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Story First for Engaging Experiences (Book Review) 


UsersJourneybook_coverA review of
The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products That People Love
by Donna Lichaw

Book website

About this book

A good reference for Methods/How-To, Case Studies

Primary audience: Researchers, designers, and technical roles with less than 1 year experience with the topic or significant experience with the topic

Writing style: Humorous/Light and Matter-of-fact with equal parts text and images

Publisher Rosenfeld Media, 2016, 139 pages, 8 chapters

Learn more about our review guidelines


People love a good story. They love being the hero in their own story even more.

We are all capable of putting together the elements of a story: background, series of events, people, and outcomes. It’s part of being human. However, we don’t always use these skills as we design products.

We have all experienced the results of a crack team of experienced designers and developers sitting in a conference room with sticky notes, markers, and deep knowledge at the ready – but no organizing vision that puts people at the center of the equation.

This book lays out a different way to put yourself and your team into the mindset of your users while effectively balancing the needs of the business.

Lichaw’s slim but substantive narrative “The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products People The People Love” uses a number of stories as examples to show and tell you that taking the time to think through a design approach using the tried-and-true “story- first” framework can help you make better products and services. By leveraging Story, which she defines as tool, framework, and discipline – a thing that is woven as a guiding principle through your work – Lichaw deftly draws you into hers.

Her premise is that experiences built around compelling stories are not only good, but also memorable. In addition, users will see the ease, value, and utility in what they experience – and come back for more.

The “story-first” framework is meant to be applied end-to-end from the strategic down to tactical levels. Lichaw frames these as Concept, Origin, and Usage stories.

Concept stories focus on the highest level of a product or service – defining what it is. These lay out the vision for which the team should be striving. They help to ensure that the product aligns with people’s expectations. They also ensure that the right things get built the right way – all while balancing innovation throughout the design and development process.

Origin stories help unite organizations, including marketing, business development, sales, advertising, product design and development. They achieve this by understanding key touch points and funnels in the experience of getting someone to become a customer. In this way, they act as links between the Concept and Usage stories.

Usage stories are the most tactical. They are a point-by-point walkthrough of a process, both on- and off-screen, as appropriate. They help structure specific customer journeys, and ensure the team is thinking about how customers will emerge from the process, whether they will return, what they will value, and how and why they will use a product or service.

As a UX designer or researcher would expect, this approach is people-focused. Research in the form of intelligence around expectations, needs, behavioral and attitudinal analytics is the key to framing the backstory. Pulling together both quantitative and qualitative insights to answer the fundamental questions – who?, how?, how many?, what?, when?, where?, and why? – help frame the exposition, or backstory.

Once these are surfaced, the ways forward become clear; storylines can emerge as natural consequences, and what must be done to ensure users (or visitors, depending on where they are in the narrative) are successful surface.

Stories can be told in many ways. Lichaw reminds us through the use of a number of examples both written as well as illustrated, that representations can take a number of forms as long as they help you stay on task. The nod toward familiar usability storytelling methods such as personas, SWOT analyses (assessments of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats), and use cases, as well as some typically literary forms, such as storyboarding, and the six-word story, serve as thought starters to help you get jump-started without over-thinking the approach. This is, and is meant to be, a lightweight approach that yields quick results.

So as not to reprise the book in its entirety and ruin a good story, a few points to consider in favor of it:

  • As a practical guide, this book is thorough yet short enough to consume in a single sitting. For the busy practitioner, it is a solid addition to your bookshelf and practice. Its conciseness and compelling title may help you get others who may be tougher to persuade to read it, as well.
  • You will see opportunities to make use of the framework quite quickly in your daily work, as the approach is simple and accessible enough to integrate at once – even for non-UX practitioners.
  • The instructions Lichaw provides throughout to help get you started are supported by real-world examples (and one fictional) that are easily recognizable. The elegance and simplicity of the framework for translating storytelling into making great products and services is clear.


Why Story?

Story is one of the most powerful tools that humans use to under- stand and communicate with the outside world. Part evolutionary feature, part survival mechanism harking back to Paleolithic times, part communication tool—story powers the human brain. Story- based cognitive function is so powerful that neuroscientists have a term for it when it doesn’t work: dysnarrativia, the inability to under- stand or construct stories. Narrative cognition is so central to how humans operate that not having it is debilitating. Like living with amnesia, it is difficult, if not impossible, to function normally. Story, and its underlying architecture, powers the ability to understand what happened in the past, what happens in the moment, or what will happen in the future. It’s a framework and a lens with which humans comprehend everything.

Whether you plan for it or not, your customers use their story-driven brains to understand your product and what it’s like to use your product. They also use their story-driven brains to tell others about your product. The better the story, the better the experience, the better the word of mouth.

More specifically, when people experience something with a story at its foundation—whether it entails watching a movie, riding a roller- coaster, or using a website—their brains are activated. They are more likely not just to have a good experience, but to:

  • Remember the experience.
  • See value in what was experienced.
  • See utility in what they did during that experience.
  • Have an easier time doing whatever they were trying to accomplish.
  • Want to repeat that experience.

All of this fits under the umbrella of engagement.

If you’re in the business of building products that engage, it’s your job to consider the story that you and your business want your customers to experience. In this book, you will learn how to map that story—or stories—and align everything you and your business do so that it supports that story. For your customer. And your business. It works for movies, and it will work for you.