How to Apply Storytelling in User Experience, With Chris Ashby: Ep. 63

Episode 63 

Chris Ashby is a founder of a UX agency called We Are Heroes that offers a unique approach to designing the user experience. He loves stories and is a Sci-Fi enthusiast who looks at life through the lens of archetypal journeys, hence the name We are heroes. In this episode, he gives advice on how companies should manage their UX to achieve desired goals and deliver a nice, smooth and seamless user experience, and how storytelling can be utilized in user experience.

Episode 63

Episode Summary

Seeing UX design as a strategic business tool.

According to Chris Ashby, a change in mindset is needed to start looking at user experience design as an ongoing effort, part of a wider business strategy, instead of a single one-off project.

Most businesses still consider design as a purely visual, aesthetically driven medium, without acknowledging its foundations and its problem-solving nature. Design is in fact key to driving business goals and objectives, converting customers, and building loyalty and brand advocacy.

Storytelling in user experience.

A good way to look at user experience is as a journey, part of the broader customer experience, which has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. For this reason, there are many ways to apply storytelling principles and frameworks directly to the user experience.

One lens that can be used is the hero’s journey structure, which is the one that companies like Pixar and Disney use most. In this case, the hero’s journey involves them finally facing the problem they have been putting off and entering a new and unknown world of adventures. UX design acts like the mentor, the wise guide that provides the hero with the tools they need to solve their problems and reach their goal.


This article summarises podcast episode 63 ”How to Apply Storytelling in User Experience" recorded by CX Insider. For more information, listen to the episode, contact Chris on his LinkedIn profile, and visit his agency's website

Written by Alessia Trabucco



Full episode transcript

Chris: The clients, the people that we, the companies that we work with and do design for, you know, often they come to us trying to solve a problem which is like, Well, we know we need to redesign this thing. And I think it just needs to look better. And that's the problem they're trying to overcome. So many people have complained about it at that point, or they've they're so frustrated with it that they have to do something so they're already ready to like, cross over into that unknown world. And it's then like in the hero's journey, the hero emerges on the other side of the story with basically a new outlook on the world and realizing that solving the problem that they had at the beginning wasn't the answer. That something else was the answer instead.

Valentina: Hello, everybody, and welcome to another episode of CX Insider. Today's episode is focused on user experience and more specifically, the power of storytelling in designing UX. I talked to Chris Ashby, UX designer and founder of We Our Heroes, who will tell you why stories can be a great tool in designing UX. Enjoy the episode, and don't forget to rate our podcast on Spotify. Chris Ashby is a founder of a UX agency called We Are Heroes that offers a unique approach to designing the user experience. Chris loves stories, he is a Sci-Fi enthusiast who looks at life through the lens of archetypal journeys hence, the name We Are Heroes today, grace gives you advice on how companies should manage their UX to achieve desired goals and deliver a nice, smooth and seamless user experience. More importantly, we, later on, dive into the topic of storytelling, and we'll try to understand how exactly it can help enhance your UX. Storytelling has recently gained massive momentum to the point it became a bit of a buzzword. That's why we invited an expert to tell us the hidden potential of this tool. But first, let's start with Chris's personal story.

Chris: At the beginning of 2021, I lost my job during the pandemic and then ended up freelancing for a bunch of different start-ups at the time, and it kind of became apparent working for start-ups and small businesses that were kind of very resource-strapped. They didn't have a lot of money, they didn't have a lot of time, and they had a lot of ideas that they were struggling to find design designers more specifically on the user experience and the product design side that would fit into their business, either they were ending up going with agencies that were very expensive for long term contracts with large retainers, and it didn't work out very well for them or it was very, very costly and all they were trying to find freelancers through various different methods and because those freelancers were just coming in and, you know, I was hiring, you know, freelancers and some of those instances as well, they were just coming in for individual projects or for a few days or for a couple of weeks. They weren't getting the full kind of back story or the detail behind the product and the business goals and everything to do with the business. So they were working at a very surface level and not very strategically. And I think. What start-ups kind of needed really was that strategic input and like you would get from a high-end agency, but without the cost overhead and also with the flexibility to kind of bring in more resource when you need it and then kind of tail like taper that off when you don't need it as much.

