Stories: the way to our heart, and the key to design strategy - hero image

Stories: the way to our heart, and the key to design strategy

Storytelling: one of our most powerful tools. It’s a powerful shortcut to win hearts, and to drive strategy.

We use stories to communicate problems in existing products and services and to show the difficulties people are having. We use the stories to communicate innovations, helping people see and imagine things that don’t yet exist. And we use stories to create an emotional response to an existing state and help people move beyond a rational or purely analytical response to data. In all cases, our goal is persuasion. Data is never neutral, and in the context of design, our intent is almost always to argue for a change that helps our customers and users. Change is expensive and risky, and narrative helps not only communicate the proposed change, but also to convince an audience that the proposed change will make things better than how they are now.

Fundamental to new ideas is getting people to champion that idea. It’s difficult to push a design rock uphill by yourself. Without helping companies, teams, and funders see the benefits of a new approach, that approach is likely to fail, not because it’s a bad idea, but because no one believes the world should have the opportunity to judge if it’s a good idea. Design strategy is a craft, just like other forms of applied design. In this strategic approach, our goal is to shape a vision of the future, and identify a realistic path towards that vision. The vision of the future is rarely a single, simple design improvement. It often will touch multiple products, services, offerings, people, and approaches, and so it will require groundswell from a number of different people, all with similar but not identical perspectives. To overcome these differences, we need to understand how people see new ideas, and how we can help them align around one.

Most designers use stories, but we don’t know why they work – we just know that they do work. One reason we have a gap in our knowledge about narrative is because we learn the art and craft of design in a studio environment, one where the focus is on a master/apprentice form of craft development. In these contexts, emphasis is on the output – the thing that is made – rather than the process – how the thing is made. Some of this is a result of the legacy roots of design, which grew out of a study of art. Somewhat ironically, the masters in the Bauhaus did actually teach their apprentices about the theory behind form and color, but our newer education doesn’t necessarily adapt that level of intellectual rigor to theory of service, system, and interaction design.

Some of this knowledge gap is due to the constraints of common design contexts, like businesses and governments, where aggressive timelines drive project demands. Speed is more important than meta-reflection about a discipline. Education, both formal and on-the-job, is aimed at impact: ship products, first and foremost. And some of the knowledge gap is because the people doing the design work find more enjoyment and satisfaction in doing design rather than thinking about doing design.

But our profession has been maturing, and with that maturity has come a desire to teach and learn more depth about why design is valuable, rather than simply accepting that it is, in fact, valuable. This involves learning about why it works. There has been an increased focus on method and process, implying that designers are viewing the “verb” of design as important. This shift demands an understanding of the underlying, scientific reasons as to why our techniques work.

Design is not a science.

But the study of humans and human behavior is a scientific endeavor, and there exists an enormous body of research explaining why things like stories are effective mechanisms to change the way people think and act. As part of our individual professional growth and disciplinary maturity, we can (and should) know and leverage this research to improve our craft. We want to use these natural phenomena, like one uses a hammer, to make new systems, services, organizational structures, and to shape new experiences. We manipulate pixels when we make digital interfaces, and plastic when we make injection molded objects. And we manipulate behavior when we shape the activities and interactions people have with the human-built world. Storytelling is one of our main mechanisms of manipulation.



There are a number of ingredients of storytelling. These include cognitive dissonance, immersion, transportation, sympathy, emotional contagion, and empathy. I’ll first touch on each of these briefly, but then spend the most time discussing cognitive dissonance, as it’s one of the biggest blocks in corporate strategy, and one of the most important parts of design-strategy-led change.


Immersion is the feeling of being so contained by an experience that we start to lose our own introspection and, as a result, become susceptible to new ways of thinking and feeling. This is a neurological state, one that is provoked by oxytocin synthesis; as researcher Paul Zak describes, “the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others; for example, donating money to a charity associated with the narrative.” (Zak) This means that an immersive reaction is based on a physiological reason that is well understood (at least by scientists!). Oxytocin is often called the love drug – it increases during things like hugging, kissing, and sex. Zak’s research indicates that stories are also a way to increase oxytocin levels. “Well-crafted stories sustain attention and produce emotional resonance in listeners, a neurological state we call ‘immersion.’” Simply, there’s scientific evidence that good story triggers things in our body that make us feel great about other people. The Heart of the Story: Peripheral Physiology During Narrative Exposure Predicts Charitable Giving; Paul Zak


Transportation theory describes that a strong narrative causes a unique emotional response through mental imagery, and provokes a loss of access to real-world information. This means that people who are “transported” during a narrative are “so absorbed in the story that they would be reluctant to stop and critically analyze propositions presented” – they stop leveraging critical thinking and examining the data being presented, and simply absorb it. This isn’t simply experiential or temporary. Evidence from researchers Melanie Green and Timothy Brock indicate that transported individuals who develop a strong feeling towards characters in a story may alter their own beliefs based on the transportation.  A good narrative can help us explore another world view, and change the way we believe. The Role of Transportation in the Persuasiveness of Public Narratives; Melanie C. Green and Timothy C. Brock


Sympathy is about concern: it’s about sharing a common feeling, which is often about something sad or troubling. Outsiders, prompted by narrative, can start to form feelings about the characters they are viewing or hearing about. Sympathy can be actionable, but also passive; imagine walking by a person asking for spare change. We might feel sympathetic to their circumstances, but not actually give them any money. An emotion was triggered, but behavior wasn’t changed. But sympathy is powerful, because it demands attention. A story that evokes sympathetic responses has our attention, which is one of the rarest things we have or can give.

