Storyteller” is not the first word that comes to mind when thinking of a designer. Design is many things, among them artistry, technical knowledge, and business savvy, but is it really storytelling? Isn’t that a skill reserved for “people who write novels and make feature films,” as Stefan Sagmeister, a graphic designer and entrepreneur, said two years ago?
While it’s not intuitive, all experienced designers are, in fact, good storytellers, but it’s important to specify what kind of storytellers they are. Designers aren’t crafting stories about themselves or simply for the sake of the good story. It’s not as simple as one person telling a story and the other person listening. Rather, designers create a story for the consumers that consumers then reenact and live through every time they go to a website or use a company’s product.
Design as storytelling
In a guest post for Forbes, design agency Propoint describes this type of “responsive storytelling” as “capturing your audience’s attention and then guiding them through an interactive and customizable flow of information that conveys your narrative in a way that’s uniquely useful to the individual. In other words, don’t tell me your story; tell me the story that is relevant to me” [emphasis mine]. What this means is that designers aren’t just telling any story: they are telling the story of the customer, specifically how a user interacts with a business or product. In short, the path of the customer is the narrative arc of a story, and designers need to create an appropriate beginning for a user the first time they engage with a product as well as a sense of closure to encourage a sales conversion at the end of the story.
The underlying philosophy of designers as storytellers comes back to the UX design mentality: successful design puts the user above all else. This is because a business’s success is reliant upon bringing in revenue from consumers, and whether a consumer decides to pay is entirely dependent upon their experience interacting with that business and their product. This point of interaction regularly occurs within the realm of design, especially when it comes to digital services or products. Designers then must create the story of a user’s experience and how they engage with a company in order to create an optimized sales funnel.
User as protagonist
To create a design that successfully converts consumers to paying clients or customers, experienced designers take a storytelling approach, thinking of the user as a character in a story. First, designers study the user, learn their motivations, and figure out the best way to guide them to solving a specific need. It’s not enough to say, “here is user a, looking to buy product b.” Users are protagonists in the story, and designers are creating a choose-your-own-adventure story for them. In order to create that story, designers need to know more about the user to create the right paths for them.
Freelance designer Frauke Seewald describes UX design in such a user-centric way in an article for the Toptal Design Blog, when she writes, “UX is more than a bunch of rules and heuristics that you follow in your product design process. UX is subjective, as the name suggests. It is the (subjective) experience that a user gets while using a product. Therefore, we have to understand the needs and goals of potential users (and those are unique for each product), their tasks, and context.”
It is only with this background that designers create effective solutions. What is the user’s story? Why do they need or want a particular product? Optimization of a product cannot occur without this knowledge, and no great design is made without knowing everything about the user and what he or she is trying to accomplish.
Storytelling as collaboration
The concept of storytelling as design goes beyond just viewing the user as a protagonist and telling their story. In the same way that a story has other characters and an entire world built around the protagonist, so too does design storytelling pull together multiple elements and weave them together into a single tapestry. In an article for UXMag, Sarah Doody writes, “a product storyteller should be positioned in the company to help break down the walls between all groups, facilitate the development of a single story, foster collaboration between groups, and ensure that every interaction a consumer has with a product or brand maps back to that story.”
The importance of storytelling is clear in Doody’s observations for its impact on team dynamic. Focusing on the over-arching story puts an emphasis on the end goal and what a company wants, and more importantly, needs to accomplish in order to get there. In the context of design, designers balance the needs of the development team, the needs of the business, and the needs of the user to create a story that satisfies all three. It’s only through this idea of storytelling, understanding each group and where they are coming from, that a solution becomes apparent.
Storytelling in design isn’t so much a process as a way of thinking. Through considering design as a story, designers are better able to empathize with the user and with all of the elements that have to come together for a successful design. This way, designers can always keep the end goal in mind and keep their work focused on what their design needs to do, not what the design aesthetics are or what extensions and features could be added to it.
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