Not Just Once Upon A Time: Understanding the Relevance of Stories

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book “Agile UX Storytelling”

When I was a child, I loved stories.  I loved to hear them, I loved to tell them, I loved to write them.  It seemed to me that the whole world was filled with stories, if you were only willing to listen. Whether it is to the charming elderly man on the train telling me how he used to dance in thunderstorms without fear because lightening is nothing but the shoes of the angels striking the clouds as they dance, or the proud crowing of a parent in the grocery store whose child just took first place in her chess tournament, or the product manager relaying how he sees a certain friend once a year to watch him run a marathon and how that experience inspired him to create an app for spectators – I love stories because they give you the version of the world as seen through someone else’s eyes.  And in that vision lives perspective, context, and understanding.

What Is A Story

On its surface, a story is a narrative that describes a series of events – an accounting of something either fictional or non-fictional.  However, ask any child and they will be quick to tell you that a list of what happened – whether real or imagined – is NOT a story. So what then differentiates the simple recounting of events from a tale worth telling?  The secret to stories is meaning.[1] When we tell a story, we give the events we are recounting meaning through the details we provide, the details we leave out, the tone, the context, the characters, and the conclusion. We provide our listener or reader, not just a series of facts, but our interpretation of those facts.

Stories can be made of words, images, or sounds – a short film clip showing current conditions in a war-torn country, a well-drawn political cartoon, the recounting of a site visit by a product manager, the headliner in a newspaper – all of these are stories. Regardless of the format used, they convey the storytellers perspective of an event or situation, their reaction to it, the filter they use to understand it.

The Power of Stories

The power of stories lies, not in the entertainment they may provide, but in the glimpse into another person’s mind and vision, as a participant rather than an observer. Stories show you how other people see the world and those things that happen within that world. They let us see how another person’s interpretation of events is different from our own and how it is the same. They let us cheat Schrodinger’s cat and observe it simultaneously alive and dead. And once we have that perspective, they give us the power to show others how we see the world.


One of the most common uses for stories is to persuade. Think about the commercials you see every day, whether on the television, the radio, in magazines, or on the internet. A good commercial tells a story to persuade you to see things from the advertiser’s point of view. One story might show a young woman out on a date with a young man in a fancy sports car. What story does this scene imply about the role of the car for this young man? Another shows a happy family seated around a table, laughing and conversing, about to eat a prepackaged convenience food that looks tantalizingly delicious.  By showing us a story of a happy family who eats together, what is the advertiser persuading us to believe? Stories have the power to associate powerful imagery with strong emotions, leading the audience to conclusions they might not have drawn otherwise. [2]

Our team was having a challenging time explaining the reason we were making some improvements to some planning software to a client. The team was getting frustrated – they had shown the numbers, time on task, and so on, but the client just wasn’t getting it. Taking a step back,we created a story about a young woman who wanted to take a trip to walk them through the full set of changes. We explained how excited the young woman was to go on the trip, but that she was anxious too because she’d never done anything like this before. At each step of her journey, we told her story and how our designs had helped her, keeping her feeling connected and calm. After the presentation, the client came to me to say “You guys really get it – this is how our customers live!” They approved the changes the same day and we were able to move forward.  The challenge had been that they couldn’t “see” the numbers.  They weren’t real, weren’t the people they dealt with on a daily basis. It took creating story to explain a vision that we could share with them to help persuade them to see our perspective.


Stories make things more memorable. Whether used as a coaching tool or a way to help people understand a new concept or process, stories make things relatable. As pattern-seeking creatures, our brains are wired to look for stories and patterns[3]. By providing the story for our audience, we give them context to make sense of what we are trying to communicate.

While teaching some designers about understanding context of use, I used this story to illustrate a situation the check in software they were designing needed to address:

The day started like any other, with Miss Mary Martinez checking in the children into the YMCAKidzone. There were so many things planned for the day – making paper flowers, feeding the goldfish, learning how to count to five, and let’s not forget JillianGorfman’s birthday cupcakes that afternoon – that Miss Mary was not quite paying attention to all the little heads coming through her door. At the end of the day, she prepared for the parents to come pick up their sticky little darlings, wiping cupcake icing from their ears and reassuring them that it would be their turn any moment. But wait!  She counted the ears she had wiped and came up with 2 too few!  Quickly checking her roster, she noticed that in her hurry this morning she had failed to check every child in. She quickly checks in the ones she can see but Sue EllenDempsieis no where to be found. Did she make it in this morning? Miss Mary can’t remember and unfortunately Sue Ellen is a “hider.” She starts to sweat, checking every possible hiding place Sue Ellen might be.

Once they had internalized the story, I started asking questions.  What do we know about the environment that check in software is used in? What level of care and attention is the teacher able to give the software? What does this tell you about the design?  The students were able to quickly hone in on the need for a simple interface with potentially a fail-safe check feature,  through a physical interaction with the child (swipe a badge, quick photo of the child) or perhaps a dual check in (once at the facility level and once at the class level) or potentially an alert that let the teacher know if all expected children had not checked in. The original design proposals that had reporting features, options for assigning nicknames and so on, were adjusted based on a more visceral understanding of the situation.


Every person has their own set of stories.  They collect them from the time they are born, adding their own narratives about their personal experiences as well as the narratives of their peers, their mentors, and their society. Those stories inform how they understand the world, the filter through which they see things. Understanding those stories on each level can make or break the communication between two people. On a cultural-level[4], stories can inform an entire society’s attitude toward impactful things such as expected behaviors and outcomes, organizational responsibilities and authority, and acceptable uncertainties.

When working with my team in China, I have been asked “how can I better understand the end users when they are Americans.” YouTube is a great resource for this, as you can find endless videos people have made of themselves enjoying the very activities our software supports – telling their stories. However, for a deeper understanding of cultural differences, I frequently point to children’s stories. Children’s stories represent the moral lessons we want our children to learn.  Take the classic tale of Cinderella – hard work and tolerance in the face of abuse will eventually pay off royally! Good triumphs over evil.  Contrast this with classic Chinese folk tales and you will see a very different message – one of balance, of the need for both good and evil, and the turning of the wheel. As I pointed this out to my team, one of the designers suddenly had an “ah ha!” look on her face.  When I asked her about it, she said she realized now why her North American colleagues always celebrated when they hit a milestone.  She said “It’s like they didn’t even know that this was just temporary and that something else would come up to push us down again in the cycle.” The difference in approach is part of our cultural story.

[1] Martin, P. (2012) How to Write Your Best Story: Advice for Writers On Spinning an Enchanting Tale, Crickhollow Books.

[2] Baldoni, J (March 24, 2011) Using Stories to Persuade

[3] Melanie C. Green. Storytelling in teaching. Association for Psychological Science. April 2004.

[4] Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G.J., and Minkov, M. (2010) Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. Revised and Expanded 3rd Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill