Technical Storytelling: The Power of Narrative in Digital Communication

By Steve Lemanski | Senior Member

The use of story or storytelling in designing websites and in presenting digital content is gaining widespread acceptance in the various professional communities which contribute to the ever-evolving cyber landscape—graphic artists, Web-based software developers, and user experience (UX) designers. Many technical communicators who have been transitioning in their careers from the world of analog, print-based technical publications to the world of digital communication may find that this new trend toward the narrative falls nicely within what many of them consider their sweet spot—the craft of writing.

Mark Bernstein, scientist, software developer, and a longtime champion of hypertext as a new literary domain for nonlinear storytelling, perhaps best summed up the conviction that many who work in various digital communication spheres now share about the nature of most, if not all, human-computer interaction:

We see narrative everywhere. It’s a primitive urge, a way to tie cause to effect, to convert the complexity of our experience to a story that makes sense… The point is not that we should add stories to our sites to ensnare narrative-starved readers. The point is that the reader’s journey through our site is a narrative experience. Our job is to make the narrative satisfying.

And though the narrative orientation appears to have gained a foothold in many stages of website design—user research, requirements development, content strategy, UX design, and prototyping—it’s not as though it’s a novel idea. The use of the narrative in human interaction and communication has been around since the dawn of mankind. Perhaps one reason technologists and designers are embracing it now as never before is that the state-of-the-art in user-centered digital design and development is breaking free of the notion that cyberspace visitors (users) are nothing more than rather frenzied, purely task-oriented automatons desiring nothing more than to find, buy, or copy what they want … and then get out.

Maybe some of us do resemble that description when we’re still shopping and it’s only three days before Christmas or we’re still awake at 2:00 AM, finishing our term paper due the next day; but maybe many users (under normal circumstances) are actually readers in disguise. And readers like a good story.

David Hailey (Utah State University) makes what is arguably one of the best cases yet for a new paradigm of human-computer interaction on the Web—a reader-centric (as opposed to a totally user-centric) paradigm. In the first part of his new book ReaderCentric Writing for Digital Media (2014), Hailey explains how the original “document” metaphor used for hypermedia (one that would undoubtedly have continued to foster the notion of electronic-interactive media being “textual—documents written with interesting new formats in interesting new ways offering us interesting new possibilities for, and freedoms in, communication”) was quickly overtaken by the “construction” metaphor for websites that is so ubiquitous today:

Over time, the recognition that interactive media is a text has devolved (except for online help and a few genres on the Internet), and it is not difficult to see why. The original webpages were difficult to create. Only people who bothered to learn “tagging” in SGML and, later, HTML could do it, and the vast majority of these people were programmers [who] do not see hypermedia elements as texts; they have never seen hypermedia elements as texts, and so they established production metaphors compatible with construction and assembly. At an early point in the evolution of digital communication, technical communicators bought into the programmers’ structural metaphors. Although writers were among the ones who saw the opportunities of hypermedia very early on, they were not the ones who selected the names of genres or working metaphors.

Hailey shows in his ground-breaking treatise that when the digital universe is viewed from the perspective of the document metaphor (grounded in the heritage of publishing), it is then possible to more clearly discern the many genres (some of them unique and native to the Web, of course) that are everywhere to be found. Could it be that our use of the term Web page is the last remaining vestige of that earlier document metaphor many used in connection with nascent digital media and the coming Internet juggernaut—the metaphor that might have been the more accurate one?

Nevertheless, regardless of the operative metaphors favored by programmers, designers, or writers for their creative output, there is a growing consensus among all of them that their constituents—whether seen as users or readers—are very amenable to the power of narrative.

Narrative—A Basic Human Instinct

Philosophers, archaeologists, anthropologists, researchers of many disciplines, and even marketing communication experts have written widely about the fundamental inclination—in fact, the need—of human beings to use stories as a means of making sense of the world around them and their experiences. As recently as 2012, French Palaeolithic researcher and filmmaker Marc Azéma, of University of Toulouse–Le Mirail, and his co-author Florent Rivère caused a stir in several spheres in the arts and sciences by convincingly showing that some of the earliest known Stone Age artworks, such as those found in the 32,000-year-old Chauvet Cave in southern France, were not merely ancient graphic narratives but examples of amazingly sophisticated prehistoric cinema. It now seems plausible that these famous images etched in the walls of caves actually recreated the movement of the wild animals depicted when viewed by the flickering torchlights of those times.

