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How can we make things go BOOM?

Telling a good story at Madison+ UX 2014

“I’ve worked in tech for 15 years, helping business build awesome digital things,” explains Donna Lichaw, former documentary filmmaker and dynamic third speaker of the Madison+ UX 2014 conference. “I kick people in the butt. I instigate. I get teams unstuck. I make sure they really understand what they are building and that it’s solving actual problems.”

To do all of the above, Lichaw says, she gets user experience professionals thinking about the story they’re trying to tell. “All of my films that worked had a very solid story. It was accidental. I never paid attention.”

Fortunately, there is a formula for good storytelling. There’s a way to make sure that everything flows nicely and that people are engaged. “That’s what the movies do, that’s what TV does, that’s what we need to do,” Lichaw says. “I started trying to apply this concept. I call it story mapping—mapping out all the elements of what you’re trying to do.

“Make things go BOOM. Plan this stuff out.”

The core of a good story is the narrative arc. Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. You begin with exposition, which leads to an inciting incident, usually some kind of problem. Next, there is rising action, often in the form of a journey, chase, or search. A crisis occurs. Finally, you reach the story’s climax, experience falling action, and ultimately, resolution.

Gail Swanson, Associate Director–UX at Manifest Digital in Chicago, agrees with Lichaw’s emphasis on the importance of storytelling in shaping the user experience. During her talk on Friday at Madison+ UX 2014, she asked UX professionals to be aware of the mental models users already have. “Mental models are the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world we live in,” Swanson says. “If you’re designing something, think about how you can guide the mental model. Pinterest, for example, uses tile mapping. Work with how people create stories of their own.”

Lichaw outlines three different types of stories that are universal across digital products and useful for UX professionals: epic stories, origin stories, and usage stories. “Epic stories are good at showing how a product fits into users’ lives,” she says. “Origin stories answer ‘how might users find us?’ Usage stories are good for first-time use, payment and checkout, and long-term engagement and retention.”

An example of this, Lichaw points out, is Twitter. Twitter uses a usage story to guide users on board. It makes new users follow 15 people to avoid drop-off. Twitter has users find their friends at the climax point of the story. Because you’re already invested, you’re more likely to follow your friends. The ending is, how about you finish your profile? At that point, you’re invested, you’re one of them. If you break this down, Twitter is getting you to a “resistance is futile” point.

Eric Dahl also discussed the importance of stories in his talk, UX Axioms: Design Better Products for People. He spoke about rooting design in culture. “Stories are how we understand and shape the world. When I think about stories, I think about culture. How can the products we make have cultural relevance? What are the stories our products are telling?”

“Why would anyone ever want to use this?” Lichaw asks us to ask ourselves. “What’s going on? Who is the hero? What is their big goal? How might the story play out? What is required to make this happen?

“How can we make this go BOOM?”