Stories have defined our world. They have been with us since the dawn of communication, from cave walls to the tall tales recounted around fires. They have continued to evolve with their purpose remaining the same; To entertain, to share common experiences, to teach, and to pass on traditions.
Today we communicate a bit differently. Our information is fragmented across various mass-media channels and delivered through ever-changing technology. It has become watered down, cloned, and is churned out quickly in 140-character blurbs. We’ve lost that personal touch where we find an emotional connection that makes us care.
Using storytelling, however, we can pull these fragments together into a common thread. We can connect as real people, not just computers. In this article we’ll explore how user experience professionals and designers are using storytelling to create compelling experiences that build human connections.
It Begins with a Story
In 1977, a simple story set the film industry on its side. The special effects technology used to create this story had not been created or used in filmmaking at the time of its writing. The author disregarded what was popular and marketable at the time (apocalyptic and disaster movies) to create his own vision. The film starred unknown actors and the genre had mainly been seen in 1930s serial movies. It was turned down by many film studios and at one point was almost shelved.
The movie, if you haven’t guessed, was Star Wars. The author was George Lucas. Star Wars went on to become one of the most successful films of all time and turned into a pop culture phenomenon. It gave birth to the blockbuster and the trilogy, and completely changed the way movies with special effects were made. Many of today’s most influential film companies were spawned from the success of these movies: LucasFilm, THX, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), and Pixar.
Star Wars wasn’t a new story though. It drew from mythic archetypes of stories told over thousands of years.
Nowadays, with so much emphasis on user-centered design, describing and justifying the importance of designing and enhancing the user experience seems almost unnecessary. We could simply say, “It’s important because it deals with our users’ needs — enough said,” and everyone would probably be satisfied with that.
However, those of us who worked in the Web design industry prior to the codification of user-centered design, usability and Web accessibility would know that we used to make websites differently. Before our clients (and we) understood the value of user-centered design, we made design decisions based on just two things: what we thought was awesome and what the client wanted to see.
We built interaction based on what we thought worked — we designed for ourselves. The focus was on aesthetics and the brand, with little to no thought of how the people who would use the website would feel about it.
There was no science behind what we did. We did it because the results looked good, because they were creative (so we thought) and because that was what our clients wanted.
But this decade has witnessed a transformation of the Web. Not only has it become more ubiquitous — the Web had at least 1.5 billion users globally in 2008 — but websites have become so complex and feature-rich that, to be effective, they must have great user experience designs.
Additionally, users have been accessing websites in an increasing number of ways: mobile devices, a vast landscape of browsers, different types of Internet connections.
We’ve also become aware of the importance of accessibility — i.e. universal access to our Web-based products — not only for those who with special requirements, such as for screen readers and non-traditional input devices, but for those who don’t have broadband connections or who have older mobile devices and so forth.
Saying that all Web systems would benefit from a solid evaluation and design of the user experience is easy; arguing against it is hard if you care about user-centered design at all. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and we don’t have unlimited resources. Thus, we must prioritize and identify the areas that stand to gain the most from UX design and UX designers.
The more complex the system, the more involved will the planning and architecture have to be for it. While investing in a full-blown multi-member UX study for a simple static website seems excessive, multi-faceted websites, interaction-rich Web applications and e-commerce websites stand to benefit a lot from UX design.
Those who work on UX (called UX designers) study and evaluate how users feel about a system, looking at such things as ease of use, perception of the value of the system, utility, efficiency in performing tasks and so forth.
UX designers also look at sub-systems and processes within a system. For example, they might study the checkout process of an e-commerce website to see whether users find the process of buying products from the website easy and pleasant. They could delve deeper by studying components of the sub-system, such as seeing how efficient and pleasant is the experience of users filling out input fields in a Web form.
Compared to many other disciplines, particularly Web-based systems, UX is relatively new. The term “user experience” was coined by Dr. Donald Norman, a cognitive science researcher who was also the first to describe the importance of user-centered design (the notion that design decisions should be based on the needs and wants of users).
Overview, Tools and Resources
Websites and Web applications have become progressively more complex as our industry’s technologies and methodologies advance. What used to be a one-way static medium has evolved into a very rich and interactive experience.
But regardless of how much has changed in the production process, a website’s success still hinges on just one thing: how users perceive it. “Does this website give me value? Is it easy to use? Is it pleasant to use?” These are the questions that run through the minds of visitors as they interact with our products, and they form the basis of their decisions on whether to become regular users.
User experience design is all about striving to make them answer “Yes” to all of those questions. This guide aims to familiarize you with the professional discipline of UX design in the context of Web-based systems such as websites and applications.
What Is User Experience?
User experience (abbreviated as UX) is how a person feels when interfacing with a system. The system could be a website, a web application or desktop software and, in modern contexts, is generally denoted by some form of human-computer interaction (HCI).