Chris: And so our service kind of fits that niche specifically. The second part, obviously, which I think will get onto that a bit later of why I wanted to start my own business was because basically, I'm a massive storytelling nerd. So I'm I have read tons and tons of stuff about storytelling. I love stories. A big fan of movies, I read a ton of fiction as well as nonfiction as well. And I think that's super useful. I know people love to like love nonfiction, and it's all about nonfiction for like productivity and all of that stuff. But I think there's a lot to learn from great stories and fiction as well. And I kind of saw that there were a lot of parallels between designing a user experience or designing like a user journey through a product and stories and that I wanted to create something specifically around that as well. And I think the way that we've kind of approached that with a lot of start-ups that we've worked with has had a really positive impact with them.

Valentina: When it comes to designing UX, the very first thing that comes to my mind is should companies invest in ongoing UX research? These projects can become very costly but in 2022. Not dealing with huge pain points can cost you even more.

Chris: Yeah, I think it's a really good point because again and again, this is part of the perception that people have about design or when they're kind of paying, thinking about paying for design as something they need in their business and not knowing really what it's going to impact or what that's going to do for their business in the long term. Really, I think it's a change in mindset from thinking about design as just a single one-off project where you say, OK, redesign the website because we want it to look better or even because, you know, we're trying to impact a specific metric. It may be very objective, orient orientated, but to change that from basically kind of ongoing effort to iteratively improve. And I think specifically in the case of high growth and growing start-ups when they don't have a lot of time, they don't have a lot of money. It's really about narrowing down that focus to the one, two, or three things that are going to have the biggest impacts and we have the most confidence in. And if we don't have confidence testing and researching and speaking to users to raise the confidence level so that we can then go out and spend the money on development or whatever it is to actually build that solution and working kind of through those iteratively over time because you can do like a whole big new product or website or everything really and try and do it all at once because I think that's the kind of perception of what a design project is really.

But a better way to approach that is to kind of take pride out and take pride and ego out of the equation a little bit. And just. Really focus on like those small instances that are going to make a noticeable difference and not just to the business from it in terms of, you know, increasing revenue and whatever, but also on the users on the user side so that they can, like find what they're looking for or enjoy the experience of using that product a little bit better. And there are so many intangible things there that you can't measure as well. That just happens from taking that, taking that approach to design where you increase the retention, customer lifetime value, and all of that stuff, and it has a knock-on effect on customer experience as well.

Valentina: Once companies decide to hire a UX designer, they often come with different perceptions of what they think they want to achieve, which aren't always the right goals. So I asked Chris if he could provide you with the most common mistakes companies do

Chris: The most common thing that especially smaller businesses and growing businesses do that don't necessarily have like design experience or design skill. Set themselves on the founder’s side is to kind of see design as a purely visual medium or like an aesthetic, aesthetically driven medium. Whereas design really is like the foundation of it, it's about solving problems for a specific end result. And so the biggest area that a lot of companies kind of overlook when looking at when one kind of thinking about user experience, design or just design, in general, is not thinking about it, I guess in as a way of solving a problem in their business. So they would kind of see it as like the polish on top of the kind of meat and potatoes underneath that is actually the business working. But really design, especially on the experience side for digital like driven businesses and businesses that are driven by digital products as well is really key to driving all of those business kinds of goals and objectives. And I think once is a really often at the beginning of when we start working with a client is when it was. We'll kind of take a different approach to design. That wasn't what they were thinking for, as a small project, like a home page redesign or a website optimizing something on their website.