Emotional Contagion

When we observe, either in person or through narrative, we may start to mimic the things we see: postures, expressions, and movements. This is called emotional contagion, as if emotions are contagious like a cold. This process isn’t overt: we aren’t aware of it happening. As a result, it may lead to a convergence of emotion, but not necessarily feelings of empathy. We may not actually see the world through another’s eyes, and so our emotional mapping will be less sophisticated – it’s not an imaginative process. But it causes us to find common ground with other people, even in the case of fictional people through narrative. Emotional Contagion, Elaine Hatfield, Cacioppo Hatfield, John T Cacioppo, Richard L Rapson


Empathy is often described as the most important quality of human-to-human interaction, as through empathy we can drastically start to change behavior. While sympathy describes feelings about another person, from a third-person perspective, empathy is about transferring feelings, and psychology, from another person, resulting in a first-person perspective shift. As we gain empathy with others, we start to see the world through their eyes, become open to their stance, and begin considering the things that are happening around us in new ways. Even our cognitive sense of reality can shift through empathy. Stories provoke this empathy; narrative, particularly first-person narrative, can help us adopt another set of emotions and perspectives.

Above, I offered a very brief overview of several ways of framing narrative and the human response to a compelling story. These theories and facts contribute to the way we react when we hear a story. Additionally, some of these are “things we can do” as storytellers, and some of these are “things that happen” as a result of stories being told. It’s certainly a mix of apples and oranges, but important for considering storytelling in the round. But one of the most interesting things related to strategic storytelling is something called Cognitive Dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance

Roger Martin, the former Dean of the Rotman School of Management, studied the traits of leaders in large, successful corporations. He identified that one of the most important and unique traits of leaders is what he calls integrative thinking. Integrative thinking is the ability to hold two competing ideas in the head at once, and after marinating on them, instead of simply picking one, having the ability to synthesize them into a meaningful whole.  The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin



Try it. Say these phrases out loud, as if you believe them:

I believe that poor people are poor because they are lazy

I believe that poor people are poor because they’ve been dealt an unfair hand in life.

Our temptation is to pick one, the one that most accurately represents our existing beliefs. But try really, really hard not to pick one. Just live with the ideas, and ponder them, as if both are true. This isn’t an easy activity, because of a psychological phenomenon called cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance, identified and studied extensively by social psychologist Leon Festinger, is a psychological state where the things we see, hear, or experience don’t fit into our worldview. We find ourselves in a state where we have an uncomfortable disconnect between our ethics, morals, and expectations, and the things we are hearing, seeing, or experiencing. The feeling is uncomfortable enough that we work, somewhat relentlessly, to resolve the dissonance. We might question our beliefs and change them, and as a result, alter the way we behave. We may reconsider the experience that we’ve had, and change our perception on what happened and why it happened. Or, most likely, we may reinforce our perspectives, writing off the new input and stimulus as being incorrect or wrong.

If I believe poor people are poor because they are lazy, and then I hear a story, a study, or a news article that describes that poor people are poor because of circumstances, I have cognitive dissonance. The two ideas are at odds, and it creates discomfort. I want to resolve that discomfort.

Leaders, due to their experience, some rare super-powerful genetic disposition, or their brute force hard work, have found a way to live in a state of dissonance rather than working to eliminate it as quickly as possible. They are able to hear both (or, more commonly, many) perspectives on an idea or theme, and not simply make a decision based on their pre-conceived view of the world. But we are all not leaders, and while integrative thinking can be taught and learned, most of us will rest on a perfectly natural approach to that conflict – we will work to resolve it, so we feel less disturbed by it. Because those conflicting ideas are based on our world-view and perspective of self, the dissonance creates a pretty fundamental wedge. One challenges the other. And it’s highly likely that I’ll reject the new idea.



Consider how dissonance plays out with another example.

Imagine that you are fully aware that over-indulging in fast food is bad for you. You’ve read studies that show the correlation and causality between fatty food that is processed and high in saturated fat, and you’ve also identified that after you eat a Big Mac, you feel gross and gain weight, and that weight is getting harder and harder to burn off at the gym.

But you eat it anyways.

