The Power of a Story

The Power of a Story

We all know it’s important to be “user centered.” When we move pixels around and build flows and put pieces and parts together, we’re in the pragmatics of building and shipping products and user-centeredness is clear. But what about strategy – how do we put people at the center of a design strategy?

On the pragmatic side, usability testing is fundamental to ensuring that the things we make can be used without driving people crazy. There are a few different methods of testing, but the one I rely on the most is called Think Aloud testing – having someone actually use a product (even if it’s a rudimentary version of it, like a series of wireframes) and talk out loud as they use it. This gives me all sorts of good insight into what they are thinking, how they expect a system to work, and where my design work has fallen short.

Think aloud testing is effective in making products better. It’s also effective in evangelizing a user-centered process, because the results are so vivid. Even the most stubborn developer or mind-made-up product manager second guesses themselves when they see testing participants struggling.


I remember one session where we were testing a direct-to-consumer car buying site. We had one-way glass and all the fancy equipment, and our participant, Mary, was given a fake credit card number and some tasks to complete using a realistic, functional system. And behind the glass sat the designers who had designed the system and the developers that had coded it.

Mary worked through the tasks, and became increasingly frustrated.

Mary tried, and tried. And tried some more. And then she started to cry.

We stopped the session, and she excused herself. And when she came back, she described that she didn’t understand technology, that she was “so dumb”, and she was very sorry for messing everything up. We did our best to assure her that she did great, and she left.

When we debriefed with the designers and developers who had sat behind the one-way glass, they were very, very quiet. And then one of them spoke up and said “I feel terrible. She blamed herself for decisions we made. We need to do better.” People are emotional, and emotions are powerful. Think-aloud testing brought to light not only individual usability problems (that font is hard to read, that form field doesn’t make sense) but an entirely different way for the product team to think about the people they were serving.


But how do you champion for the user when setting strategy?

Like usability testing, the key is in spending time with people.

Strategic design research is about watching people do things, not just asking them questions and hearing their answers. Sometimes this is in the form of a contextual inquiry, a method that’s been established to observe experiences as they unfold. Often, behavior is prompted through participatory design exercises, like having participants sketch a timeline of their experiences in the past, walk through artifacts in their home, or complete a diary over a course of a few weeks.

But talking to people helps me – it doesn’t help them. And central to a user-centered design approach is championing the needs for other people. That advocacy has to happen all the way through the project, and in the case of strategy, it means ensuring that the vision of a product, service, or company is aligned with the latent wants, needs, and desires of people.

And that’s all about translating behavior into stories.


Ashley, a biology major two years out of college, was walking us through paperwork about her student loans. She explained,

“I kept on getting these loan notices. I almost defaulted and I had no idea, because I was like ‘oh, I’ll just ignore this.’ I kept getting stuff in the mail and was like ‘I don’t have to worry about this!’ I’m paying the other two loans I had. It was just because I had no visibility into it, like, they would come and I would.. I didn’t have them automated because, it just freaked me out to have it subtracted from my bank account every month, all these late payments, because I wasn’t able to manage it. I was so terrified, I had this shoebox full of past due notices, and I just didn’t look at it…”

We watched Judith, a station control manager at Los Angeles International Airport, answer a phonecall. She then turned to her radio and said,

“Any available ramp supervisor? I need a ramp supervisor down to the dungeon for some HazMat. Flight 1462 cannot go, the item cannot go.” She explained to us, “So, TSA called us and said there was a chainsaw, and obviously it can’t go, so I asked for the passenger and flight number; they’ll call the gate in a minute and tell the passenger they can’t go.”

Now, on the phone: “Hey, I’m not sure what to do, maybe you know – TSA called and said 1462 has a chainsaw and they are going to go collect it… yea, she checked in a chainsaw. I don’t want to know what that’s about.”

We spoke with Joe, a 26 year old, who was walking us through his financial habits. He showed us his online banking accounts, pointed to the accounts page and said,

“I don’t know the difference between a savings or checking account. When I grew up, we put the money under the mattress. If you wanted something, like a car, you took the money down to the lot and bought the car.”

These quotes paint pictures. They are sad, ridiculous, and puzzling. They make us feel a certain way, question our own worldview, and act as stubs or gestures for the “rest of the story.” What happens to Ashley? Does Joe learn how to manage his finances? Where did the chainsaw come from, where did it go, and what happened as a result? These stories are believable because they have richness and texture, and they draw us in.

And these stories are real.

What makes them so powerful is that they actually represent real people, and we have video, audio, and photos to help drive home their unique circumstances. These stories are the user-centered strategy equivalent of think aloud user testing quotes. Capturing and presenting what people really say resonates in its believability. And just as think aloud testing helps us advocate for people through usability decisions, these research stories act as advocacy for people while setting strategy.


If you are in charge of the TSA, Judith’s experiences should make you reconsider your messaging strategy: if flyers really think it’s OK to bring a chainsaw on a plane, what other safety rules are they unaware of or ignoring? And how can the agency better support its mandate for safe flying by regularly listening to front-line employees like Judith?

If you are building financial tools, Joe’s perspective on banking should play an instrumental role not just in how you structure the screens of your online tools, but how you fundamentally build, name, and structure the products you offer. If your customers don’t understand the basics like a savings and checking account, how can you expect them to understand – and buy – complicated products like annuities or insurance?

And if you run a student loan company or repayment service, Ashley’s story should make you reconsider core parts of your business. Are students defaulting because they literally aren’t opening the notices being sent to their houses out of fear? What’s the financial impact of this behavior? And how can the business change their consumer experience in a way that helps Ashley, and better supports the business?

Back to one of our foundational points: Talking to people helps me – it doesn’t help them. And central to a user-centered design approach is acting as the champion for the people I’m in service of – my “users”, “customers”, or “consumers.”

Just as usability testing gave us stories of product problems, design research gives us stories of behavioral problems. Through stories, problems come into clarity, and so do solutions: it becomes increasingly clear what we need to go do, or build, or change. This is user-centeredness in design strategy. By telling and retelling these stories, I’m mapping a strategic path forward, a path on the way to helping people better experience the world around them.

Now, I can shift from helping me to helping them: I can continually channel and reference their stories, and act as their advocate while setting design strategy.

Photography Credits
Ryan McGuire

Jon Kolko

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