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Storytelling for Facilitation and Discussing Design

In this post, I’ll make the case for the need of incorporating storytelling in your facilitation toolset for better idea generation, discussing design, and creating shared understanding.

In my last post, I’ve mentioned that — if designers must step up to the plate and become skilled facilitators — there are some visual thinking techniques that might come handy, which can be drawn from design thinking, data analytics, system thinking, game storming, and lean start-up.

In this post, I’ll argue for the need of incorporating storytelling in your facilitation toolset for better idea generation and creating shared understanding.

Discussing Design and Shared Understanding

In the second post of this series, I’ve mentioned that I’ve found that — more often than not — is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve.

photo of people near wooden table
Lean more about Creating Shared Understanding at Strategy and the Need of Facilitation (Photo by fauxels on

Just to make sure I’m not misunderstood: it doesn’t matter at that point if the team lacks a vision or the vision is just poorly communicated, the result is the same: team will lack engagement and slowly drift apart.

Shared understanding is the collective knowledge of the team that builds over time as the team works together. It’s a rich understanding of the space, the product, and the customers.

“Creating Shared Understanding” in Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve userexperience, Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J. (2013)

An important aspect of creating shared understanding within a team is to develop shared memories and meaning. Theoretically, developing shared meaning requires achieving a shared understood lexicology, schema or language in which to communicate, despite differences in backgrounds (education, training, experience, fields, etc.) of the team members (S.Y.T. Lang et al. / Computers in Industry 48 (2002) 89–98).

For developing shared memories, research is showing a powerful connection between story, place, and emotion and building memories (Vox., “Memory, Explained”, 2019):

  • Story: few people can remember up to 20,000 digits of Pi, yet a there are lot of actors and readers that can recite Hamlet, which has more than 50,000 words.
  • Place: the most accurate memories people had of 9/11 three years after the incident was where they were.
  • Emotions are the foundation of our strongest memories. For example, people are more likely to remember faces that express emotions.
Memory, Explained
Vox. (2019, September 12). Memory, Explained. Retrieved from

Narrative is a way of understanding one’s own and others’ actions, of organizing events and objects into a meaningful whole, and of connecting and seeing the consequences of actions and events. (Chase, S. E., Narrative Inquiry: Multiple Lenses, Approaches, Voices, 2005)

Narratives function to frame the experiences of the group, and to allow members to interpret and understand their experiences in a common way.

Bolino, M. C., Turnley, W. H., & Bloodgood, J. M., Citizenship Behavior and The Creation of Social Capital in Organizations. (2002)

It’s been proven that the real efficacy of storytelling list in three standout features of stories that can help us do our jobs as business leaders (Callahan, S., Putting Stories to Work, 2016):

  • Stories are memorable. There is no point in saying something if it’s forgettable.
  • Stories convey emotion. People are inspired to act when they feel emotion.
  • Stories are meaningful. In the complex environment of work, people need to be able to make sense of what’s going on and how they fit in.

When we are facing hard times to get our concepts along, instead of blaming others for not “getting”, we should ask ourselves “what did I do wrong?” By being conscious of how you are crafting the narrative about your team’s progress, and about how solutions work in the lives of those who use them, you can help make the ideas and decisions of the group stick. Telling the story of the collaboration is as important as the collaboration itself in many ways (Anderson, G., Mastering Collaboration, 2019).

Storytelling as Synthesis

As product leaders and design strategists conduct product discovery and user research related activities, they generate a large amount of raw data (Lewrick, M., Link, P., & Leifer, L., The Design Thinking Playbook. 2018).

By itself, this data isn’t very useful. It isn’t actionable and doesn’t help the teams move forward with their creative design process.

Designers help the team synthesize and build a rich understanding of problem, product and customers by using variety of methods from their toolbox, including on storytelling, visualization, and facilitation.

Storytelling is a very important tool for methods like Contextual Inquiry. While capturing the affinity notes during the interpretation session, the notetaker can also capture other kinds of notes (Wendell, J., Holtzblatt, K., & Wood, S. (2005). Rapid contextual design, 2005):

  • Questions: When the team gets booged down over a question that the interviews can’t answer, the notetaker captures it in the affinity notes and encourages the group to move on.
  • Design ideas: ideas for solutions that team members produce are captured both to ensure they are preserved and again to encourage the team to move on and remain focused.
  • Good User Quotes and Stories to be used later when you are communicating with the rest of the organization.
  • Interpretations: The team will hear the data and draw interpretations of how it represents a work pattern or implies an inner experience
Designing Interactions / Experiences: Interpretation “Mode”
Learn more about Contextual Inquiry Interpretation Sessions in my Designing Interactions / Experiences: Interpretation “Mode” lecture at Köln International School of Design

Stories can be integrated in our strategy process as a way to synthesise user research and design insights, since (Brooks, K., & Quesenbery, W. Storytelling for User Experience, 2014):

  • They describe a context or situation, like stories that are part of personas.
  • They can illustrate problems and “pain points,” explaining why a new experience is needed.
  • They can be the starting point for a design discussion, explore a new design concept, or describe a new design

Stories are a powerful tool in user experience design. They can help you understand users – and their experiences – better, communicate what you’ve learned, and use that understanding to create better products.

