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Storytelling Essentials for UX with Jeff White
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Storytelling Essentials for UX with Jeff White

Storytelling Essentials for UX with Jeff White

Theertha Raj
August 10, 2023

Once upon a time, there was a UX designer named Jeff White. He worked for many years in the biggest castles in the kingdom, including one called Amazon. A few years later, he decided to build his own castle. 

Jeff also wanted to help others learn how to be as good as him. So he decided to teach everyone about his biggest superpower - storytelling. As he started teaching other designers how to use it wisely, his fame spread all over the land of LinkedIn. 

This article is not about the fairytale kind of storytelling though, no prizes for guessing.

We sat down with Jeff White recently to learn more about his journey in UX design, and how storytelling helped him. 

Here are the notes from our conversation on why UX folks need to care about storytelling, and the resources and frameworks they need to get better at it.

Why UX-ers need to care about storytelling

You’re storytelling all the time in UX. You’re storytelling when you:

  • Present a design to stakeholders
  • Make an elevator pitch to potential clients
  • Create a portfolio of your work
  • Introduce yourself to potential employers
  • Communicate customer pain points at the beginning of a workshop

However, it’s tough to find resources on what storytelling is actually about for UX reseachers and designers. 

After 20 years of industry experience, Jeff White can teach you a lot about business, communication, and all things foundational for a UX design career. But he chose to focus on storytelling, because of the profound impact it can have on a design career.

According to Jeff, storytelling is the secret sauce. It’s the under-the-radar secret skill that can help you land jobs, get promotions, and make things happen for your career.

A user researcher needs to be able to convince stakeholders, build consensus and get buy-ins around their work. Your storytelling and presentation skills matter just as much as the work you do. They actually determine how everyone perceives your work. 

If you’re applying for jobs, every interaction with a recruiter demands storytelling about yourself. How you introduce yourself, your portfolio, and your case studies — it all comes down to storytelling.

Storytelling frameworks that matter in UX

Popular frameworks like the Hero's Journey are usually overkill for UX work, in Jeff's experience.

The Hero's Journey narrative framework

We all know about the storytelling frameworks that make books and movies. Pixar movies especially. 

Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is one such storytelling framework out there. It helped create created most cultural phenomena we know today, like the Lord of the Rings series, Star Wars, and Harry Potter.

However, product prototyping doesn’t involve combating arch nemeses or fighting dragons guarding treasure (usually). 

For UX work, Jeff hence recommends frameworks that are more pragmatic, and more under the radar. 

The PAS Framework

The PAS framework is a favorite among marketing copywriters. Jeff says that it works especially well for conversations due to its simplicity.

PAs has 3 steps: Problem, Agitate, Solution.

Problem: First, you introduce a problem. Identify and explain what’s wrong to the audience.

Agitate: Underscore how bad the problem is, and make it feel real. Agitate it so that listeners understand the issue well. 

Solution: Here’s where you introduce your solution, and explain how it solves the problem. 

The beauty of PAS is that it works on every level. You can use it for informal conversations, or to explain your work-in-progress. You can also use it to structure formal presentations with stakeholders.

Options and Analysis

Options analysis is another of Jeff’s favorite frameworks. It helps a lot especially while working with large teams.

  1. Begin by framing the problem. 
  2. Identify 2-3 feasible ways to solve it. 
  3. Deconstruct each option by providing its pros and cons. If solution 1 is good at X and Y, solution 2 is better for Z.
  4. Provide recommendations based on the above analysis.

Options analysis is great for collaborative projects. It helps bring more people into the design process, and builds trust. You’re not just stating a solution, you’re providing transparency about the decision-making.

Options analysis is also useful to identify and anticipate potential issues earlier on. Let’s say that you’re collaborating with a team to solve something. Often, decisions get made without fully discussing why a solution’s the best option. This way, you can have those conversations upfront, and point out why something might not work. You can pose alternatives, and make a well-informed decision.