And they'll see that process slightly differently to maybe working with other designers they've worked within the past, where that would be something where they want a really nice-looking home page will come at it from the point of view of, Okay, well, this part here is going to affect it, going to affect this metric. This is going to impact this business goal. We know you're trying to accomplish X, Y and Z. And I think even though that is like a really common thought process, especially for bigger companies and enterprise who have big teams of UX designers and UX researchers and UI designers and all of these different niches within like product design, really for smaller companies and growing companies, just seeing that different approach can have can really change their mindset about how to kind of use, design and approach design in their business. That's really where we kind of come in. That's really the turning point, I think, and that's really the biggest oversight and the biggest benefit for them when they actually see that it can drive kind of their business, business goals, and business objectives.

Valentina: In the following examples, Chris talks about two instances of successful redesign and how this uncovered underlying issues, which were creating obstacles in the user journey.

Chris: When I was at BrewDog previously, we redesigned it there. We realized that people were struggling to actually find the right products on the website or struggling to understand the differences between the products on the website and what and make a decision on what they wanted to buy. There are hundreds of different types of beers and really people just came on with the idea that we just want to. I just want a box of beer and there are a hundred different options for me to choose from. Which one do I even go for? Their mobile menu at the time was just a list of different items and links to different places and what we realized after going through research and then putting together this new version of this menu design. Was that a lot of the time people were just saying things like, Oh well, I know I like the blue one. They didn't even know the name of the product, so writing the name of the product was almost useless. So we kind of you kind of start from the point of view of what's the objective here? While we're trying to help more people find the products they want and actually go on and then buy, what's the solution to that? Well, there are several points in the journey that are going to have an impact on that on that decision. What's the biggest, the biggest impacts area, and what's the work like? Where's our biggest opportunity? Basically to impact that? We focused on the mobile now, the mobile menu on the website.

We change that to use images of the products to highlight the best sellers to pull out specific promotions, to use images in the navigation, rather than just a list of links, and to actually showcase ads to add some context to some of those areas in the menu as well. So this is a really easy way for a lot of websites to help people to click through to different parts of the website or different products to help you to navigate to different parts of the product is where you have just a title and you're expecting to people to click on. It is to add a bit of text underneath that explains what it is. So they had a. A few different ranges of products that were like headliners, for example, seasonal, but people didn't really know what that meant like they knew what it meant internally in terms of the range of products they were offering. But when people clicked on it, they just needed to know that seasonal was like, OK, flavored beers that are offered at a specific time of year for a limited time period. Now I can make a decision about buying it. Another really good example, actually, as well is so we did some work for a company called Alva, which does menopause treatment, specifically hormone replacement therapy. They had an online consultation so you could go on their website, complete the consultation, put your symptoms and some medical information, and it would come out with recommendations on treatment for you and the dosage, et cetera.

What they wanted to do and part of the work that we did was to increase the number of people who were booking telecom stations at the end of that consultation. They were finding that a lot the more people that booked telecom stations went on to purchase the treatment because they had spoken to a doctor in person and there was a higher level of trust. But people who were going through that consultation, one actually booking a teleconsultation. We used this kind of storytelling approach. They're a little bit. And it wasn't necessarily about looking at the end of that journey, the end of the consultation where the problem was happening. It was about kind of viewing the whole journey a bit more broadly. And what we found actually is that they weren't setting the expectation with the user at the beginning of the journey, right when they landed on the website to say that the teleconsultation was something that would happen after they took the online consultation. And so by just mentioning it at the beginning as part of that experience and redesigning the landing page and the beginning of the consultation to say you're going to get a telecon consultation at the end of this light, loads more people started booking. It pretty much doubled the numbers that they were going through there, which is great.

Valentina: Finally, we're getting to the part where Chris explains to me why storytelling is such a powerful technique. You know that this field is extremely popular in today's day and age and business literature is becoming oversaturated with books about corporate storytelling, strategic narratives, and storytelling for personal branding. There's even a book called Corporate Storytelling for Dummies and Common Sense and Logic gives you an idea of how it's used. But you know every good story has more layers, and the same applies to you. 

