I cringe when I look back at my first UX Research presentation. It was one of my first assignments of this kind while I was studying UX Design with Mento Design Academy. Even looking at it right now to capture details for this article is pure torture.
Let me write here one of the first lines: My research purpose was to see what creates the museum experience for visitors, why they choose a specific type of museum guidance (audio guides, labels, nothing at all), and their purpose when visiting.
As you’ve probably understood by now, my presentation was about the Research I’ve done for a museum app. I’ll spare you what followed; a brutal, sheer enumeration of research methods, lists of insights I would go through in 5 seconds, what I learned as a Designer, what I learned about users, sharing absolutely everything without catching my breath. And I won’t even go into the visuals.
When I came up with the idea for this article, the title was something along the lines of “ The ultimate guide to improve storytelling in Design,” only to realize while writing it that it was hard to pinpoint the recipe for storytelling. There is never a clear checklist, templates you can insert your story into to make it shine, or frameworks. But I do notice recurring principles that turned my initial failure into success stories. Let’s talk about them.
What problem are you solving?
Great stories begin with a problem. From the adventure books we loved as children to the new Avengers movie, we feel connected and entertained when there is a change in the status quo. Something changes in the character’s world that create a problem. Or that problem has been there all along. A problem makes the audience lean, listen, watch and resonate with the story. It helps them empathize with you or your character; some even recognize themselves in the story and get curious. People pay attention when a problem arises.
When I look back at my presentation, I assumed everyone was familiar with the context (museums) because it meant something. I didn’t take any action to prepare the audience for what I was about to say. I let them guess too much from the beginning, assume, and try to keep up with the list of research methods and insights I gathered without thoroughly clarifying their purpose.
Starting with a problem helps your audience understand and internalize your story. Not everyone in your audience will resonate with your problem, and that’s ok. Your role is to offer them clarity on the context and make them resonate with you as a person and storyteller.
In my case, I’m guessing not many people are museum fans like I am. Looking back, it would have been helpful for me to provide more context by telling a personal story, one that touches various aspects of human life. I could talk about how I encountered this problem during my last vacation, what a museum meant to me, or why it was vital for me to receive information during my visits. Tell the background of the project with empathy. Tell a personal story.
Define your audience
Remember those children’s books you read when you were a child that you rediscovered now as an adult? The plot is different; we see the story from a different angle and empathize with the characters differently. It all depends on us, the audience.
Also, it’s one thing to tell a story to children and another one to your friends in a bar. They will be capable of understanding different things and interested in various scenarios. The same logic applies to presentations and storytelling. Before sewing the story together, create its structure, and think about who you are delivering this story to. Are you talking to a hiring manager, another Designer, someone from the software development team, or the client? Different people will have other interests: a story about a user interview might appeal to all, but going into detail about a specific method might appeal to the Designer only and keep the others snoozing.
Sew your story together
Let’s define first what a good story means and then take it one by one. A good story consists of 3 parts:
- A good beginning that gets people interested and makes your audience resonate with your story;
- An exciting or interesting plot;
- A satisfying ending that should depict how you arrived here (it doesn’t matter if it’s a happy ending or not).
We’ve already talked about how to set the context, the problem with the character (which can be you or your users), and how to choose your story points (whether it’s a new research method, some great insights, or a brand new functionality of a product).
When starting to talk about their process, most designers prepare a beautiful deck that shows the entire process, the goal, actions, findings, and conclusions. However, when they present, they go through each of these stages individually and sequentially. They first discuss the background, then the goals, actions, and ending.
When it comes to good storytelling, you need to link your background with your goal, your goal with your questions and challenges, your questions with the way you arrived at the solution, and your methods and processes with execution and findings. Articulating the transition before different stages of your designs, decisions, or actions is the easiest way to create a story.
Will I get there eventually?
We frequently hear it’s essential for Designers to have storytelling skills, but how do we turn this into actionable goals? Because when it comes to engaging people and being able to tell a compelling narrative, it all comes down to consistent practice. My greatest moments have come not through frameworks but through instinct, exercise, and passion for the Design craft.
Like most things in Design, you improve by consistently doing something, looking for feedback, and iterating. Take all the opportunities you have to talk about your work as a story (this coming from a person who dreaded presentations and talking a couple of months ago). Are you meeting some friends for a coffee? They probably won’t be interested in your UX process, so think about how you would frame it to capture their interest.
So the answer is “Yes!”, anyone can learn storytelling, especially when one is passionate about the craft. The only 3 things you need to practice are setting the context, defining your audience, sewing all the pieces of your story together and avoiding checklists.