Your constantly-updated definition of Storytelling and collection of topical content and literature


What is Storytelling?

Storytelling is used in design as a technique to get insight into users, build empathy and access them emotionally. With stories, designers speak via Aristotle’s points of plot, character, theme, diction, melody, décor and spectacle to increase the appeal of what they offer and provide a solid understanding of the users.

See how Storytelling can help users latch onto your work.

Storytelling – Telling Tales to Win in User Experience Design

Storytelling is an ancient craft; its power is timeless because good stories will always captivate audiences, whatever the medium. UX designers typically tell on-screen stories, weaving narratives to make users invest their emotions in our messages. Vitally, we aim to hook users through their feelings, as opposed to describing our offerings from a functionalist/task-oriented viewpoint. Indeed, good user experience depends on the success of users’ achieving their goals “usability-wise”, but storytelling is the framework we use to reach users. As we learn about our world through metaphors, not bullet-point specifications, storytelling is the best way to relate to audiences. Effective storytelling means going beyond getting users emotionally invested, to keeping them engaged after their experiences, too, so they attach more meaning to our products/services. Brands do this—building an “auxiliary product” of an experience to advertise their goods and idealized lifestyles.

“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.”

—Terry Pratchett, English fantasy author

Storytelling – Using Captured Knowledge to Captivate

Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Storytelling often demands presenting highly complex notions meaningfully to many types of users. This demands transcending logical appeal, to resonate with them profoundly. Aristotle wrote extensively on persuasion; his understanding of empathy, although relating to classical-Greek drama, is essential for appreciating what users want. Aristotle’s formula has seven elements:

  1. Plot – what are users trying to achieve/overcome?
  2. Character – who are the users: not just demographically, but what insights do you require to understand what they’re truly like and their real needs?
  3. Theme – how can you establish a trustworthy presence to them and still set yourself apart from competitors? How do you reflect the overall obstacles users must overcome?
  4. Diction – what will your design say to users and how? Does a formal/informal tone match what they’d expect to find? How much text is appropriate?
  5. Melody – will the overall design pattern appear pleasant and predictable to users, moving them emotionally?
  6. Décor – how will you present everything so the graphics match the setting the users can sense? Is a classic design or a stylized, niche layout in step with their expectations?
  7. Spectacle – how can you make your design outstanding so users will remember it?

Good stories inevitably involve conflict. Storytelling in design requires you to make users the hero and envision how they can overcome a specific problem using what you’ll offer them. So, start by defining their aims, and clearly plan “user journeys” – steps showing how users might encounter and handle your design in order to achieve goals. The power of storytelling becomes obvious after looking harder at users’ contexts. That translation of the human dimension (what users go through) should show in your earliest prototypes. For instance, a florist’s website must reflect users’ emotions – they want flowers because they’re happy, hopeful or sorrowful/sympathetic. Hotel deal-finding apps must consider how users’ stories differ regarding the pressure they’re under.

Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Use storytelling throughout the design process, incorporating user personas to help map out users’ likely experiences and gain empathic insights. This will enable you to watch your users’ world as you develop prototypes that can match their expectations, build rapport, surprise them with appropriate nice-to-haves, and leave positive, lasting impressions. Ultimately, your design should show you’ve used storytelling to predict your target users’ actions at every level possible.The narratives in your stories are “magic mirrors”—representing your fine-tuned empathy and connecting with users’ values—in which users discover how to make their own happy endings.

Learn More about Storytelling

For more on Storytelling, take the IDF’s course Interaction Design for Usability:

An in-depth, example-rich treatise on Storytelling:

See why Storytelling is important for apps:

Literature on Storytelling

Here’s the entire UX literature on Storytelling by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

All literature

The Power of Stories in Building Empathy

The Power of Stories in Building Empathy

Storytelling plays a huge role in User Experience design and in the Design Thinking process. Storytelling creates a compelling narrative around the people we’re designing for so that we as designers can develop a deep and emotional understanding of their motivations and needs. Stories have the ability to form a common thread throughout a project...

  • 3 weeks ago
The Use of Story and Emotions in Gamification

The Use of Story and Emotions in Gamification

Gamification projects can benefit from storytelling features; these features can help arouse emotional connections with players. They can enhance the player experience and improve the longevity and fun factor of the gamified features. Let’s take a closer look at how that might work, even if you don’t feel that you are a natural story teller. An ...

  • 1 month ago
The persuasion triad — Aristotle Still Teaches

The persuasion triad — Aristotle Still Teaches

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.) classified properties of items and concepts in the known universe. One of his most fundamental discoveries was the composition of persuasive speaking. Although Aristotle identified the “three appeals” that make it up 23 centuries ago, when the known universe was smaller, they are timeless. Persuad...

  • 3 years ago
Aristotle on Storytelling in User Experience

Aristotle on Storytelling in User Experience

The classical Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.) made many groundbreaking discoveries about the way people interact, masterfully breaking down a phenomenon such as public speaking into its constituent parts. Aside from his famous three appeals (logos, pathos, and ethos—the fundaments of any act of persuasion), his observations on the a...

  • 3 years ago
Everyone Loves a Story, and We are All Natural Storytellers

Everyone Loves a Story, and We are All Natural Storytellers

We all enjoy a good story even if what we define as a “good story” differs significantly from person to person. If we can tell stories, we can get our message across more clearly and in a more engaging manner, but what constitutes a natural storyteller? You’ll be surprised to find out the answer. Once you’ve got a grip on the truth, you can fash...

  • 2 years ago
Sympathetic Bonding and Why It’s Useful in Design

Sympathetic Bonding and Why It’s Useful in Design

Sympathetic bonding occurs when we perceive someone else’s emotional reaction to be similar to our own experiences. As such, we feel sympathy for that person. It should be obvious that when we are sympathetic to people, we’re more likely to do the things they do and even—to some extent—do the things they want us to do. How do you create such sym...

  • 2 years ago