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




UX Jedi Mind Tricks: DSVC Presentation

I had the pleasure of speaking at the Dallas Society of Visual Communications recently ( The audience was fantastic and gave great feedback on the Jedi Mind Tricks talk.  If you’d like to see the powerpoint, you can check it out here:

UX Jedi Mind Tricks Lesson Two: Your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them


The next step on our road to becoming a UX Jedi Master, is listening. Not hearing, being engaged, paying attention, or concentrating. None of these things is listening.

So what is listening?

Listening is the process of hearing what someone else is saying without thinking about what you are going to say next. (Because, it’s all about you, right? ) When you listen, you no longer are crafting the perfect counter argument, witty rejoinder, internet factoid, or dredged up memory from your 6th grade math class. You are (wait for it…) listening. You are accepting the information that the other person gives you. That’s it.After they have completed talking, then, and only then, you can start thinking about what they meant, how to respond, whether or not you agree, and so on.

Sounds simple, right? WRONG! Real listening (sometimes called active listening) is one of the most difficult, trying, strenuous, and nerve racking things you can attempt. It is not easy or fun! BUT, it is bloody effective.

Why is listening important for a UX Jedi Master?

  • Gathering an accurate view of information. Listening prevents you from applying filters prematurely to the information you are gathering. When you start to form an opinion or action list about information while it is still being conveyed, your brain starts to eliminate or filter out anything that doesn’t fit. As a result, you get an incomplete picture and end up missing things. When you do not listen, you are unable to see other people’s point of view accurately. And without an accurate view, you are unable to persuade or argue effectively.
  • Making other people feel valued. Imagine, if you will, that you are telling someone a less-than-compelling story about the first time you got called on in class. The first person you tell the story to is smiling and looking at you, and nodding their head vigorously. As soon as you take a breath, they immediately start telling you an amusing anecdote about their own first pressure situation. You feel a bit put-off, but they weren’t being rude and they were paying attention, so you can’t really get upset. But you’re happy when the story is over and you can move on. A little while later, you tell your story to a second person. They put down their drink, look at you directly and nod slightly throughout your story at key points, never saying a word. When you are clearly finished, they do something odd – they pause as if they are thinking about everything you said. Then they tell you almost the exact same anecdote that the first person told. You find it much more interesting this time – somehow it seems more relevant and funnier. You feel like they are really interested in you. When people feel valued, they are more inclined to value you and your opinions or positions.

So how do you learn to listen?

  • Feign ignorance. Or, more precisely, assume (inside your own head) you know nothing at all about what the person is telling you or about the person themselves.
    Wipe the slate clean and pretend that this is the first time you have heard about whatever they are discussing. Forget about that incident at the company Christmas part with the Groucho Marx glasses and the beer bottle. If you can approach them with fresh eyes and ears, you will be able to listen. CAVEAT: Do not actually pretend you don’t know them. That will not only not help, but also be really really confusing for everyone.
  • Pretend there will be a quiz at the end.
    To keep yourself engaged and present, pretend there will be a quiz at the end during which you’ll need to sum up all the key points the person just gave you. Ask questions if something confuses you (you’d ask a teacher who was going to give you a quiz – feel free to ask your speaker too) and summarize their responses to make sure you go it right
  • Practice, practice, practice!

While difficult, listening is a keystone in the UX Jedi’s arsenal, upon which many other more subtle techniques depend.

Your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them” Obi Wan Kenobi


UX Jedi Mind Tricks Lesson One: You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned


The first lesson to becoming a UX Jedi Master is to unlearn something you have subconsciously learned and act on every day – that is the assumption that most people, especially non-UX designers, are idiots, willfully ignoring the extremely obvious advantages to your genius proposal that is right in front of them.

ALERT! Most people are NOT evil, stupid, out to get you, hateful, or unreasonable. Seriously.

However, people ARE self-interested, self-absorbed, biased, fearful, oblivious, and embarrassed. (That includes you, by the way.)

Why is this important? Two reasons:

  1. Nearly all human beings are psychic. That is, they know what you are thinking of them even if they don’t know that they know. If you think of someone as being an idiot, they will react, subconsciously, as if you have told them that they are an idiot. How many times have you known – without a doubt – that the person on the other end of the phone was thinking you must have been dropped on your head as a child, even though they didn’t say anything more innocuous than “uh huh”? Were you able listen to what they had to say next or were you busy envisioning them squirming with discomfort while surrounded by mimes? (Maybe that last one is just me…)
    When someone believes that you think they are incapable of understanding what you say, they become incapable of understanding what you say.
  2. It’s not about you. As upsetting as that may be to many of us, people are very rarely doing anything “to” you – they are much more likely doing something “for” themselves.  You are simply a bump in the road, an obstacle, or perhaps a bridge.
    When someone assumes that your motivations are about them, personally, they will not be able to understand what your real motivations are.

So how do we reprogram ourselves to stop assuming the worst in everyone who doesn’t “get it”?

