Craft Your Story

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Create a story based on design research.
  • Present design ideas to stakeholders for quick feedback and iteration.
  • Sketch ideas and encourage stakeholders to sketch as well.

Quantitative data—check.

Qualitative data—check.

Story—wait, I need a story? Yes!

Having all the data but no story is like having all the pieces of a puzzle scattered on the floor. You have what you need, but you can’t see the full picture. And chances are, no one else will see it either if you try to design without the story in place. Which is why your story is so important—it helps create alignment with your stakeholders.

Not sure where to start? You don’t need a degree in literature or have to read a library full of books to create an impactful story—your research will help you build it.

Plan the Story

In the case of design, the user story, or the story about how the user would experience the product or app, answers a very simple but specific question: How does it fit into peoples’ lives?

There are several different ways to get to the heart of that story. One that is tried and true is the storytelling arc. The storytelling arc is widely used in literature, and it’s one of the simplest ways to structure a story. 

Check out the elements of the storytelling arc.

Element
Description
Exposition
The background or setting of the story. Introduce the hero and their current state.
Inciting Incident
Otherwise known as the conflict. Here is where the hero encounters their problem.
Rising Action
The conflict gets bigger, the stakes get higher.
Crisis
Here is where the conflict comes to a head and the hero is faced with their biggest challenge yet.
Climax
The hero struggles, but hope shows up seemingly at the last moment.
Falling Action
Also known as the denouement. The hero discovers their solution(s) and starts on the path to triumph. Here’s a hint: In a user story, you want the product, app, experience, and so forth, to be central to the hero’s triumph.
End
Simply put, the result.

If you graph it out, it looks like a triangle with each point building up to the climax, then falling again toward the end.

the storytelling arc as points along a triangle

Linda drafts her story, using the research she’s collected.

A Day in the Life of a Sales Rep for Cloud Kicks

Exposition

1. Every day, the sales rep visits customers to go through their custom shoe and apparel order using a paper catalog.

Inciting Incident

2. But, she has to wait until she gets back into the office to finalize the orders.

Rising Action

3. She has to swivel between apps to process the order only to discover quantities are low and shipping will take longer than expected. She has to follow up with some customers and see their disappointment first-hand. She wishes she could have known this earlier.

Crisis

4. It’s frustrating for both the rep and her customers. The rep scrambles to keep her customers happy after they second-guess doing business with Cloud Kicks. And she hopes for a day that this process runs much faster and smoother.

Climax

5. One day, the rep gets a magnificent app that allows her to go through the apparel design and ordering process all on the spot with the customer.

Falling Action

6. With the new app, she visits a customer, goes through the designs, and is able to upsell them on custom shoelaces. Her next customer doubles their order.

End

7. There are several more customer meetings on her calendar but it’s looking like she’ll be able to make it home in time to catch her favorite TV show, especially since she won’t have to check into the office to do any logistics.

A good story does several things—it captures the main frustrations of the user (the manual, disconnected process for the sales rep and her customers), their aspirations (longing for a day where the process runs faster and smoother), and triumph (the app that makes everyone happy). These elements all build empathy. When this empathy is matched with your design, you get buy-in. 

Now, all you gotta do is match that empathy with design and present it to your stakeholders. No pressure.

Present the Story to Get Buy-In

For some, presenting to stakeholders can be a daunting task, no matter what the setting. For others, it can be exhilarating. With all the research that has been done, and the work put in to crafting the story, there’s enough material to make it a great experience no matter where you lie on this spectrum.

Linda presenting with sticky notes behind her.

Make It Visual

Get stakeholders engaged by making the story visual. At this point in the process, keep the images simple, like sticky-notes-with-stick-figures simple. The details of the images don’t matter as much as the clarity of them.

Linda is no art major. But she can easily sketch a rectangle to symbolize a tablet, a shirt, app buttons, and so on.

Make It Interactive

At this phase of the design process, you don’t have to be the one to come up with all the ideas. You can have a set of sketches from your research, enough to give your stakeholders something to react to. You can then make the presentation more of a game, with your stakeholders contributing and building off of your ideas.

