Good storytelling does not start with a functional requirements document

Storybook Canal

Where do projects start?

Walt Disney once said, “I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.” While the intention of his statement is to describe how the empire grew from Mickey Mouse cartoons, I believe it is also an analogy for how we can work as design professionals. We know there is more to a product than the sum of its tasks and functional requirements and yet that is often where we are forced to start, either out of habit or business process. Where should we start? Well, that’s the subject of this story.

Story in theme parks

In the taxonomy of vacation destinations, Disney falls squarely into the theme park category. By definition, theme parks often employ a unifying vision, anything from roller coaster amusements, colonial America, to Confederate leaders in stone. Disney parks have many themes: magic, countries, seasanimals, movies, California, and more. But, their use of theme is expressed in a very specific way – through elaborate storytelling…

Example: Story as park design

Blizzard BeachIt could be argued that many water parks clearly make use of H2O as their unifying theme. But, Disney augments their park with more than just water features. Imagineers created the Blizzard Beach park with a story. The basic premise is that a freak snowstorm hit Florida, turning it into a ski-resort. Naturally, the sun returned, the snow melted and a watery playground was born. This story is then manifested in the snow-covered architecture, signage, and rides throughout the park; thus creating a unifying experience which ties everything together.

Example: Story as ride design

All zoos let you see animals. Others offer safari-like rides to see animals up-close. The Animal Kingdom enhances their ride with a backstory containing unseen poachers. A high-speed chase ensues where they are pursued and eventually captured, or at least that’s what riders hear on the radio throughout the journey. Perhaps this is unnecessary to the “user’s” core task of seeing exotic animals – but it is very useful to keep them entertained during transitions from location to location.

Example: Story as borrowed from popular culture

Imagineers are lucky enough to have a wealth of story material from Disney’s own movies and other licensed material. While this often serves as a foundation, the ride itself builds a new story. For example, the original Star Tours attraction was not based on a specific event recreated from Star Wars. Instead, a novice pilot, RX-24, “accidentally” takes a wrong turn during a peaceful sightseeing trip and throws passengers into the midst of a space battle.

Twilight Zone Tower of TerrorThe Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride was not based on any specific episode of the TV show, but referenced many of its themes. Before the actual ride, the story of a 1939 hotel, which suffered a terrible fate, plays out around guests. The simple premise is that during a lightning strike, several movie stars disappeared from the hotel elevator. The lobby now appears to have an 80 year old coat of dust, televisions crackle to life with Rod Sterling introducing the story, even cast members play a role. Upon sitting down, a “bellhop” morosely warned my family to securely hold on to our 4-year old son as children have been known to “disappear.” He may have done a too-good job, my son still refused to ride it again six years later (of course, that may have been the result of the emotionally scarring repeated thirteen-story drops!).

Implications for designers

UX Hierarchy Model by Stephen P Anderson

Original PDF (

In Stephen Anderson’s excellent book, Seductive Interaction Design, he describes a UX Hierarchy model for product success. The model’s pyramidal shape is reminiscent of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but instead places functional requirements at the bottom, usability requirements in the middle, and emotional fulfillment at the top (a similar model is also contained Patrick Jordan’s book on Designing Pleasurable Products). Stephen Anderson suggests one way to help users achieve those higher-order needs is to focus on their experiences instead of exclusively on their tasks. To create meaningful experiences, he argues that “great companies know how to develop a story that people can believe.”

Foremost, I am not suggesting that designers turn their websites and apps pink and place images of Disney princesses in each corner. That would be an unbelievable, inauthentic and skin-deep grafting of a theme which would not impact the core experience in a positive way. Instead, I am suggesting we consider how to leverage storytelling at the earliest stages of product design and use this as inspiration throughout the process.

It’s very possible that a literal translation of the story never appears in your product or service. Many of Disney’s attractions were informed by storytelling, but the actual plot may be invisible to the end guest. Developing a believable story is possible with tools we already have at our disposal, and I’ll list a few ideas below…

1) Understand the story of your users

As user experience professionals, we believe in the importance of understanding who we are designing for and using that knowledge to guide decisions throughout product development. In recent years, it has been popular to summarize consumer research by creating a persona – a written representation of an archetypal user fleshed out with details from their “lives.”

In many ways, this activity is part storytelling (or, at least, storymaking) – we are creating the main “character.” We need to research and understand how the product fits into their lives. Are they busy, relaxed, stressed? Is the activity a chore or something they love doing? How will users work together with other “characters” to accomplish their tasks? Is the product a part of the core plot of their lives or something that just fills the background?

