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The Art of Storytelling

Takeaways from an engaging conversation with UX-industry experts

Cover image for The Art of Storytelling, a Neuron Beer & UX event

No matter what our profession, storytelling is central to our lives. It is one of the oldest forms of communication known to man. But for professionals who work in design, where our product is hard to quantify, it is integral to the success of our business. This can be in how we describe past case studies to a prospective client, a new concept or idea to a colleague or even how we explain what it is we do every day to our family and friends. Our February beer and UX Meetup was centered around the art of storytelling. We were joined by designers Joe Cahill, Sin Leung and Christian Tryller with nearly 60 years of design experience between them. The meetup took the format of an informal round circle discussion with questions and answers from our attendees and panel.

Christian Tryller and Joe Cahill, UX design industry practitioners

Sin Leund, UX design industry practitioner

Telling a story while you’re in the interview process

The first story telling discussion was the subject of case studies. Being able to tell a story as a young designer is such a key part of selling yourself. Sin said one thing to keep in mind when you are presenting case studies to potential employers is that projects never go smoothly. She wants to hear about exactly that; the problem that arose, and how you overcame something that was completely unexpected or that you might have initially scoped incorrectly. It is telling the non-linear story of the things that went wrong but you solved, that is the interesting story to someone in the hiring process. Christian added, in telling these stories and case studies he wants to see your personality come through; it is the actual person you are going to be working with on a day to day basis that you need to learn about in order to be able to hire them. Joe added that he wants to see the excitement and passion for the story, so that if the prospective employee had to present in order to get stakeholders on board during a project, their enthusiasm and passion would encourage that tentative stakeholder’s buy-in.

Sharing an example of using story telling in the UX context

Sin jumped straight into presenting a project ‘show and tell’ to stakeholders. She said the key to the storytelling here is to hone in on a very specific use case with very specific examples that align with what that stakeholder has expressed as integral to the project. Sin suggested using some of the words that they used when speaking to you; mirroring their language and tying it back to what they are looking at now. Not only does this create an instant connection with them but also shows that you are really actively listening to them.

Joe ran with this theme of “storytelling meets active listening”. An example of storytelling in the UX context for him was when presenting his findings from user interviews to key stakeholders. Joe explained that he tried pulling in the energy of the individuals they interviewed, to get buy-in. One of the most important things to do is to “rise to the occasion”, he said. It’s really important to make sure when you are telling the story that the stakeholders are actually listening.

In response to Joe’s fantastically-extrovert methodology, Christian then appealed to the introverts, and mentioned writing out and practicing what you’re going to say, to build confidence for those less comfortable with the act of storytelling.

Storytelling; rising to the occasion for introverts

Sin, despite her fantastic “people-ing skills” went on to talk about her journey through nerves, and explained that she found it a huge struggle going from communicating with 4 people a day to 30. She would have sticky notes almost like a storyboard, for support when she got nervous. She reminded anyone suffering from nerves that no one is waiting for you to make mistakes, and that listeners are not there to find fault, take comfort in the fact that you are the subject matter expert; this should give you a sense of assurance and make storytelling feel less intimidating.

Minimize nerves through preparation

Joe emphasized the importance of learning how to prepare for yourself, in your own unique way, so that you are as relaxed as you can be going into any sort of presentation. Sin added; no matter how many times you rehearse, it is unlikely that it is going to go as you rehearsed it. The rehearsal isn’t for that purpose, it’s to give you the confidence going into it.

How to overcome the following dilemma; Often, stakeholders are more interested in the outcome rather than the journey. But it is also important to convey the journey that got you to the outcome.

Sin said it’s a combination of both components, the outcome has to be something that is meaningful for them. She used the example of user research, how on earth could you possibly build tools for people to use in an organization if you don’t know anything about them? There is no way to create impactful change for users unless you take the time to fully understand them first.

Furthermore, Sin then went on to qualify that the problem is twofold. Storytelling is about how you tell the story but also about actually being heard. In order to do that, you need to understand what stories the listener needs to hear in order to understand the problem space. If they need to know how this is contributing to their bottom line, you need to frame the story in a way that they will hear it better. So reframe what you are going to deliver by knowing your audience. Always bear in mind that everyone has their own targets. Show empathy for everyone within the project, if you understand what motivates these stakeholders in their decision making, it means that your storytelling will fall on more receptive ears and communication throughout the project will be improved.

Joe followed on from the idea that empathy is at the core of UI/UX and fundamentally good design is all about understanding the user’s needs. However, sometimes designers have to appeal to stakeholders who only want numbers based research. So Joe explained, to encourage key stakeholder buy-in you need to tell the story of the persona that they know, in order to explain the importance of user research and UX methodology.

How do you tell the story of data, without the audience falling asleep?

First make sure the data makes sense, and that you’re not throwing it in for data’s sake.

Sin created an executive summary slide with round number cost savings: “This is how much we have projected in cost savings, based on running this research study for the next year.” Make sure the sample set is big enough to support your estimate. She expanded, if you don’t have a way of benchmarking something, the easiest way of convincing someone of its value is by showing the cost of “not” doing the thing. If you’re trying to fix something that is not easily quantifiable, show what the cost is of “not testing” it. If you are able to work out the cost of both building something without testing it first; paying for design and development and then adding the cost of having to go back and change it after the work has been produced, the numbers will speak for themselves.

How do you measure the success of a design?

Sin said when interviewing prospective designers she is always impressed when a case study talks about what it is contributing to the bottom line. Pulling in these insights is what shows you understood the project and makes the project success indisputable.

Christian also countered this argument explaining that there is also immense value in how UX impacts internal culture. He argues you should look for the opportunity within a company where you could add value to their internal tools as well as increasing the bottom line of the company revenue.

How do you tell people the story of what you do for a living?

Joe interestingly frames his job for his audience: “Do you remember when instagram moved the ‘like’ and the ‘shopping’ button at the beginning of the pandemic?” Joe said he is the person that understands why that might be better for the user and then implements that change.

Sin choses to also describe her job framing the story for her target audience: Imagine that we live in a world before cars existed and people wanted a faster way to get from A to B. But they’re told they can’t use a horse, so someone suggests a vehicle with wheels. She figures out the experience of getting in the vehicle, driving the vehicle and exiting the vehicle. Her job is to imagine all that and then put it on a screen.

How do you tell the story of the UX process?

Joe used the analogy of following a recipe when you are cooking, the design process is created using a set of ingredients or a toolset. However, if you change companies you’re working with, the tools can completely change. You’re always learning and adapting processes accordingly. Not only is the company you work with and the framework changing but the space is always evolving, so you need to be agile on your feet. But despite this fluidity Sin explains that you will always need to be able to sell different parts of the process, to stakeholders at different points and you must always bear in mind:

1) Who are you telling the story of your design process to?

2) How do you communicate it in a way that they can receive the message?

What is the story you tell yourself?

Interestingly Sin finished the discussion bringing the conversation back to the most important story: The one you tell to yourself. How are you going to show up for your 20th iteration with the same enthusiasm you had for your 2nd iteration? She reflects; the important thing is that you maintain passion and curiosity for the craft, and if you maintain this passion, that will be reflected in all of the stories you tell.

If you missed any of the discussion or would like to listen again please check out our YouTube channel.

See you next time!

Watch the discussion

Beer and UX is a Meetup group with more than 2,900 members. Hosted by Neuron, this community of design enthusiasts meets regularly to hear from industry professionals, debate, and collaborate.


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