Chris: People think the storytelling is like this really fluffy thing. Like a lot of agencies, just say because it's like a really it's like a buzz word, it's a cool thing to say that you do like you take a storytelling approach to creativity as a creative work, but storytelling when you get really like down to it and how it applies to user experience as well. Storytelling is built around principles and those principles and frameworks, and there are tons and tons of them that tap into how we interpret the world as human beings psychologically, how we interpret the world around us, and how we make sense of everything. And in terms of user experience, we think about user experience as a journey for a user through a digital product or a website as a part of the kind of the broader customer experience. There is a start point and an endpoint, a beginning and a conclusion, and there is the middle part of that as well. So there are tons of ways to kind of apply those principles directly to the user experience. And what I kind of found reading through this before was that actually a lot of really kind of powerful frameworks within storytelling. So if you think about like the hero's journey or the three-act structure as like the main ones, basically all of the points within those frameworks kind of existed in a user journey.

So if the basic way of seeing it when you think about the three-act structure is that's often described as beginning, middle, and end. But I think it's actually better to see the three-act structure. And this is something that Brian McDonald talks about in his book and in the podcast, he does with a belief agency called I Think It's Good You Are a Storyteller. He talks about the three-act structure being a proposal, argument, and conclusion. I think that's a really good way of looking at an experience and designing an experience, and it's really how everything is framed in our lives. So even at a conversational level, I think this is what they talk about it in the podcast is like. A conversation is a proposal that you're making so like, oh, we had a really great barbecue at the weekend. You make an argument for it. Well, we had this food at the barbecue. My, best friend was there. He had come down to see me and he's staying for the weekend. And then the conclusion, which is really where you just say the proposal again and the best stories, the conclusion matches the proposal. And so you'll just go, So yeah, it was a great barbecue. It's like you're telling a story just in a conversation. That's how we talk normally.

Valentina: The study of brand storytelling became a center of interest in the nineties. You might have heard of the 12 brand archetypes that consumers are constantly embodying and how the adoption of these archetypes can create a stronger and more persuasive relationship. There has been quite a number of studies conducted on this topic, and in the context of your eggs, Chris primarily focuses on one character hero.

Chris: I mean, the hero's journey is the most well-known storytelling framework. Probably it's the one that Pixar uses in every single movie that they do, as well as Disney. And like countless other films and TV shows like I watch Squid Game recently, that uses the hero's journey structure throughout the whole season. It's beat for beat exactly the same, but the hero's journey really is taking the way that we behave and overcome obstacles in real life as human beings and putting it into a Dory format. And that was something that so the hero's journey comes from the monomyth, which is something that Joseph Campbell wrote about in a book called A Hero with a Thousand Faces, which looks at all myths from tons of different mythologies and the underlying root story that lies at the foundation of all of that. And there's kind of, I think, like 12 or 13 steps through this story structure, but you go through them all when your. You know, researching a company trying to find something to buy. Just making that decision to cross over into like buying it and engaging with the brand and then all of the things that come with that. Like a really interesting part of that to look at just to like, explain briefly the first. The first part of the hero's journey really involves the hero coming up against the problem, which they refuse. They don't they don't want to overcome. They put it off. And this is something that we all do in life as well. You'll have like, OK, well, I need to sort this out. I know I need to do it, but I just keep putting it off until I don't need to.

Then in the hero's journey, they get to a point where the problem is so big or something really bad happens where they can no longer ignore it. They have to address it. That is the thing that tips them over to like, OK, I need to go out and do something about this. And so suddenly, like, your injury gets worse, and you need to like, make a doctor's appointment right now or the bin overflows and you need to empty the bin right now, it's no longer something that you can kind of put off. Then there's like the call to adventure. Once they kind of choose to address that and they then kind of move over into what's known in the hero's journey as the unknown world or like the secret world. And that's where they start to go through. That's kind of where a lot of user experience stuff kind of starts. So it's about users kind of navigating their way through these different obstacles to try and overcome a problem that they now have to solve. And so your job really there is to kind of address all of their fears, help them along the way. There's this figure in the hero's journey called the wise guide or the mentor. And so really, we see the act of designing a user experience as trying to be like the wise guide for the hero as the user, and you're helping them overcome the obstacles in the easiest, the most enjoyable, the most frictionless way possible so that they can then accomplish their goals.

