Do It by the Book: How to Use Storytelling in UX Research

April 4, 2018 4:15 pm

Do It by the Book: How to Use Storytelling in UX Research

When was the last time you bought something online? Did it go as expected? How did the process make you feel?

Previously, we have looked at how UX design can benefit from storytelling elements, but in this article, we will briefly discuss how to use storytelling ideas when organising your test sessions to get the most value out of a participant.

As humans, we naturally process information in stories. They are the key to engrossing us and helping us to understand other people’s ideas. Due to this, they are excellent for capturing and retaining our participant’s attention, dropping them into a scenario and frame of mind to aid our research and, in appropriate methodologies, improving their recall. Besides the participants, they can also help us, as researchers, when differentiating between all the testing sessions we have carried out on the day – the structure of our sessions may be the same, but the stories will always differ.

This article will split the natural context usability test into a two sections, tasks and questioning, and explain the elements of storytelling that should be taken advantage of to get the most out of a session.

Preparing Tasks

One of the biggest elements of storytelling is through the tasks you give the participant; these give setting and essentially form a loose plot by providing motives or goals without filling in the details. When watching a film or reading a book, a smooth flowing plot helps an audience understand what’s happening. However, the key to retaining the audience’s attention is by obscuring the answers to the plot, which keeps them actively searching. Therefore, the best way to engage a participant is by presenting them tasks in a logical order but leaving space for them to fill in the details of the plot themselves; as such, the participant resonates with and understands their journey more, which increases the quality of their feedback and the amount that you learn.

Here are two examples of the same task:

  1. Find and add these items to your basket: Bananas, apples, rice, orange juice
  2. You’ve arrived on this site to buy some groceries. Please proceed as you normally would.

If you need to focus on certain aspects or have a limited prototype, the first task is ok, but to see natural usage, it is very closed – there’s no room for the user to fill in any blanks or give an input. If we were to ask the user about their process, there would be disengagement – a ‘get the job done’ mentality with no extra information to form a good story. Whereas with the second task, the open book gives the user a chance to explore things which show behaviours and processes that you’re not necessarily expecting. If we were to ask about their process here, you may get all kinds of responses explaining what influences their decisions; you find the reasons why that fill in the blanks of the story their way, revealing more needs, likes and dislikes.

Keeping to a basic story arc with your tasks provides a flow that, as previously mentioned, aids the user’s understanding of what they’re doing. When thinking about the goals of your research, how can they be organised to form logical progression through the site or app? To continue with the example of some shopping research:

  • Start with an easy introduction, a natural task that lets them start shopping how they normally would. This sets the scene and introduces the user and audience to the character.
  • Build to the climax, the main research objectives and the big problems.
  • Then move into conclusion, resolving the problems with something that would naturally end the journey, such as checking out from a basket

Rather than dropping the user in the middle of a journey that they need to make sense of, mimicking a natural journey eases them into a narrative. Think about how well your tasks flow into and on from one another, the user will work harder to piece together disjointed tasks which could limit their feedback about overall journey and process.


Questioning happens all through the user testing session. At the beginning, we use questions to build some rapport with and learn about our participant, ease them into the session and make sure they’re comfortable. These first questions are specific to the topic of research and are there to establish the user’s character by getting them into the relevant mindset and identifying their role when moving forward into the tasks.
To establish the user’s character as best we can, it’s important to consider the effects that your introductory questions will have; starting broad and then narrowing in on some details is a nice way of easing the user in.

A good approach, for example, could be:

  • Asking for an explanation of how they usually shop
  • Then who they usually shop with
  • Follow up with a question on something specific to the research
  • Then finally, if you can, asking them about a particular time when they used a product or how they feel about it

Asking a user to recall details and associated emotions is very powerful as research has found that recalling stories activates large areas and wakes our brains up. No doubt that asking users about a previous experience will create all kinds of connections and emotions that will really hone in on the desired mindset for your research. The introduction therefore prepares the user. At the end they have a defined character for the research topic and are thinking how they would be normally. As well as this, you have an understanding of what to expect and relate back to when questioning.

For the rest of the session you’ll be asking questions in response to the behaviour you’ve seen to reveal the needs, likes and dislikes that formed as a result of your open-ended tasks. At SimpleUsability we use the retrospective think aloud methodology, and here storytelling comes into play again as the user is recalling their thoughts and feelings when cued by eye-tracking replays. However, the whole story isn’t replayed, rather, the moderator jumps to areas of interest and as such it’s possible that the user can become lost if they aren’t guided; it can be beneficial to recap on the flow of the session to ensure the user is following along. For instance, “so this is where we… and I think you said to me… what was going on here?”. Just reiterating the task, the setting or something the user said will help to avoid the user trailing off and misunderstanding where they were in the journey, and therefore, giving incorrect feedback.


This article has briefly outlined some storytelling elements that can be used to organise the planning of usability sessions and get the most out of participants. We discussed how forming a logical plot line with tasks that give the user space to fill in the story themselves can retain engagement and helps understanding. We also discussed how to settle a user into a character with questions that touch upon emotions. It would be silly not to take advantage of stories in UX, especially when they have such a powerful effect on us and on our understanding, as they will uncover intriguing, emotional insights that we can use to build the best experiences for our users.