Q&A with our authors

Storytelling for User Experience – questions to Whitney Quesenbery

Whitney Quesenbery

:: Thank you Whitney! ::

1. Can we develop storytelling skills?
It’s so easy to make big lists of the things we do in UX, or to argue about whether one skill is really more important than the others.
Curiosity about the world, empathy for different points of view, and being open to idea are all important. And they all start from listening and observing. We emphasized listening because it’s a skill that many people struggle with. Finding the balance between expressing our own views and really listening to others can be difficult.
Listening – taking the time to let experiences and impression in — is also at the heart of all the other skills. Good listening can be more (or less) instinctive. But it can be developed with practice. I don’t think we need “certified listening trainers” (though we can always help each other do better).

2. How much can a good storyteller involve a not-so-ready-to-listen audience?
UX storytelling is not like a performance on the stage. The goal is not to hold your audience on your every word, but to use the techniques of stories to communicate better. If what you are doing isn’t working, stop and try to engage the audience in a different way.
It works in both directions: maybe you are talking too abstractly, and a little story will help show the ideas in a more concrete way. When I’m leading a discussion about user research, for example, I always want our conclusions tied to what we saw in the field. We might go over a few specific “juicy story fragments” and then tie them together into a more universal story.
It’s hard to do an example out of context, but imagine we have been talking about an app for community nurses. We have observations about how they move around from place to place in their work and how they help translate and interpret health information. Perhaps this makes us think of adding a multi-language medical glossary. Instead of just listing this new feature, we can also talk about how these community nurses see themselves as the front line in healthcare, and how important it is for them to get good information to their clients. Maybe someone suggests that the words can be in audio, and we can think about the scenario and how they might use it: to prepare and be sure they have the correct pronunciation? To share with a client to help them learn the words?
You could write these stories in advance, but they might be improvisational, part of exploring a new idea. The contextual analysis is helpful in making design decisions, but so is understanding the emotions: both the pride that they take in their work, and the constant stress of busy schedules.
That sort of work around the story might lead to seeing the app as a way to support busy community health workers while they are in the field. We can than articulate a design principle that the app is complementary to other information, and start to think about what an app can do better than things like printed handouts and the computer in their office.

3. When (and how) are good ways to tell stories in the “typical presentation”?
I love the way Kelsey Ruger thinks of his entire presentation as a story (summarized in the box in Chapter 15). Too often, we create slides that give us the outline and walk through the bullet points.
Don’t get too focused on creating a performance. Instead, think about the journey that you want to go on with the audience.

  • What is the frame? Are you taking them on the trip with you, or reporting on the result. Is this the “big story” one of discovery (new insights) or confirmation (digging into what we know) or problems?
  • Do you need persuasion? Do you have to convince them, or are you explaining something in more depth?
  • Do they know the characters? Are you introducing them to the users and context, or adding richness to the picture?

4. I think about how to weave the stories I heard into the presentation: how can I bring the rich research context into the room. Photos? Quotes? Video? Enacting the story? Or sharing my reaction to what I saw?
If there are already personas, I almost always try to relate the user research or design to the personas, so that the stories are a new view into the persona, not just a random anecdote. Does it confirm or contract our thinking, as embodied in the personas.
What is the format. Is this presentation a performance – that is, the audience will listen while you talk for some period of time? Or is it a more interactive discussion?
Finally, can you use any activities to let the audience discover the points you want to make on their own. Maybe you show a design and ask what they think happened when users tried it. Then, I tell 1-2 minutes of stories about what we saw in the usability work. And finally, wrap that up with my thoughts about what it means, which leads into a discussion.

5. Any good materials on presentations?
I like the approach of Jean-luc Doumont. There is a good podcast on creating slides here: http://pcs.ieee.org/podcast-creating-effective-presentation-slides/
It’s sometimes called the “assertion-evidence” style. What’s important is that the slides are focused on a single, clear statement along with supporting text, photos, graphs, etc. They are a little harder to create, because you have to think carefully about what you are trying to say, but the result is a much clearer presentation.
A good article here: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/28818/title/Pimp-your-PowerPoint/

6. What about social networks as storytelling? How can this new form of sharing be added to the toolbox of the (UX) storyteller?
I don’t think I would say that social storytelling is not a “proper kind of storytelling.”
One way to think about this is by analogy to the user research process.

  • The stories we tell, through blogs, tweets, posts, are a great source of research material. They may not be formed into a single coherent story event, but they are collectively a view into people’s thoughts and opinions.
  • Emerging stories, formed of connections, are like a sort of an analysis – a big affinity diagram in which pieces are connected to other pieces.

The question is what you do with all this contextual data if you want to share it. You might just link to it, but you might also distill it into a shorter, more targeted story to make a point. What are you seeing in these emerging stories? How do those insights apply to your work?
Of course, you might also use the format of social storytelling to tell your story. This might be especially useful if you want to say something about an interaction over time between many people.

7. Are you going to organize any webinar on the topic?
Yes. I will be doing a webcast for the O’Reilly Community on Friday, April 19. It’s at 1pm New York time, and 7pm in Europe.


-> You probably know that I also wrote Global UX: Design and Research in a Connected World (with Daniel Szuc). It’s based on interviews with more than 65 UX-ers around the world.

-> My next book is called A Web for Everyone: Designing accessible user experiences (with Sarah Horton). It should be out by end of summer 2013.


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