Storytelling and Role play in UX research

Can you remember playing make believe when you were a kid? It required absolutely nothing but your imagination and you had an unlimited number of ad­­ventures for hours! The structure of make believe is so efficient in sparking our imagination that it can be used to generate technological innovation.

Role play as an innovation and ideation tool.

Make believe is a form of role play, and what makes it so special is that it is a factory of ideas.  This is because its structure is based on a very fluid scheme:  setting a basic scenario, declaring who is going to be which character and improvising stories based on these.

We can use this formula to ­bring innovation to the corporate arena.

Use open-ended stories to focus creativity on specific users’ needs.­

One way of doing this is to use Living Personas.  This is a technique which involves actors taking on the part of typical customers or users.  We often create vivid personas for clients which help focus design teams on the needs of the users and Living Personas just takes this one stage further.  We use an open-ended story to help participants (clients) to engage with the actors and invent different endings to the stories.  We set up each story to represent a UX challenge or a particular issue and can then explore how this might play out for different customer or user types.  In this way, Living Personas provide a framework to predict user behaviour.

Use storytelling as a decision-making tool when evaluating ideas.

Storytelling can really help to evaluate ideas by observing how Living Personas react to ideas thrown at them.  During a brainstorming session, this allows the team to validate and refine their ideas on the spot.  This method can also be used following on from a brainstorm to filter the ideas that emerged.

Storytelling provides the opportunity to experience concepts almost as if they were real, therefore it is especially insightful for the exploration of any multi-device, multi-platform, and multi-location experiences.

If the budget is tight use your existing personas to create stories.

Using this technique is more affordable than you may think, and the results can pay dividends, but if budget is tight storytelling can be used as a standalone method. In the same way that children use stories to bring their toys to life, using stories can bring personas to life.

To do this, you just need to identify stories that portray the UX challenges associated with the idea.  You then walk your personas through this scenario, using role play in the same manner that you would do when actors are involved in the process.    This exercise helps the team to empathise with the user and compels us to experience each of the touch points as if we were someone else.

Set up who, when, where and why based on the UX challenges you want to explore.

Firstly you need to design your story to address the UX challenge that you are interested in.  You will then need to set up:

  • the characters for the story – these will usually be your personas
  • the scenario (where and when) – for example, if you want to explore shared user experiences you may want to mock up a public place such as a café
  • the plot – this needs to be defined in a way that will lead the discussion towards your ultimate research goal for the session.

Stories create culture, culture creates change.

Finally, share your stories.  Using actors in a role play exercise has the advantage of providing powerful experiences, that the team will remember, which impacts positively on the design, development and delivery of the product.

But if you go for something more modest, communicate your story as much as possible throughout your organization by using engaging media, such as infographics, videos or other audiovisuals. Stories are powerful because they catch our attention, and are easy to remember due to the emotional impact they have.

Stories create culture and culture creates change, that’s why stories can be a very powerful tool within organisations.


Article published at System Concepts    in June 2013

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