  • Assume ignorance, not stupidity
    While it is true that many people you talk to do not understand the value or impact of UX design, that doesn’t make them stupid.  Rather, it means they just haven’t had the exposure to what you have learned.  Assume that rather than being incapable of learning, they haven’t had the opportunity. Which brings us to our next point…
  • Become a teacher
    Use your extensive knowledge and skills to educate. Start by bringing up basic principles that would be helpful and asking “are you familiar with…” If they are, great – move up from there.  If not, move back further. Occasionally you may need to start with “first the earth cooled, then the dinosaurs came…” but remember, your audience is smart just ignorant – sum things up ahhh3m
  • Understand biases
    Take some time to study up on cognitive biases.  Confirmation bias (only retaining or believing information that supports our beliefs),  probability neglect (we’re bad at math), observational selection bias (equating our observation with a non-existent increase in the observed phenomenon), negativity bias (bad news is perceived as more important than good news), and many more can help give you insight into how other people are receiving your information and processing it. Brain science is seriously cool.

So, my young padawans, this is the first lesson on your path to become a Jedi. Assume ignorance, not stupidity. And remember – it’s not about you.

“You must unlearn what you have learned.” Yoda

UX Jedi Mind Tricks: An Introduction


One of the trickiest things as a designer (or, really, as a human being) is working with people in real time. Being able to listen, react, persuade, observe, adjust – communicate effectively – is difficult.  Wouldn’t it be great if you could just wave your hand and say “These are not the designs you’re looking for….”? Well, my young padawans, being able to understand and be understood is not a magic trick – it is a real, learnable skill. This series of posts will outline steps I have found useful over the years in teaching others how to understand who you are talking to and help them understand you.

Remember: “If no mistake have you made, yet losing you are, a different game you should play.”-Yoda

(Shout out to Jim Carlsen-Landy for the great title for this series!)

A Short Word on ALL CAPS

The use of ALL CAPS in electronic documents and missives is generally considered to slow reading speed[1][2] [3](impacting the usability and readability of text) and to be interpreted as “shouting” at the reader[4]. However, ALL CAPS seems to continue to be in common usage in legal documents throughout the internet. It is worth taking a brief look at the history of this practice to understand it better.

The use of ALL CAPS in legal documents stems from the requirement that lawyers make particular passages “conspicuous” to ensure that a reasonable person would notice them[5].  Historically, the only way to make text conspicuous on a typewriter was the use of ALL CAPS. However, this approach is not actually required.  Conspicuous, as defined in the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC 1-201b) (

(A) a heading in capitals equal to or greater in size than the surrounding text, or in contrasting type, font, or color to the surrounding text of the same or lesser size; and

(B) language in the body of a record or display in larger type than the surrounding text, or in contrasting type, font, or color to the surrounding text of the same size, or set off from surrounding text of the same size by symbols or other marks that call attention to the language.”

Clearly there are other options that are less “offensive” and will support the user in reading and comprehending legal materials more quickly. And it’s never too late to change. The US Navy switched from ALL CAPS to mixed case in their messaging system in 2013 after using ALL CAPS since the 1850’s.[6]

[1] How We Read (August 2014) Jason Santa Maria

[2] Writing Readable Content (And Why ALL CAPS Is So Hard To Read) (November 2011) Marty Friedel

[3] The Science of Word Recognition Kevin Larson (July 2004)

[4] How capital letters became internet code for shouting (April 2014) Alice Robb, NewStatesman

[5] A Quick Note on Conspicuous Text, also known as ALL CAPS (August 2012)Luis Villa

[6] US Navy Adjusts to the times;ditches its ALL CAPS message format (June 2013) Ed Payne

Roles in UX

UX Roles
How UX Roles: Information Architect, Interaction Design, Visual Design, User Research, and Front End Engineering

I’m not a fan a labels on people.  On food, form fields, and bathrooms, sure – but not people.  People are mutable, rarely fitting into one nicely defined category.  And in UX, this is definitely the case. However, since UX spans such a wide-range of skills, it’s occasionally helpful to provide role definitely so that people know that there’s a lot more out there than just wireframes and visual comps. So here’s a very crude way of understanding the different roles (often held by the same person!) in UX.

Imagine you need to build a road.  You go to your UX team:

Information Architect: “We must make signs so people know where to go. And those signs should be in a consistent order so they can navigate to where they need to be.”

Interaction Designer: “We must build on and off ramps and a divider to make traffic flow intuitive. They should be able to mark their favorite places in their GPS to make sure they can get back to them over and over.”

Visual Designer: “We must ensure the center line, signs, and ramps are easy to see and call attention to themselves. It should be fresh and modern and appealing.”

User Researcher: ” We must understand how many people will drive on this road and when. That will tell us how many on and off ramps to create, where to create them, which signs are needed and in what language, and what our tolerances are.”

Front End Engineer: “Guys…there’s a big mountain in the way…”

(Need I say it? Always involve development…)