Alan Cooper, who popularized the use of personas in our field, strongly suggests identifying the goals the persona wants to achieve by the product with a special emphasis on higher-order needs (i.e., impress the boss, stay connected with family, etc.). A story-writer might call these the motivations of their characters.

2) Tell the story of your users

This research may result in personas or scenarios which are a simple summarization of the facts. Whitney Quesenbery argues that stories will add more richness to these documents. Her book with Kevin Brooks, Storytelling for User Experience, explores this technique in great detail. They find that telling a story about the research builds a closer connection with your audience and helps them internalize the research. Later, they suggest those stories can become the source of inspiration for brainstorming or even tasks during a usability study.

Likewise, in my own work, I have seen the benefit of pausing during a research overview presentation and doing a deep-dive, telling a brief story of a particular participant who exhibited memorable behavior. Later, I try to use all of this rich data to support the project charter. I have created a one-page document that outlines a few key goals to keep in mind during development. I list: 1) emotion goals – things we want the user to feel while using the product and 2) activity goals – things we want the user to be able to accomplish in a new way.

3) Think about the experience like a story

Storyboard ImagineerHopefully you know by this point whether you are creating a documentary, drama or comedy (hopefully not a horror show!) and have the basic outline of the plot. And now you may be thinking more seriously about that functional requirements document. The original Disney Imagineers were movie makers. They are credited with popularizing the utilization of storyboards – a series of visual frames depicting the key steps in the experience. We can do the same (great series of articles on storyboarding & UX) by depicting how our product’s functions will manifest themselves at key steps in the interactive experience. Simple stick figures will suffice – the key is showing the interactions (and ideally, the resulting emotions) between the user and product.

Another way to weave story into the experience is by thinking about the entire experience lifecycle. First time users will be novices – they will need assistance. That character in your story may need background and an introduction to the ‘plot.’ Or, perhaps you are working on a sequel, otherwise known as version 2 of the product. Experienced users will then simply need to know what has changed and what to expect as they go forward.

4) Embed story elements in the actual product, if possible

Obviously, most of us aren’t designing rides – we can’t have Jack Sparrow suddenly appear as a pirate (except maybe if you are creating DVD copying software). But, at the very least, we can incorporate some basic thematic story elements in our products. Here, I refer to things like color selection or copywriting to set a mood. We can take a stressful experience and make it more calming with the appropriate supporting design elements. Of course, care must be taken to have the right story element at the right time – a humorous message may not be well received after a user has lost their work due to a crash.

As a fun example, the following short video clip provides insight into the design process at LEGO. During the research phase, designers visited various police stations and used what they saw for inspiration. But, instead of simply trying to recreate the physical architecture in plastic-brick-form, they built a possible “storyline” into a set that lets kids play the role of a criminal trying to escape.

5) Make your users part of the story

Your customers naturally become part of the story when they use the product. However, the level of interactivity is up to you to define. In the video below, a Disney Imagineer describes how they will be “reimagining the story of Test Track.” Instead of being passive passengers, guests take part in the ride by defining the design of the car and seeing how it performs throughout the experience.

People love to customize their environments and see themselves reflected in their surroundings. At a simple level, this is often enabled through themes which let users customize software products with different wallpapers or graphics. A more sophisticated customization lets user become characters inside the product experience.

For example, Nintendo cleverly utilizes Mii’s, an avatar that users can easily design to reflect their own image. Seeing your own character compete in the game increases engagement – they become more emotionally attached and driven to help their virtual representation succeed. Products which use social elements also highly engage people in the story of their own lives and the lives of their family and friends. Facebook’s new controversial timeline feature is advertised as allowing you to “Tell your life story with a new kind of profile.”

Thanks for visiting

Storytellers Cafe in CaliforniaThese ideas represent the tip of the iceberg; entire books have been written on topics like personas, sketching, or interaction design. As many of us are already skilled in these areas, this article’s goal was to introduce a new thread that can tie these activities together. So, the next time you stumble for words trying to explain to your distant Aunt Ruth what you do everyday, you can always say that you are a storyteller.


Storybook Land and Storytellers Cafe photos from Tours Departing Daily
Blizzard Beach and Storyboard photos from WDWNews
Stephen Anderson’s UX Hiearchy of Needs used under Creative Commons Attribution found at PoetPainter

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