Storytelling is a powerful device not only for onboarding new customers, but also for defining your actual brand, product, and service. It can function as the common thread that runs through an entire experience, whatever device is used to interact with it. In our complex world, simple narratives can also help convey information and engage users with increasingly short attention spans. Stories are simply easier to remember.

By applying storytelling techniques we know from books, movies, and TV to digital design and prototyping, you can create better, more effective, and more memorable user experiences to keep the audience engaged.

We’ve talked to storytelling experts — some freelance, some working for the likes of the New York Times and Dropbox — to discover the best ways to approach and tell stories on a variety of devices and screen sizes. 

Put the story before the format

Graham McDonnell, international creative director at the New York Times, says that a lot of clients want to use the latest flashy format, but he goes back with the same answer every time:

“It’s important to figure out the story first, then how to tell it afterwards. Sometimes it’s easy to think that using the XR format or the brutalist design trend will be enough to keep audiences engaged, but things like this should be used to enhance the experience, not be the experience. 

The magic combination of a good story, executed in the right way, is the experience everyone should be aiming for.

Graham McDonnell, International Creative Director, New York Times

Identify story elements

Freelance lead UX designer Anna Dahlström, who’s just written a book about Storytelling in Design, agrees and points out that it’s crucial to embrace the fact that the way your audience is going to experience your story will differ and no two people’s journey or experience will be the same. It will always include both online and offline aspects. 

Cover page for Anna Dahlstrom's 'Storytelling in Design', published by O'REILLY.
Anna Dahlstrom’s book on storytelling for design products. Image by O’Reilly Media.

Anna recommends really connecting the elements of traditional storytelling to define, design, and deliver your product or service experience, such as: 

  • Characters: These are your main protagonist along with all other characters and actors who play a role in the experience.
  • Plot: The overall narrative of the experience and the way it’s structured.
  • Theme: The glue and thread that binds the different parts of the experience together and functions as your North Star of the product or service experience.
  • Setting: The world and context in which the product or service experience takes place.

“By carefully working through the details and complexities related to these aspects you help make sure that no matter how the users and customers start and end their journey, everything will come together and happen for a reason, just like in a good story,” Anna explains. 

Talk out your story

Most of the stories Benjamin Hersh, currently a product designer at Dropbox and previously design lead for a team at Medium, tells are explanations (for example, talks, tutorials, or specs). With these, he always starts out by talking them out with a friend, or his dog. 

“Just putting an idea into words can be illuminating and often humbling,” he explains. “Researchers have found that explaining difficult problems to someone else is an effective way to solve them for yourself, and that rings true for me. You can learn a lot by listening to people’s questions or by asking them to repeat things back to you in their own words. You might find that some concepts are easier to convey with a doodle than words. Save those doodles. Then try it again with someone else. It gets easier each time, and your story will emerge as you go. So, talk it out.”

Benjamin Hersh often starts by talking out the story he's working on with his dog.
Benjamin Hersh often starts by talking out the story he’s working on with his dog.

Create a labyrinth, not a maze

How you tell a story can be just as important as the story itself. 

“The New York Times used to do lots of complex interactive experiences,” Graham McDonnell remembers, “but we found that in today’s attention-poor society, it’s difficult to get audiences to do anything other than scroll. It’s important to take audiences on a guided journey, rather than expect them to want to explore. The more cognitive options you present to a user, the easier it is for them to get lost, so if everything shouts for their attention, nothing will get it. A labyrinth might have just as much information as a maze, but is presented as a single path that guides you through till the very end.”

A labyrinth and maze are displayed side by side to illustrate the difference between convoluted and well organized stories.

Ensure you also tell your story on your homepage

Many times, teams come to UX designer and product consultant Sarah Doody and say they need to redesign their homepage because it’s not converting. She has found that the homepage, in fact, is a great example of where the story is often neglected, as many teams focus on the message they want to put out, while not fully considering the questions that a potential or current customer wants answered. 

Sarah therefore recommends teams do two things:

“First, storyboard out the journey that people have as they go from hearing about your product or service to visiting your homepage to hopefully signing up. In that storyboard, focus on the questions or thoughts that the person would have. Second, open up a Google Doc and literally write out all the text and answers the homepage needs to address.”

“Only move into design after you’ve written your homepage copy. This is the best way to ensure that it tells a compelling story. If you fail to write the content first, you’ll get distracted by the design and the message will suffer.”

Consider the best way to approach the layout

Natalia Talkowska, founder of creative consultancy Natalka Design, which specializes in visual storytelling, has found that it’s important to keep the flow of the story and remember how Western audiences naturally follow a story from left to right. 

“We produce a lot of wide pieces of artwork that represent a company’s journey,” Natalia explains. “That shape is easy for the eye to follow from left to right. We often turn these into animated videos to add life and dimension to a flat picture and usually produce pieces that look good on all sorts of screens and can be printed in high resolution. For phone displays, we tend to cut the artwork into panels to be able to see all the details of the story by swiping from one panel to another.”

Natalka Design created a simple flow with a few pictures to condense a 10-page coaching and mentoring process document for a client.
Natalka Design created a simple flow with a few pictures to condense a 10-page document for a client.

Focus on the why and use pictures

If you want to tell a good story, Natalia recommends always focusing on the why. 

“The what and how will follow,” she explains, but the why is often left out, while it should be the number one reason why you want to communicate something and why people should care. Of course you care about your story but why should others care to engage with it?”

Natalia also points out that you don’t have much time to tell your stories, which is why there’s so much need to make it easy for people to understand what you mean. 

“Capture, in pictures, key points from talks or workshops,” she suggests. “By doing that you give the audience the best chance to remember, and retain and recall the information in the easiest and most creative way.”

Plan your story before you design

So before you design and build, using the latest framework or technology to power your experience, take a step back and think about your story. Identify the story elements of your product or service, focus on the why, and talk through your story out loud — even if it’s just with your dog. Keep things simple, use pictures, guide the user, and storyboard that journey. 

Also make sure you write down all the copy you need for your homepage and, only then, start considering the layout and the screens your story will be told on. If done right, storytelling will help you increase conversions and engage your audience across a multitude of devices.