People have always turned to stories to help them communicate ideas—from cave wall drawings to myths and fables to novels and films. Even the best jokes tell a story. Stories help us make sense of the world, and they have a unique power to bring people together. Today, the cave walls we communicate with are the screens on people’s desks or in their pockets. But, story is still there—from strategy sessions and research (where the narrative is often discovered), to the structure taking shape in a sitemap and wireframes, to the finer points of an experience’s design and execution.
It’s not that digital experiences should contain (nor need) the dramatic arc of Hamlet, or the suspense of Stephen King, but so many good experiences actually do take advantage of the same kind of story arc that’s been used for millennia. A journey is embarked upon, a perspective is shifted, a destination is reached. Something awakens us, propels us forward, and ultimately transports us somewhere. It’s through this narrative journey that we build an emotional connection with our audience—a connection that leads to trust and deeper engagement, and that allows complex ideas to be communicated.
One way to make sense of a new idea or complex concept is by likening it to something we’re already familiar with. This might be done with navigation features like tabbed browsing that recall file folders, or by providing a “shopping cart” for potential purchases. Or it could be a logo that suggests a company’s function (think of those fingers walking on Yellow Pages, or the open blue Dropbox that suggests all the things one might put inside). Metaphors abound in taglines too, often used to trigger emotions: “Let’s take this outside,” says Mercedes. “Life tastes good,” says Coke. Icons use metaphor to show rather than tell, and infographics can provide clarity while making something potentially dull (data!) more relatable and intriguing. Now, it’s certainly easy to make things more complex instead of less by overloading an experience with too much metaphor, mixing your metaphors, or torturing one till it’s no longer effective. But the right metaphor at the right time can make a huge difference to UX. Why? Thoughtful and well-chosen metaphors make the abstract far more concrete, stir us emotionally, and take us further into the story.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Good design is easy to digest, and information grouped into familiar, manageable units is more easily understood and remembered. If information—especially when it gets complex—isn’t chunked into clear, scannable portions, you risk the user missing important info, or struggling too long to find what they need. The tolerance for this kind of thing is lower every day. If a user has to work hard at all, you’ve lost her. Chunked portions of content are the chapters of an experience’s story, and they’re vital if you want clean and clear design that’s easy for a user to process, both mentally and visually. This is also important when we think about shareability.
Which would you prefer: a treatment with a 10% chance of failure, or one with a 90% chance of success? They’re the same, of course, but how we frame things matters. It’s the same with UX. The way content (copy, visuals, data) is presented can alter our judgment and affect decisions. For another example, suppose a corporation wants to discuss their global water footprint and throws out a number like 300B gallons per year. Well, it’s tough for anyone to grasp how much 300B gallons really is. Framing it in a way that provides some context and equivalencies to help users relate can make it far less abstract. (Perhaps showing with an infographic that this is the amount of water used annually by all residents in Lexington, KY.) Again, this is more than simply helping your user get it logically—it’s about creating the emotional response you want, and pulling people deeper into the story.
We don’t have to view usability and delight as engaged in constant battle. Sure, they push and pull at each other, and there are always choices to be made. But finding ways to work in as much delight as possible is key. We remember and respond favorably to unexpected and playful interactions that elevate the content, and hence the overall experience. Delight isn’t something we should try to shove in as an afterthought once we’ve taken care of usability.
And it isn’t all bells and whistles. Sure, it can be intuitive user interfaces, beautiful animation, smooth transitions, tactile pleasures, pure sound… and many users will delight simply at the ease-of-use you’ve offered them. But sometimes delight is also getting out of the user’s way so they can have an actual experience.
All this is what can help lead users to that a-ha moment when something they thought hazy and complex crystallizes into perfect clarity. And, hopefully, to the ultimate delight: when users become so surrounded by an experience that, if only for a moment, they forget they’re even looking at a screen. The story you’re telling has just merged with their own.