage is important in how they remember the experience. Peak end rule rule is a psychological heuristic which predicts that people ‘remember a memory or judge an experience based on how they felt at the peak moments, as well as how they felt at the end.’ Finish the experience gracefully. ‘Congratulations, we’re giving you free chocolate for life’ always works.
7. The end
Where does the user end up?
Don’t shove them out the door into the rain. Give them an umbrella or possibly hail a cab for them.
When the user has completed all the actions in the flow, let them have a place to go. Examples are returning them back to a dashboard, home page, or giving them options to do another task. Similar to falling action, the end should have a satisfying experience.
What psychological principles or bias might affect the user on their journey?
Under each plot point, note what action we assume the user will take, layer it with detail, such as what psychological behaviours we might expect and what principles we can employ. Reference the Design with Intent cards to guide us. I try to keep it as simple as possible.
The goal in Storymapping is to frame the user as the protagonist and the hero of your product story. These stories can be as short and long as you like. But a word of caution, if the story becomes too complex, it will become unwieldy. If you feel frustrated, stop and pare back your story, and work on smaller chunks at a time.
The sense of an ending
I realised that there is a correlation between reflecting on the design process and Storymapping as a tool. Storytelling can investigate our design process, and highlight interesting stories at the end of a design sprint. This process can explain what happened during our design thinking phase, what issues arose, and how best to learn from it.
By combining Job Stories with Storymapping, we can create a powerful user-centric approach to design, and the more you think in story arcs, the more the user will become the hero your design journeys.
There’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place.
J. K. Rowling, Author
So what happened with Manic Miner?
I had reached level 18, Amoebatrons’ Revenge, and a few levels away from triumph. Then the cassette got jammed. Yes, the tape literally got stuck in the tape recorder as I loaded it up for the next attempt, twisted and snapping as I tried to pry it out of the machine. To say I was heartbroken was an understatement. So much for state-of-the-art technology.
I tried again 22 years later. Older and wiser, and using an emulator, I battled and rediscovered the old joy again. I finally got to level 20, The Final Barrier.
This is the moment that Manic Miner ends.
I was waiting for something spectacular. Why is Manic Miner stuck in the air I thought? Has the game crashed?
There was no message.
No ‘Congratulations, we’re giving you free chocolate for life.’
No falling action.
The game just started again.
I felt cheated and still do to this day.
What’s the moral of this story?
Always remember to make your user the hero of the story, and make sure their journey is worthwhile.
Now tell me your story. Do you use story in your work? Would you use it? How would Storymapping fit into your process? I’d love to hear.
- Aristotle, Poetics
- Ben Rolfe et al., Designing Dramatic Play: Story and Game Structure
- Dan Lockton, Design with Intent 101 patterns for influencing behaviour through design
- Donna Lichaw, The User’s Journey
- Entman and Seymour, Close Encounters with the Third Reich
- Intercom, Designing features using Job Stories
- Jerome Bruner, Research currents: Life as narrative
- Owen Flanagan, Consciousness Reconsidered
- Simply Eighties, Manic Miner