Organize sketches by each relevant story point. For example, Linda has a series of sketches highlighting the shoe design and order process on the new app. As she goes through these sketches, she gives her stakeholders a specific amount of time to either 1. make an element better, 2. add something amazing, or 3. devise a better solution. Then give everyone a moment to regroup and vote on what’s best. It’s also important to remind people throughout the process that they should be looking at these features through the eyes of the user or customer.

Linda recognizes there can be gaps in her knowledge when it comes to the sales process, even with her thorough research. Getting the sales director and a few sales reps involved during her presentation helps surface even more inspiration, like the ability to automate upselling on the spot if a customer picks a certain option.

Iterate

Starting with stories and sketches allows you to iterate much faster than if you dove right in and built something. You can take the ideas from the first presentation, develop the story and design ideas further, and present again with all the incorporated feedback. Depending on the timeline you and your team set, and the expectations, you can go through several iterations before everyone is satisfied.

In Linda’s case, she went through a couple more rounds.

  • Follow-up interviews with select members of the field sales team presenting mock-ups inspired from her meeting
  • A final review of feedback and final story with the sales director and her manager

Sketch and Encourage Others to Sketch, Too

You may be a Salesforce admin tasked with your first design project. You may be a developer collaborating with your designer. You love design, but don’t think your artistic skills are enough to consider a career in this field. 

These are all scenarios that might bring up the following (false) statement—”I’m no artist. I can’t sketch.” So how can you even participate in a sketch meeting like the one described above, let alone lead one?

Flex Your Design Muscle

There’s no way around it, sketching is a specific design skill. It takes time and practice to master. That said, you don’t need to be a master.

hand drawn design symbols

Sketches are about communicating ideas, not art. So, if you can draw the essentials of an idea, which often wind up being simple geometric shapes, you are already well on your way to sketching.

Here are a few tips to get you going.

  • Keep sketches simple. For example, if you need to draw an app button, a square, rectangle, or circle will suffice. You can even write the word button next to it if you feel it’s needed. What you don’t need are details like shadows, perfect geometry, or accurate scale.
  • Mind your sketching tools. Paper and a ballpoint pen or pencil are enough. That said, if you find yourself getting mired in details, try things that help you stick to the basics, like thicker markers. A whiteboard and marker can help as well. If you’re comfortable bringing your sketches into the digital world, there are also sketching apps that allow you to sketch directly on a tablet or other mobile device. Many provide the added benefit of instantly sharing your sketches when meeting with remote team members.
  • Practice. It might sound strange to draw rectangles over and over again in order to master the perfect app button. But combine it with sketches of a screen, arrows between the screens, and so on, and you have the makings of a user journey.

Sketches bring many benefits to the design process. Apart from communicating and achieving alignment, it helps you remain nimble, it helps you cycle through many ideas in short amounts of time, and it is an ideal medium for collaboration. When time equals money, as it does in app design, sketching is often the best way to get to the right ideas fast.

Note

Note

Scissors can also help. If you have a design system (which we talk about more in the next unit), you have access to premade design elements like buttons, logos, and so on. You can just as easily print out sheets of these design assets and cut and paste on a poster board or sheet of paper. Have fun!

Start Sketching Together

If it’s a design meeting you’re after, setting up specific rules may be all you need. Here are some pointers to help.

  • Limit the meeting to 8 people or less. This ensures everyone has a chance to participate.
  • Offer 6-8 sticky notes per person. (Or a folded piece of paper that has 6-8 squares.) This helps keep everyone focused.
  • Be clear about the intention and expectation. As mentioned, you can organize each sketch exercise by story point, or you can frame a specific design challenge, like “How does the user go from the splash page to their account page?” or a mixture of both.
  • Set time limits. Give everyone 5 minutes (or less) to sketch out their ideas. Then, give them 1 minute to present their idea to the group.
  • Give them something to react to. Since they are not hardcoded prototypes, sketches offer space for people to give feedback. People are more open to collaborate and generate ideas in this way.

From Sketch to Prototype

The research has been thorough. Many ideas have been reviewed, sketched out, and received feedback. It’s time to go high-tech… in the next unit.

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