A manifesto for UX Storytelling

When employers say they want storytelling skills – they are not being entirely truthful. 

In UX we know that most people describe solutions to problems, rather than the problem itself – often because they simply don’t know what the problem is, they feel the uneasiness, and the human brain skips naming the problem and trips onto a solution. 

Stakeholders seeking effective storytellers at interview are using storytelling as a shorthand for a number of implicit needs they have but don’t articulate:

  • I need to know how to interact with this information….am I in learner or advisor mode?
  • I need to be able to navigate up and down [detail to strategic] and sideways [connect] from what you are telling me.
  • I need enough detail to be able to recall this later so I can retell it and make it my own.

Nobody likes a “Nause”


Many Stakeholders apply a thought process very similar to the OODA loop when they encounter information of any sort – it’s 4 stages of thinking. Matthew Syed explains the OODA in an episode of his podcast; When you present to a stakeholder, they are doing all this stuff while nodding and smiling at your words….

OBSERVE – Acquire new knowledge quickly. Stakeholders need to know why they are present. What do you need from them? Do you want their attention or their Advice?

ORIENT – locate that knowledge in my global schema of experience and business knowledge – (build schema) Your stakeholders usually arrive from another meeting about another thing in a different space and are disoriented, help them orient themselves. They don’t need weeds, they want the landscape, where are the hills and valleys. They need the whole story so they can make good judgements. (This old Guardian Advert, shows how cognitive dissonance can affect how people interpret the information you want to convey.)

DECIDE – what to do with the new intellectual capital and schema you have provided.

ACT – Use the information to move things forward and solve problems they see.

An effective business-like storyteller doesn’t make the process of knowledge acquisition harder for stakeholders than it needs to be. Storytelling is a matter of good UX.

Grinch Manifesto

Think about your Audience first – write Audience Centred Information

Who will be there, why do they need to know this, what is it important for them to walk away with?

Needs Analysis

There are only two sets of needs that matter when telling your story, those of the user you represent and the stakeholders who need to make sense of what you say.

Your need to geek out on Design principles or Research methodologies are not for now. Save those for your tribe.


Reflect on what you are planning to share, think about the key 3 or 5 facts your audience must leave with, build your narrative and information to support those 5 points.

Risk assess your story

What will trigger people to follow rabbit holes, how can you manage that? Don’t design accidental land mines into your story. In other words, get your dominoes in a row – plan for constructive alignment of your narrative – be coherent.

Deliver a traditional 3 part lesson;

INTRODUCTION – tell them what you are going to tell them, (the mountains)
MAIN INFORMATION DUMP – focus on what is important to your audience, which wont be what’s important to you – nobody cares about your research or design methods, they care that they can rely on what you are telling them….give confidence levels to help your audience make sense of the global landscape. (tree level – no weeds)
PLENARY – Remind them of the mountains and significant trees, leave a breadcrumb trail.

Think about the 3 Billy Goats Gruff….how do you remember the story? Odd are you don’t.

You applying a familiar framework and build upon the key breadcrumbs in the title.

Apply the wisdom of Ronseal.

Make your words do exactly what they say on the tin. Repeat key information in similar but different ways.

  • Stay out of the weeds
  • Provide a breadcrumb trail
  • Use Infographics
  • Develop a repeatable framework
  • Build your brand
  • Gifs = Bad
  • Clean & Minimal = Good

Storytelling is shorthand for: “be valuable, do the heavy information lifting for your audience, personalise it, make it memorable, be user focussed.”

There’s a whole bunch of other stuff, like visual design, tone of voice, speed of delivery, but it’s all noise, the structural issue is being user focussed…..who knew?

In the end…..

You demonstrate your value by delivering valuable information.
This makes your stakeholders and peers value what you say.
This gives you a voice and a seat at the table.

A foot note: on Learning by Rote:

Authentic story tellers do not learn by rote. Rote learning only ever develops surface knowledge in the short term memory. It is busy work, not businesslike. If you have tried to learn your story by rote, you will feel anxious, you shouldn’t be relying on surface knowledge to tell the story of your users.

You know this domain, you have been immersed in it in context for weeks, use your slides as a structure to give yourself the best chance of telling the real authentic story. When you speak from your deep memory, about stuff you own, you speak with authority and confidence.

Busy work isn’t smart, you can’t “busy” yourself to confident story telling, you can think and design your way there.

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