From Exposition to Resolution: Looking at User Experience as a Narrative Arc

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“If storymapping could unearth patterns and bring together a cohesive story that engages audiences in the world of entertainment and film, why couldn’t we use a similar approach to engage our audiences?’

Donna Lichaw and Lis Hubert

User Experience work makes the most sense to me in the context of storytelling. So when I saw Donna Lichaw and Lis Hubert’s presentation on storymapping at edUi recently, it resonated. A user’s path through a website can be likened to the traditional storytelling structure of crisis or conflict, exposition — and even a climax or two.

The narrative arc and the user experience

So just how can the same structure that suits fairytales help us to design a compelling experience for our customers? Well, storyboarding is an obvious example of how UX design and storytelling mesh. A traditional storyboard for a movie or TV episode lays out sequential images to help visualize what the final production will show. Similarly, we map out users' needs and journeys via wireframes, sketches, and journey maps, all the while picturing how people will actually interact with the product.

But the connection between storytelling and the user experience design process goes even deeper than that. Every time a user interacts with our website or product, we get to tell them a story. And a traditional literary storytelling structure maps fairly well to just how users interact with the digital stories we’re telling.

Hence Donna and Lis’ conception of storymapping as ‘a diagram that maps out a story using a traditional narrative structure called a narrative arc.’ They concede that while ‘using stories in UX design...is nothing new’, a ‘narrative-arc diagram could also help us to rapidly assess content strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities.’

Storytelling was a common theme at edUI

The edUi conference in Richmond, Virginia brought together an assembly of people who produce websites or web content for large institutions. I met people from libraries, universities, museums, various levels of government, and many other places. The theme of storytelling was present throughout, both explicitly and implicitly.

Keynote speaker Matt Novak from Paleofuture talked about how futurists of the past tried to predict the future, and what we can learn from the stories they told. Matthew Edgar discussed what stories our failed content tell — what story does a 404 page tell? Or a page telling users they have zero search results? Two great presentations that got me thinking about storytelling in a different way.

Ultimately, it all clicked for me when I attended Donna and Lis’ presentation ‘Storymapping: A Macguyver Approach to Content Strategy’ (and yes, it was as compelling as the title suggests). They presented a case study of how they applied a traditional narrative structure to a website redesign process. The basic story structure we all learned in school usually includes a pretty standard list of elements. Donna and Lis had tweaked the definitions a bit, and applied them to the process of how users interact with web content.

Points on the Narrative Arc (from their presentation)

narrative arc UX

Exposition — provides crucial background information and often ends with ‘inciting incident’ kicking off the rest of the story

Donna and Lis pointed out that in the context of doing content strategy work, the inciting incident could be the problem that kicks off a development process. I think it can also be the need that brings users to a website to begin with.

Rising Action — Building toward the climax, users explore a website using different approaches

Here I think the analogy is a little looser. While a story can sometimes be well-served by a long and winding rising action, it’s best to keep this part of the process a bit more straightforward in web work. If there’s too much opportunity for wandering, users may get lost or never come back.

Crisis / Climax — The turning point in a story, and then when the conflict comes to a peak

The crisis is what leads users to your site in the first place — a problem to solve, an answer to find, a purchase to make. And to me the climax sounds like the aha! moment that we all aspire to provide, when the user answers their question, makes a purchase, or otherwise feels satisfied from using the site. If a user never gets to this point, their story just peters out unresolved. They’re forced to either begin the entire process again on your site (now feeling frustrated, no doubt), or turn to a competitor.

Falling Action — The story or user interaction starts to wind down and loose ends are tied up

A confirmation of purchase is sent, or maybe the user signs up for a newsletter.

Denouement / Resolution — The end of the story, the main conflict is resolved

The user goes away with a hopefully positive experience, having been able to meet their information or product needs. If we’re lucky, they spread the word to others!

Check out Part 2 of Donna and Lis' three-part article on storymapping.  I definitely recommend exploring their ideas in more depth, and having a go at mapping your own UX projects to the above structure.

A word about crises. The idea of a ‘crisis’ is at the heart of the narrative arc. As we know from watching films and reading novels, the main character always has a problem to overcome. So crisis and conflict show up a few times through this process.

While the word ‘crisis’ carries some negative connotations (and that clearly applies to visiting a terribly designed site!), I think it can be viewed more generally when we apply the term to user experience. Did your user have a crisis that brought them to your site? What are they trying to resolve by visiting it? Their central purpose can be the crisis that gives rise to all the other parts of their story.

Why storymapping to a narrative arc is good for your design

Mapping a user interaction along the narrative arc makes it easy to spot potential points of frustration, and also serves to keep the inciting incident or fundamental user need in the forefront of our thinking. Those points of frustration and interaction are natural fits for testing and further development.

For example, if your site has a low conversion rate, that translates to users never hitting the climactic point of their story. It might be helpful to look at their interactions from the earlier phases of their story before they get to the climax. Maybe your site doesn’t clearly establish its reason for existing (exposition), or it might be too hard for users to search and explore your content (rising action).

Guiding the user through each phase of the structure described above makes it more difficult to skip an important part of how our content is found and used.

We can ask questions like:

  • How does each user task fit into a narrative structure?
  • Are we dumping them into the climax without any context?
  • Does the site lack a resolution or falling action?
  • How would it feel to be a user in those situations?

These questions bring up great objectives for qualitative testing — sitting down with a user and asking them to show us their story.

What to do before mapping to narrative arc

Many sessions at edUi also touched on analytics or user testing. In crafting a new story, we can’t ignore what’s already in place — especially if some of it is appreciated by users. So before we can start storymapping the user journey, we need to analyze our site analytics, and run quantitative and qualitative user tests. This user research will give us insights into what story we’re already telling (whether it’s on purpose or not).

What’s working about the narrative, and what isn’t? Even if a project is starting from scratch on a new site, your potential visitors will bring stories of their own. It might be useful to check stats to see if users leave early on in the process, during the exposition phase. A high bounce rate might mean a page doesn't supply that expositional content in a way that's clear and engaging to encourage further interaction.

Looking at analytics and user testing data can be like a movie's trial advance screening — you can establish how the audience/users actually want to experience the site's content.

How mapping to the narrative arc is playing out in my UX practice

Since I returned from edUi, I've been thinking about the narrative structure constantly. I find it helps me frame user interactions in a new way, and I've already spotted gaps in storytelling that can be easily filled in. My attention instantly went to the many forms on our site. What’s the Rising Action like at that point? Streamlining our forms and using friendly language can help keep the user’s story focused and moving forward toward clicking that submit button as a climax.

I’m also trying to remember that every user is the protagonist of their own story, and that what works for one narrative might not work for another. I’d like to experiment with ways to provide different kinds of exposition to different users. I think it’s possible to balance telling multiple stories on one site, but maybe it’s not the best idea to mix exposition for multiple stories on the same page.

And I also wonder if we could provide cues to a user that direct them to exposition for their own inciting incident...a topic for another article perhaps.

What stories are you telling your users? Do they follow a clear arc, or are there rough transitions? These are great questions to ask yourself as you design experiences and analyze existing ones. The edUi conference was a great opportunity to investigate these ideas, and I can’t wait to return next year.

Published on Nov 19, 2014
Guest Blogger: Chad Haefele
  • Guest Blogger: Chad Haefele
  • Chad Haefele is the Emerging Technologies Librarian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries. As part of the User Experience team, he works to make library resources available and easier to use.

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