It’s long been one of the core tenets of marketing that storytelling is one of the very best ways to make an advertising campaign impactful or memorable – and the same is true of user experience (UX) design.

We all have an innate compulsion to listen to and identify with stories, and the human race has been creating and sharing them for thousands of years as a result. Philip Pullman (author of His Dark Materials) once said, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world”, and he’s probably right.

So what does this affinity for narrative mean for usability? Today, we’ll look at ways to take the user on a narrative journey as they explore the website – and the art of getting all of your design elements to support the story.

Why tell stories?

It’s not just sheer conjecture that storytelling can make a serious difference to the power of website copy, as experiments have shown that it can literally triple the number of users who stay engaged and ultimately read all the way through.

Dry and unentertaining text is certainly a major UX issue for any website or app. It doesn’t matter how information-rich the copy may be – if it isn’t emotive or memorable, it’s not going to sink in or seem important.

In simple terms, we can think of storytelling in UX as giving the user a reason not just to understand your message, but to care. It can create motivation for other user behaviours around the site. If the user is emotionally invested in your site, they will want to stay for longer, read more – and subsequently convert.

We don’t just have to think of storytelling as limited to the website’s written copy. Their entire journey of navigation around the site can be thought of as a tale with a narrative arc, and this can influence how we think about pacing and structure.

What makes a good story?

A compelling story can have many different potential ingredients:

  • The protagonist: This is the main character of the story (the hero). For usability designers, the protagonist has got to be the user – and the story is their overall journey and experience on our website.
  • Supporting characters: We might think of our product or service – the thing the website is intended to sell – as being the sidekick character to the user, the Robin to their Batman. In other words, your company is here to be friends with the user and to help them achieve their goals.
  • Emotion: Stories don’t stick unless they resonate with something in the user’s heart or offer something in which the reader can truly believe.
  • Humour: A little levity can help to add an extra human touch and make your copy more appealing.
  • A progression arc: A tale in which the hero doesn’t get anywhere, doesn’t change in any way and ends the story exactly as they began it would be pretty boring. Ideally, they should grow and change throughout the narrative so that they finish up wiser, stronger, or at least affected by the experience in some way. In terms of usability, we might think about the user’s journey around the site and the value they will have acquired when they reach the end of their session.
  • Conflict, challenge, and resolution: Stories in which everything goes to plan and nothing is difficult aren’t interesting. For UX designers, this doesn’t mean we should deliberately make the site hard to use! However, we might think about the user’s problems and needs as challenges for our product to help them overcome.
  • Similes and metaphors: If your product or service might be difficult for the user to intuitively understand, a well-written metaphor might help them to see it in a new way and grasp the real meaning.
  • Twists: A surprise or two along the way can elevate the experience to something special in the user’s mind.

Supporting the story

Of course, the visual presentation of your web copy is as important as the content. It’s good to ensure that the typography and imagery associated with your words are consistent and help to embellish your ideas.

Therefore, it’s important to find the right images to go alongside the copy (as cheesy or generic stock images are likely to somewhat undermine any genuine emotional resonance you do manage to create with your writing). Authenticity is a big part of good storytelling, and your narrative has to be believable.

Other visual elements can help to encourage the story of the user’s journey around the website. Gamification can be thought of as a type of storytelling, and point meters and progress bars can give the user a sense of having advanced through the site narratively – essentially creating a mini ‘progression arc’ for their ‘character’.

Things to get right

When telling a story, it’s a good idea to clarify what the overall point is – how do you ultimately want the audience to feel, and what are you trying to say? After all, unmotivated storytelling that doesn’t go anywhere is unlikely to help anybody’s user experience.

Simplicity is also key. Your users don’t want to read a novel or take part in an epic saga, and it’s good to err on the side of caution as far as length is concerned. Distill your narrative elements down to as pure a form as you can before including them in the website. Unfortunately, many users have short attention spans and it’s best not to overdo it.

It’s crucial to make sure you’re using the right language for your target audience. Consider your user profiles, and whether those individuals would respond well to the type of story you’re telling (and the words you’re using to tell it). Using overly complicated language for teens – or wording that is too basic for a more mature audience with complex needs – could cause your storytelling to lose impact.

It also helps to think about whether or not the user experience is memorable. The best stories are the ones that stick in our minds long after we were first told them, and we can’t help but want to share them.

At the end of the day, storytelling has been irresistible to people since the dawn of civilisation. By thinking about and structuring your user journeys in this way, you can create a website experience that is both innately appealing and compelling.

By drawing influence from narrative, your users’ experiences can evoke some of the feel of a great story. Ultimately you can lead them towards an ending in which they embrace your product or service – and live happily ever after.


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