How to get good at storytelling

There’s no single route to becoming an expert in storytelling. There’s no unified guide with instructions on how to respond to each scenario.

Just like any other skill, you only get good at it with constant practice.

Storytelling as a skill is not a part of most curriculums. It is not taught usually at bootcamps or business schools. Formal education is still catching up to the value storytelling can offer, so how do you get better at it?

Jeff has written an extremely popular online course on storytelling for UX-ers. According to him, being a good storyteller begins with four essential steps.

1. Build up the fundamentals

You can’t use good storytelling over bad work. So work on your fundamental skills as a UX-er. Make sure that you’re doing quality work, to begin with.

2. Learn from influential people around you

Is there a senior leader at your company who’s known for being influential and good with clients? Observe them well, and pay attention to how they do it. 

Learn from others who are good storytellers. Think of senior designers who have a lot of experience in presenting their work successfully to a range of stakeholders. Observe and learn how they interact with people, and try to mold it to your own style.

3. Find the right resources

“Ted Talks are a great clue into how to give a good presentation, especially ones with formal slide decks.”

Read, watch, and learn as much as you can to upskill yourself. This can include books, TED talks, or great designers on social media.

TED Talks are great examples of storytelling, and can teach you a lot about doing formal presentations. Here are two great ones to begin with:

Articulating Design Decisions by Tom Griever is a great read on how to be persuasive and influential while articulating your decisions to people.

Jeff’s own UX Storytelling Kit is also a great online course to begin your journey with! It gives you valuable frameworks to help with:

  • online case studies
  • portfolio presentations
  • presenting work to stakeholders or clients

4. Focus on the audience

Design the story based on the audience and your goals. 

Who are you telling stories to? What do you know about them? How can you use it to optimize what you’re telling them, to get the result you want?

Some folks believe that you do storytelling differently based on the level of the audience. But Jeff doesn’t find that to be true. All C-suite executives can’t be spoken to the same way.

Different people care about different things. Think about the individual preferences and needs of a stakeholder, more than just the position they hold.

Build better portfolios

Portfolios are the ultimate exercise in storytelling. You have mere seconds to grab a recruiter’s attention, by condensing years of information about your career into a singular compelling narrative.

Don’t include too much

According to Jeff the worst thing you can do to your portfolio is include too much

It’s hard to not do it. We spend so much time on our projects, doing such intricate, detailed, and interesting work. And people often think that credibility happens only if they share every little detail about it. 

That’s not true. You need to ask yourself – what does my audience care about? Begin with that. Boil it all down to one key message. That’s what will convince them to hire you.

Don’t rely on a linear narrative

Pick out the relevant parts in the order of priority. That’s what makes a compelling and memorable presentation.

Recruiters also see scores of portfolios daily, so you need to make yours stand out. Focus on the outcomes you’ve achieved. You don’t have to explain everything linearly. Be upfront with the results.

Do things that are unexpected

Jeff spoke about an interview he did recently, in which the designer presented his portfolio by starting at the end. He began with a customer video testimonial about the product he designed, without any context going in. 

It was an extremely effective play. Doing something unexpected can make your portfolio stand out among the hundred others in the job market.

“...this person really started at the end. That was the end of his project. And it just made for, like it was different than 99% of the portfolio presentations I've seen. It was funny. It was energetic. There was nothing bad about it. Just a great way to start.” 

The gist of it

Storytelling is a superpower for UX designers and researchers. You can be good at UX, but convincing stakeholders about it is a whole different ballgame.

If you want to implement good storytelling in your UX work, remember these 3 tenets.

  1. Design your story just like you design products. Ask yourself:
  • What is the outcome I’m trying to achieve with this story?
  • Who is the audience?
  1. Focus on the ‘why’ more than the ‘what’ and ‘how’.

Treat storytelling like any other skill you have—learn it, practice it, and iterate!

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