Storytelling to Enhance Research Impact

Research is an essential component of any design effort to ensure that we are building the right things in the right ways. But how can we help our investment in research have the greatest impact?

For User Experience (UX), the purpose of the research is typically to inform our design. And so, we generally need to consume the research findings (data & insights) and adapt our designs accordingly. But there is a deeper purpose to research that is often underappreciated and that is to change the hearts and minds of stakeholders within our organizations. Using storytelling can be an excellent vehicle for helping others to connect emotionally (empathize) with how the findings tie back to what our clients experience. For UX, it is about the experience, and for our users, that experience is inherently emotional.

Instead of simply dry facts and bland findings, enhancing research findings with stories can emotionally connect with the audience and allow the research to have a greater level of impact. Imagine if your experience was more like listening to a great podcast where you feel what is happening to our clients. We’re familiar with this from enjoying some amazing storytellers in the research space such as Jane Goodall, Malcolm Gladwell, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson to name a few. While all different, these are masterful storytellers who not only impart information but also engage your emotions and curiosity or inspire you to act.

I’m not suggesting that we need to be like these masters, but there is a lesson here that we can take away and use. That lesson is that emotional connection can: make me care, make me remember, make me want to find out more, and make me want to change something for the better. Often, I find that designers focus on the quantitative aspects of research and present that information in the form of data, charts, and numbers. Data is important for sure to help us gain understanding, but it can fall short of inspiring action.

For example, what if I told you that 38% of the people that we spoke with said that having more detail about the nature of the data updates would make their job less stressful. You’d probably find that interesting but potentially not all that memorable — 38% can get lost in the daily shuffle of numbers and stats. Now, what if I told you the (fictionalized) story of John who is an IT engineer in a large enterprise business. He is responsible for maintaining the lifeblood of his organization — he’s the person that is trusted to keep things running. John knows this and understands his responsibility very well. He takes pride in his hard-earned role as a trusted member of the team. When it comes time to install updates John experiences anxiety; he feels physically ill; he worries about losing his job. Sure, he’s tested the update, but he can’t test everything. In the past, he’s seen lots of changes that he can’t explain, and that erodes the trust that John has worked so hard to earn. Does that change how you view this? Does it help you understand and remember why this is important?

I find that the most interesting and impactful parts of user interactions come from a deep understanding of our users’ challenges, pain, and the emotions that come along with trying to accomplish their daily work. There is nothing more rewarding than those rare moments when a user opens up and shares their true feelings. Over the years, I’ve experienced this in some very visceral ways — anger, frustration, anxiety, tears, and sometimes even elation. Some of this may sound unpleasant, (and sometimes it is initially) but each time I’ve come away with the desire to somehow make things better.

Many of us have interactions with clients and users. This doesn’t just apply to designers but to anyone who interacts with clients — sales, product managers, engineers, etc. At your next opportunity, try to look at these interactions through the lens of storytelling and ask yourself if there is a story here that is worth telling. Would someone else benefit from understanding this story? Not all stories have to have extreme emotions or be in-depth in order to be useful or impactful. And not all stories have to be tied to a formal research exercise. Sometimes it is just a conversation that can change your perspective about something in a significant way., UX Manager