Valentina: Ok, so I had to cut about five minutes of a completely unrelated talk about the sweet game, but the interesting point that came from the conversation is how many of us options set a goal to achieve. And during that journey, we end up changing the goal entirely. Or we find out it wasn't the right goal at all.

Chris: The clients, the people that we, the companies that we work with and do design for, you know, often they come to us trying to solve a problem which is like, Well, we know we need to redesign this thing. And I think it just needs to look better. That's the problem they're trying to overcome. So many people have complained about it at that point, or they've they're so frustrated with it that they have to do something so they're already ready to like, cross over into that unknown world. And it's then like in the hero's journey, the hero emerges on the other side of the story with basically a new outlook on the world and realizing that solving the problem that they had at the beginning wasn't the answer. That something else was the answer instead. And that's it's the same in squid game. So you realize like the whole problem for him is like, how can I get this money? And then at the end, you have this realization that the money was never going to solve the problem for you, and that actually the lesson is something else completely different to that. And so the same with kind of designing user experience and how we kind of approach design with the people that we work with is really that taking them and also help like helping their users but go on that journey from understanding that design isn't. It's not just doing this one thing that's going to impact your, your brand or your website visually, it's actually a whole journey that has lots and lots of different steps, and those will help you achieve something else which will be increasing your conversion rate or improving your customer satisfaction, and that we can do that measurably and through data, research and testing and then the design work to actually accomplish those goals kind of more iteratively over time. And that is the answer that, you know, we want to help people get to really in the end. That's the kind of end of the story that we want to help them get to.

Valentina: And I hope that you enjoy today's non-traditional episode about storytelling and all these sorts of archetypal images that are flowing to the surface from our unconsciousness. And you also enjoyed Chris's insights about user experience. If you have any more questions, feel free to connect with them on LinkedIn and ask him anything that you like personally. There is a link to his profile provided in the episode description below. I would also like to ask you if you could give us a rating on Spotify. I know that you're listening to us on Spotify. We know about you. So please give us a rating before we finish. Let's listen to some rapid-fire questions. What's the worst user experience you can remember?

Chris: So I think the worst one I can remember. I can't remember who it was from. It might have been like a really cheap airline, actually, to be fair, probably the worst user experience, on the top of my head, is, and I'm going to put I'll put them on blast a little bit. But just because it's a combination of so many bad practices and user experience in order to specifically just drive a sale and to increase user anxiety and to increase fear and frustration with any user in order to basically drive revenue for the business. And that's a, you know, dark patterns within your eye within your UX and UI, as are those that are specific, specifically designed to confuse the user. So any of those things other than that, any instance of people saying, please tick this box to not definitely receive marketing and then who knows, do ticket that you're not Typekit don't do that.

Valentina: Hamburger menu Yes or no?

Chris: I think, yes, because it's and I think it depends on the application, so if you're going to use a hamburger menu, make sure it's in the context that people understand what it's going to do and if it's for users that you feel aren't going to understand what it's going to do, add text. And I would always say, if in doubt with iconography, add text. If it's ambiguous with iconography, add text. Even if you just add text for the first time, the user sees it because then you're setting the expectation with them that this is what it's going to do, and then they know that that's what it's going to do. Moving forwards.

Valentina: Are you aware of any UX trend right now that you're really not a fan of?

Chris: Yeah, I'm not sure off the top of my head. I think probably, I would probably say, like brutalist design websites. I like the way they look, but really from a functional standpoint, a lot of the time and again, this is about the application, right? So if you have like an agency website or like a basically like a kind of not a magazine-style website, but like it's like a coffee table website. Basically, it's purely for like the purpose of exploring visual aesthetics and design and the form of like. Digital products or a website can be. Go for it. But I've seen so many instances of and even branding just done to match this trend. And it all ends up looking the same. So it is just it just makes me think that the agency hasn't done their research properly. They've just gone with whatever's popular right now.