Storytelling in the design process

on 16th August 2016

(Last updated 21st March 2022)

Stories help us in many ways. They help us gather information about users’ behaviour: the goals they wish to complete and the motivation that drives them towards these goals. Stories encourage collaboration, discussion and innovation. They help us understand our users and help us ‘test’ solutions.

Stories help make our ideas real, and provide empathy for both our clients and our development team.

What is a story?

Stories do many things. They can describe a situation and add context to that situation. They can describe a pain point or a moment of satisfaction. They can also imagine the future - and describe how a situation would come to be. Below are some fairly common ways of executing stories when using them to design products or services.


Storyboards are probably one of the more familiar storytelling techniques, and a low fidelity ‘quick’ way of communicating a concept. Sequential art is a storytelling method we should all be used to, from cave paintings to the comic books we read as children (or in my case, as an adult). As with all sketched techniques only the salient information is illustrated, maintaining focus on the details we wish to explore.

Video walkthroughs 

Video walkthroughs are the more extravagant end of storytelling but a compelling technique that helps immerse the intended audience (your client and/or design team) into the culture and thinking of the customer. My experience of video walkthroughs was with high street apparel brands, where video walkthroughs of a user's journey combined with vox pops of actual punters were combined to present compelling emotive and rational motivations behind the experiences we were trying to describe.

User stories

User stories are a list of actions or steps that describe the interactions between a user and a system to achieve a goal. Used within software development since the nineties and now also commonly associated within the context of Agile project development, use cases or user stories break down the interactions a user has with a system into individual tasks that describes the goals and motivations that the user wants to accomplish by using the service or product.

A template for a user story looks like this:

“As a type of user, I want some goal so that some reason.”

One of our clients, John Charcol provides expert mortgage advice to (amongst others) first time buyers. A user story representing those first time buyers would look something like this:

“As a first time buyer, I want a simple and plain language explanation of the property buying process so I can understand the next steps I need to take to purchase a property

User stories like the one above serve as reminders of user goals and motivations. They give a design and development team’s work definition, provide a single point of reference for both design team and client, help as a mechanism to keep scope in check, are way of disseminating tasks into manageable chunks and they make sure the user is represented throughout a project's lifecycle.

Designing with stories

By using storytelling techniques we are surfacing desired outcomes and describing the motivation a user has for interacting with our product. They are a tool to bring focus to design and keep things user-centric. Alongside Personas they become a way of making sure the user or customer is well represented in the studio, not to dictate our design thinking, but aid us in designing appropriate solutions without sacrificing the creativity our designers bring to our projects.

In summary

A story should be low fidelity, rapidly produced, perceived as changeable and not written in stone.

Stories can be told in many ways - choose the method best suited to your project - a story does not have to be written - it can be images, video or audio

Stories bring your users into your design process, keeping you user-centric

Stories help collaboration and understanding between designers and client

Stories should give designers freedom, not shackle them.

Further reading 


This article was posted in Design, Development, User Experience