Using the ‘narrative arc’ in your user interviews

5 min read Martin Bulmer

If you’re more of a visual person, you can watch a 20 minute talk which explains how to use the narrative arc in your in-person research.

The power of stories

Stories are powerful things. You don’t need me to tell you that! You’ve probably read a book, seen a play, a film or a TV series and thought: “Man*, that was brilliant! The way they drew all those threads together in that last scene. I was totally with them!”

We’ve been telling each other stories for millennia – they were the way we explained the world around us as well as the way in which we entertained ourselves.

From an early age, the logic of stories is hard-wired into our minds through repetition. This is why, two thirds of the way through a story you have a fair idea of where things are headed and can take a good guess at what is going to happen in the end.

*Except you didn’t say ‘Man’, as you aren’t as old as me.

The narrative arc

In 1863 Freytag developed this pyramid which he used to explain what was happening in stories:

  • EXPOSITION: The characters, the context are introduced
  • INCITING INCIDENT: Something happens to begin the action
  • RISING ACTION: The story builds
  • STORY CLIMAX: The point of greatest tension
  • FALLING ACTION: Events that happen as a result of the climax
  • RESOLUTION: The problem is wrapped up and solved
  • DENOUEMENT: The end, what happens to our characters

Many, many stories follow this arc; they may miss off the exposition or skip the resolution but they will have that story climax where all the threads come together.

The narrative arc in in-person research

So, the narrative arc is interesting, but how does it relate to in-person research? How does knowing the plot of Little Red Riding Hood help you become a better researcher?

The problem with in-person research

In-person research can be very nerve-wracking for you and for your participants.

I’ve seen people conducting interviews who know what they want to find out get lost in futile questions having taken the wrong turn, or ‘spoiling’ an interview by revealing too much about the subject or mentioning it too soon.

Participants can also find interviews nerve-wracking. They might struggle to understand the context of questioning and may feel they have ‘done a bad job’ as they haven’t given useful answers. As apparently random questions come at them, they can feel off balance and concerned. The whole experience can start to feel like a police interview*. There’s no thread for them to follow.

*Real police interviews are not like they are shown on TV. Real police interviews are thorough, repetitive, detailed and rational. No shouting or table-tipping.

Let’s look at the steps in the narrative arc and how they apply to an in-person research situation.


Start the story by introducing the characters – yourself and who else is in attendance but also give the participant the chance to say something about themselves.

Give a little backstory or context about the research – not so much that you ‘give away the plot.’ Explain ‘why we’re here’, let the participant answer some really simple questions so that they can get some ‘runs on the board’ and get over any nerves.

Inciting incident

Ask the first question that gets things moving. Usually something that lets the participant give their context. For example, “Tell me about the last time you…”

Rising action

Here’s where you can ask questions that build on each other and let the participant really expand on their story. Your job is to guide them towards the story climax which is where you hit them with your most important question.

The trick in the rising action is to reduce the bias as much as you can by carefully ordering and phrasing the questions so that you don’t give away too much and so the participant can respond without feeling driven to an answer.


You’ve got your participant to the point where they have all of the context to answer your most important question or questions, so go ahead and ask them.

Strictly speaking in stories, you tend only to have one story climax. In your research you may have several, but not so many that the participant feels like a quote machine. The story climax is going to line up with the research objectives you set before you wrote your discussion guide. If it doesn’t, your research is not going to give you the insights you were looking for.

Falling action

Now that the cat’s out of the bag, your participant will understand why you asked some of the questions in the rising action. Go ahead and give them the chance to reflect. You can also tie up those loose ends, things you skated over as they might color the key response: “So earlier, when I asked you about X you said Y. Tell me about that.”


Every session ends with a final word from the participant. People like to ask the ‘what if you had a magic wand’ question, but I find it better to ask about people’s feelings towards something. Whether that’s an existing issue or a future opportunity.


It’s a fancy French term for ‘ending’ and all sessions must have one. This is where you thank the participant for their time, give them their incentive, encourage them to reach out if they have further thoughts. For some participants, it’s important as they may have all the time in the world and need to be given the right signals that ‘we’re done, thanks’!


Use the narrative arc to help you order your thoughts when you’re writing your discussion guide and when running your sessions.

If your in-person session shows clear drive in a direction – has subtle guiding story cues – even if the participant doesn’t know exactly where you are heading, they will be able to contribute meaningfully. The arc of the story that you are both telling will provide enough context for them to answer each question you ask – at the point you ask it.

Furthermore, your participant will leave your session feeling good about the experience and your organization. It’s a win-win!