Brooks, K., & Quesenbery, W. Storytelling for User Experience (2014).

Discussing Design as Stories

One good reason to use stories along with design specifications is to keep the real-world context available for reference. As the conversation move into technical details, it’s easy to forget what a feature was added or how it might be used.

Stories help keep the user experience in the picture as the team makes detail designs and technical decisions.

Brooks, K., & Quesenbery, W. Storytelling for User Experience (2014)

These days, it’s virtually impossible to communicate user needs or discussing design with product teams without running into conversations around scenarios (Carroll, J.M., 2003), user stories (Wiegers, K., & Beatty, J. Software Requirements, 2013), personas (Cooper et al, 2014), storyboards (Buxton, 2007), narrative structures (Freytag, 1900), and many other story forms in best practices in user experience methodologies.

Out of those, Personas, Scenarios, and User Stories are the de-facto standard of communicating user requirements to product development teams.

Discussing Design through Personas and Scenarios

A typical persona description should be a synthesis of the most important details observed during research, becoming an effective communication tool. This persona narrative should not contain every observed detail: it quickly introduces the persona in terms of his job or lifestyle. It briefly stretches a day in his life, including peeves, concerns and interests that have a direct bearing on the product (Cooper, A., Reimann, R., Cronin, D., & Noessel, C., About face, 2014). This persona narrative or story should express what the person is looking for in the product by a way of conclusion and should be very informative to the design strategy.

A scenario describes human activities or tasks in a story that allows exploration and discussion of texts, needs and requirement. It does not necessarily describe the use of of the software or other technological support used to achieve a goal. (Sharp, H., Preece, J., & Rogers, Y., Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction, 2019).

Context scenarios address questions such as the following:

  • In what setting(s) will the product be uses?
  • Will it be used for extended amounts of time?
  • Is the persona frequently interrupted?
  • Do several people use a single workstation or device?
  • With what other products will it be used?
  • What primary actives does the person need to perform to meet her goals?
  • What is the expect ends result of using the product?
  • How much complexity is permissible, based on persona skill and frequency of use?

Discussing Design through Goals and Principles

If personas and scenarios are the starting point, goals and principles are the finish line (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015):

Goals and Principles describe where you’re trying to go with the design; they outline the future you’re trying to create and ways in which you want to create it.

Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design (2015)

For whatever aspect of a design you’re critiquing, you can ask of them, “Does this help us reach our goal of …” or “Does this adhere to the principle of … that we set?” Followed by “How?” and “Why?” (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015):

Goals are the desired, measurable outcomes that result from a product being used. The team should feel that the goals set forth are achievable and meaningful and they should correlate to a change in user behavior.

Principles are the qualities and characteristics that the product will exhibit in its content, behaviour, and so on as people use it and interact with it. Good principles should be somewhat specific. Characteristics like “fun” or “amusing” don’t make good principles because they are still pretty broad, and each team member might have a different interpretation of what “fun” is.

Good design principles also act as constraints and filtering mechanisms for detailed design ideas. By virtue of being specific:

A good design principle helps you eliminate more design ideas than you retain from idea-generation activities (such as brainstorms) which allows you to focus your efforts as you move forward.

Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, (2015)

If personas and user stories are such common in ways of communicating requirements to product development teams, how come product team either lack a vision at the beginning of a project, or slowing stray away from it as the project lifecycle goes on? I’ll argue that while personas and user stories have been great to trigger conversations around what users are trying to accomplish at a task level, systems are becoming more complex, and it is becoming harder and harder to conciliate the goals of users at the task level with the experience at that system level. We are going to talk about some techniques to address these challenges when we talk about Storytelling and Mapping.

Storytelling start with Listening

Stories are all around us, if you just listen to them. The trick to getting to good stories in your user research is to make the time for them (Brooks, K., & Quesenbery, W. Storytelling for User Experience, 2014):

  • Look for juicy stories in any user research, as you observe or review your notes.
  • Learn to ask questions that encourage people to tell stories.
  • Thinking out loud procedures can keep the conversation and stories flowing comfortably.
  • You can find stories in many places, including search logs, customer service records, survey data, even internal staff who work with users.

Why is “being listened to” so important? The answer is not only about the need for rational understanding of the issues. Our desire to be heard also flows from our need for respect, empathy, and involvement.

Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C. The Trusted Advisor. (2001)

Listen to the conversations taking place, keeping a ear out for time markers — you’ll be surprised at just how many stories begin with these. Notice the types of stories being told. How long are they? Who are the heroes and who are the villains? Now notice how you respond to the stories. How do they make you feel? Do any give you of emotion? (Callahan, S., Putting Stories to Work, 2016)

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou

Keep a mental note of any stories that generate an emotion. These are the stories with power (Callahan, S., Putting Stories to Work, 2016).

