Dear Ditto,

How can I use storytelling for better product design?

Advice from:
Stacie Sheldon
Director of User Research & Experience

UX practitioners often have good project resources available when we’re tasked with the challenge of redesigning a complex website or software system. Perhaps we have personas, stakeholder interviews, use cases and requirements. If we are really fortunate, we also have access to user research findings and recommendations. But how do we weave all of this together in a meaningful way?

Human beings’ neurobiology is wired for storytelling. Stories connect us to one another. Experiments demonstrate that character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make to enable better recall of these points later.UX Super Hero

Defining and architecting a system or features that will support and delight our users can at times feel overwhelming. This is especially true if we are embarking on a project where we don’t have a deep understanding of our primary users. Working together with stakeholders to define a primary user (the hero), their goals, the obstacles to those goals (the villains) and brainstorming solutions is an engaging way to make sure our work is effective. I want to share with you one method to help accomplish this.

Right before leading some design thinking workshops for a software redesign, I came across an article on the value of scenarios, and it really resonated with me. Let's face it - you can’t design the ideal experience if you don’t know what the problems are. Plus, the idea of using storytelling to solve problems while working with other people strongly appealed to me. I designed the following workshop activity, using the basic idea of Problem Scenarios and narrative, that was really successful for all members of the team.

What You Need:

  • A facilitator.
  • A group of stakeholders.
  • Poster paper.
  • Post-it notes.
  • Pens for everyone.

Getting Started:

I recommend creating groups of 3-4 stakeholders. Depending on the circumstances, using a count-off system of forming the groups may be best for getting different people to work together. Each group should assign one member to be the recorder and one to be the reporter.

Step 1: The Hero

First, the small groups need to create a hero by thinking about the different kinds of users who will be using the product. Is the hero a receptionist at a veterinarian’s office who’s trying to check in a busy person with a hissing cat? Or is it a parent who’s in the market for a new vehicle while having the added pressures of a new baby on the way and too many options to choose from? Perhaps the hero is a generous philanthropist trying to renew their membership or make a donation to their favorite organization. They may expect to understand how their payments, participation and contributions make a difference. Hero poster with Post-it notes

Every good hero needs a name. Participants in each small group should determine their hero’s name and write it on their posters. Next, each group should choose a setting and some basic characteristics for their hero that makes sense for the project.


  • Is the hero on their phone or laptop?
  • Is it winter or another season?
  • Is the hero on a deadline?
  • Is the hero tech-savvy?

You don’t need to know much about users to create stories about them. There is no need for group members to think through which magazines they read, if they are married, if they like to go fishing, or anything along those lines that you might typically associate with persona work.

Step 2: The Goals

Group members should brainstorm the goals of their hero (as many as possible), write them down on Post-it notes, and attach those to the poster under Goals.

Step 3: The Villains (Obstacles)

Next, the small groups should brainstorm multiple villains or obstacles that stand in the way of the hero accomplishing their goals. ‘What is holding the hero back? Is it time, another person, poor internet, an evil nemesis?’ Group members should also record their responses on Post-it notes and add them to the poster beneath the goals under Villains.

Step 4: Goal and Villain Pairing

The facilitator should ask the group members to take a few moments to review the Post-it notes on their poster and select a goal and villain pairing to use for their storytelling. Note: the goals and villains that are most critical to solve for in the new product design are preferable.

Step 5: The Problem Scenario

For this step, each group should spend time writing out a 3-4 paragraph story from their selected hero, goals and villains. Each group reporter should then share the Problem Scenario with the larger group to introduce their hero and the challenges he or she faces.

Step 6: Brainstorm Solutions

In this step, it is time to come up with solutions to resolve each group’s Problem Scenario. The full group should participate in thinking of solutions, writing them on Post-it notes and then adding those notes to the relevant hero poster under Solutions.

Step 7: The Future Scenario

This is the opportunity for the small groups to reconvene and select their favorite solution. After the group makes a decision, they should add specifics for that solution and create another 3-4 paragraph story (the Future Scenario). Once complete, the group reporter can read their Future Scenario to the larger group.

Step 8: Congratulate Yourselves

You did it!


The challenges that users face and the ways products appeal to them are more impactful, persuasive and memorable to everyone when they come together in a story. And hopefully the stories you know about the heroes and their villains will help you craft a better product as you move into your UX Design phase.

As an added bonus, your project stakeholders will now think about the heroes, their struggles, and how they overcame adversity to triumph over villains and better advocate for the users. And that is the story we all love.


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