This is, again, dissonance, and it feels troubling to hold two ideas in your head at once: eating fast food is bad for you, yet you are the type of person that eats fast food. You aren’t a dumb person, and you like to think of yourself as rational and thoughtful, and this contradiction means that something is wrong.

And so, you resolve the dissonance in one of many ways. You might stop eating fast food – that would be the most logical approach. But most of us don’t do that. Instead, we eat it anyway, and find ways to justify it. We might tell ourselves that it actually isn’t so bad, and the science is fuzzy about it. We might convince ourselves that we’re saving a lot of money, and that’s important for planning for retirement. We might tell ourselves that the time we’re saving by eating that food is being used for other important things, like spending time with our kids or over-delivering at work.

None of these change the fact that fast food is bad for us, but it doesn’t matter: it doesn’t stop the behavior. In fact, just the opposite occurs. The behavior becomes reinforced, and even harder to break. That self-justification is powerful.

Not all dissonance is related to major lifestyle decisions. It happens in small ways, too, and often in cases where the outcome is not as black and white as “saturated fat leads to health problems.”

Imagine that you are the creative director at a bank, and your area of creative direction is on online bill pay. You are having a conversation with the product team about a decision they’ve made to add a big banner at the top of the mobile app that advertises a new joint partnership the bank has forged with a third-party to help people pay their bills. When users tap on the banner, they are taken to a completely different product, with a different brand and set of interactions, and worse, you feel, is that they are removed from the context of online bill pay, and dropped into a process of registration for that other company.

It’s pretty straight-forward to you: that’s a dumb thing to do, and we shouldn’t do it.

The product team then presents to you data that shows that, in a test, 80% of users tapped the banner. Your company gets paid based on each tap, and in the limited trial, the company made hundreds of thousands of dollars. At scale, the product team tells you, the company will make millions.

You’ve been dropped in a state of cognitive dissonance. Your training, experience, and heart tell you that the banner is a terrible idea. And your commitment to the business, you want to be a team player, your desire to see your stock improve, and the raw data tells you that it’s a wonderful idea.

Sitting with both ideas is painful, and a typical reaction – a reaction I’ve had in many situations like this – is to embrace our existing worldview. Remove the banner, at all costs. Fight in that meeting, and in consequential meetings, to get it done. The longer we’ve been practicing, and the longer we’ve built a perspective that we are the advocate for the user, the more we will fight for that designerly perspective.

There are other ways to resolve this issue, though, and that’s the power of design strategy and storytelling. There are, in fact, infinite ways to handle this problem, because it’s a creative problem, not just a boolean selection. The banner could be bigger or smaller. It could be at the top or bottom. It could be in the app, or in an email. It doesn’t need to be a banner at all. It could be a physical item mailed to a customer, or, as we’re starting to see in innovations in banking, something that happens in a physical place like a banking cafe. The entire compensation relationship with the joint partnership could be renegotiated so that referrals aren’t the main source of revenue. Design is about finding creative solutions to problems.

The integrative thinking of Roger Martin would require holding the idea of “Banner? No banner?” in your head at once, without picking one. Our job in building a resolution to the problem is to show how other solutions will be better. And stories can show those solutions.



Stories Provoke Dissonance

Storytelling can provoke cognitive dissonance, and that works to our benefit. Things happen during the narrative progression of a story that challenge the way and audiences sees the world or the way they think the world should be. A story creates a sense of discomfort, and an audience will work hard to create consonance. And that means that, through story, we have someone’s attention and cognition. And because our audience can be transported, immersed, sympathetic, empathetic, or emotionally charged when they hear a story, a story can fight against the dissonance. Stories create discomfort, and design strategy “solves” for that discomfort. And when stories are presented to a leader, one who has those integrative thinking skills that Roger Martin describes are fundamental to strategic success, that leader has the skills and intellectual drive to engage with and consider your strategic directive.

This is not a simple trick, or “hack” – it’s not a way to increase clickthrough or signups, or to fool people. Our understanding shouldn’t rest on a sound-bite or summary. We don’t get to selectively apply principles of, say, cognitive dissonance and then reject the ideas of transportation, because those phenomena are all wrapped up in a person. Knowing about these things is like knowing about the limits of human memory when we create usable interfaces (as with the phenomenon of the Model Human Processor), or knowing about the physiology of the eye when we study color theory (taught during the Bauhaus by Wassily Kandinsky), or understanding anthropometrics when we explore human factors (explored extensively by Henry Dreyfuss). They act as a backdrop for our work.

When we tell stories, we bring a powerful form of input to a typically quant-based or opinion-based conversation, and help shift the nature of how decisions are made. This isn’t happenstance, in the same way that good interaction design or good service design isn’t happenstance. We can learn a craft in telling stories, and by understanding even the thinnest level of the theory behind stories, we can leverage them to our advantage in pushing an agenda. Because design strategy is fundamentally user-centered, this means that we are giving the very people in our stories a voice: we are acting as their proxy, using their stories to fulfill their wants, needs, and desires.

Jon Kolko

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