Discussing Design, Storytelling and Stakeholder Management

Although each audience has is own dynamics, there are a few types that you meet often enough to generalize about them. This is not an exhaustive list, but a few of the most common personas (Brooks, K., & Quesenbery, W. Storytelling for User Experience, 2014):

  • Strategic leaders: People who need to generate and maintain a common vision for their company, group of products.
  • Managers: people with a mission—often a product—who need to make the decisions that keep their entire team on track towards a common goal.
  • Technical experts: people who implement a vision, making the myriad detailed decisions that add up to a product or service.

If you are presenting stories to crated shared understanding around strategy or design, consider what details help make a story authentic for them, and how a story might have to change to take into consideration.

A story describes what happened. A good story helps you see what happened. A great story helps you feel what happened.

Callahan, S., Putting Stories to Work (2016)

A Story is also a promise to share something with the audience doesn’t know. To qualify as a story, there more be something that’s unanticipated. It doesn’t have to be a great insights, but the listeners should — at least — raise their eyebrows a little. That’s what makes a story-worthy (Callahan, S., Putting Stories to Work, 2016)

Stories for Leaders 

When you create a story for a leader, show how the idea your are “selling” makes a bridge between users and the business. For example:

  • Identify a pain post that users experience and then show the solution.
  • Identify a gap in the market and show a new way to fill it with a new product or a change in the current one.
  • Identify a new approach by reconfiguring common or existing components in an unconventional way.
  • Identify trends in the user experience of your customers and how that is affecting the business.

Stories for Managers 

Managers usually don’t have a lot of time to spare. More often than not, they like short, concise meetings, not leisurely brainstorming sessions or deep dives into user research. Don’t plan to tell long detailed stories to this audience. Instead, think about when a story can have the most impact.

  • Use stories to kick off new idea, especially if you need a bit of context to explain how it will work.
  • If you are bringing bad news from research, such as the discovery that the target audience doesn’t really want or like a new product idea, make sure to show how the story is typical of a group what important as customers, users, or other stakeholders.
  • If you are presenting a new idea, find a way to connect it to a well known situation, so that it seems more plausible. You might even do both in one story: present a problem and a solution on a simple narrative
  • Most importantly, don’t get bogged down in detailed specifications or technology.

Design Strategist Multiplication Program

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, myself and my colleague Edmund Azigi are designing a Design Strategist Multiplier program per request of Scott Lietzke, our VP of Design at SAP SuccessFactors.

Such program is be practice-based, accompanied with a series of seminars, corresponding required reading and reflective practice journaling to create the opportunities for people to grow.

In the next post, I will talk more about the Storytelling and Vision.

Recommended Reading

Anderson, G. (2019). Mastering Collaboration: Make Working Together Less Painful and More Productive. O’Reilly UK Ltd.

Bolino, M. C., Turnley, W. H., & Bloodgood, J. M. (2002). Citizenship behavior and the creation of social capital in organizations. The Academy of Management Review, 27(4), 505–522.

Brooks, K., & Quesenbery, W. (2011). Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting Stories for Better Design. New York, USA: Rosenfeld Media.

Callahan, S. (2016). Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling. Melbourne, Australia: Pepperberg Press (18 Mar. 2016). 

Carroll, J. M. (2003). Making use: Scenario-based design of human-computer interactions. London, England: MIT Press.

Chase, S. E. (2005). Narrative Inquiry: Multiple Lenses, Approaches, Voices. In The Sage handbook of qualitative research, 3rd ed. (pp. 651–679). Sage Publications Ltd: p656

Connor, A., & Irizarry, A. (2015). Discussing Design (1st ed.). Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Cooper, A., Reimann, R., Cronin, D., & Noessel, C. (2014). About face: The essentials of interaction design (4th ed.). Wiley.

Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J. (2013). Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media

Lewrick, M., Link, P., & Leifer, L. (2018). The design thinking playbook: Mindful digital transformation of teams, products, services, businesses and ecosystems. Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons

Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C. (2001). The Trusted Advisor. 240 pages, Touchstone; Illustrated edition (October 9, 2001)

Sharp, H., Preece, J., & Rogers, Y. (2019). “Data Analysis, Interpretation, and Presentation: Interpreting and Presenting the Finding” in Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction (5th ed.). Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons.

S.Y.T. Lang et al. / Computers in Industry 48 (2002) 89–98

Vox. (2019, September 12). Memory, Explained. Retrieved from

Wendell, J., Holtzblatt, K., & Wood, S. (2005). Rapid contextual design: A how-to guide to key techniques for user-centered design. The Morgan Kaufmann series in interactive technologies. Elsevier Science & Technology.

Wiegers, K., & Beatty, J. (2013). Software Requirements (3rd ed.). Redmond, WA: Microsoft Press.

By Itamar Medeiros

I'm a Strategist, Branding Specialist, Experience Designer, Speaker, and Workshop Facilitator based in Germany, where I work as Director of Design Strategy and Systems at SAP and visiting lecturer at Köln International School of Design of the Cologne University of Applied Sciences.

Working in the Information Technology industry since 1998, I've helped truly global companies in several countries (Brazil, China, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, The United Arab Emirates, United States, Hong Kong) create great user experience through advocating Design and Innovation principles.

During my 7 years in China, I've promoted the User Experience Design discipline as User Experience Manager at Autodesk and Local Coordinator of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) in Shanghai.

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