Even now, in twenty-first-century business circles, storytelling as an effective sales and marketing technique is seeing a resurgence of interest. Terri Nopp, founder and CEO of Online Newsroom, a PR agency which helps organizations leverage technology to boost the power of their brands for today’s consumers, credits the rise of social media with the newfound interest in storytelling for business. “In the 1990s people in the media were the storytellers, and marketing people focused on providing them with factual bullet points,” Nopp says. “Then the Internet came along, followed by social media, and storytelling took off. Companies went from talking about products to talking about what people were doing with them.”

In the century just behind us, French literary theorist, philosopher, and linguist Roland Barthes (1966) wrote an influential essay titled “An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative,” in which he articulated the universality and importance of narrative as well as dissected and analyzed it perhaps more than anyone before or since. This passage of Barthes is very often quoted by proponents of the usefulness and effectiveness of narrative:

There are countless forms of narrative in the world. First of all, there is a prodigious variety of genres, each of which branches out into a variety of media, as if all substances could be relied upon to accommodate man’s stories. Among the vehicles of narrative are articulated language, whether oral or written, pictures, still or moving, gestures, and an ordered mixture of all those substances; narrative is present in myth, legend, fables, tales, short stories, epics, history, tragedy, drame [suspense drama], comedy, pantomime, paintings … stained-glass windows, movies, local news, conversation. Moreover, in this infinite variety of forms, it is present at all times, in all places, in all societies; indeed narrative starts with the very history of mankind; there is not, there has never been anywhere, any people without narrative; all classes, all human groups, have their stories….

Researchers in the realm of organizational and management theory—really in just the last few decades—have focused a lot of their attention on the role and value of narratives in the workplace. One pair of researchers, Carol Hansen and William Kahnweiler (Georgia State University), in their article about “a research methodology which utilizes storytelling as a vehicle for understanding, explaining, and comparing corporate cultures,” conclude that “stories appear to have a vast and untapped potential for understanding, explaining, and enhancing the effectiveness of that elusive entity known as corporate culture.”

Charlotte Linde, a senior research scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in California, studied the ways in which institutions use—or should use—narrative to express and transmit social knowledge, even tacit knowledge, over time, for the benefit of all members of the group. (Some examples of tacit knowledge with which you may be very familiar and which Linde herself cites would be the knowledge of how to ride a bicycle, how to knead bread, or how to use a word processor.) She explains that tacit knowledge is the type of knowledge that “is considered particularly problematic for knowledge management, because it is difficult to represent as propositions or rules.” Narratives or stories, on the other hand, she shows to be particularly effective for storing and retrieving tacit knowledge (or completely unstructured data, as we might refer to it today in content management circles).

Stories provide a bridge between the tacit and the explicit, allowing tacit social knowledge to be demonstrated and learned, without the need to propositionalize ethics, specify in detail appropriate behavior, or demonstrate why particular heroes of the past are relevant today.

“A story must have some points of contact with the reader to make him feel at home in it. Only then can he accept wonders.”
—John Steinbeck, novelist, Nobel Laureate

“Stories are not simply nice things to have; they are essential survival tools.”
—Hugh MacLeod, advertising copywriter, cartoonist, Web 2.0 consultant

“Story is the vehicle we use to make sense of our lives in a world that often defies logic.”
—Jim Trelease, educator, children’s literacy activist

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”
—Rudyard Kipling, short-story writer, poet, and novelist

“Cognitive psychology has shown that the mind best understands facts when they are woven into a conceptual fabric, such as a narrative.”
—Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist, popular science author

More recently, Carl Rhodes (University of Leicester) and Andrew Brown (University of Bath), in their exhaustive literature review of this research, conclude that there are “five major areas of inquiry where narrative has been used in organization theory.” These areas could also be seen as five purposes for narrative that these authors point to, purposes which could be described as follows:

  1. Sensemaking—narratives are a necessary component in the process of reducing, and thereby understanding, the complexity, ambiguity, and unpredictability of what happens in an organization
  2. Communication—narratives form the means by which experience is reconstituted, made meaningful, and thereby made communicable
  3. Politics and power—narratives are the conduits through which authority is legitimized, acquiescence is secured, and the organizational hierarchy is perpetuated
  4. Learning and change—narratives are vehicles which organizations use to introduce change initiatives, manage planned or unexpected changes, or help institutionalize best practices
  5. Identity and identification—narratives support the ethos of the organization with which individuals may increasingly identify; and they help establish the sense of community in which individuals may find their own identity

Michael S. Malone is a high-tech journalist of some repute. He is the author of nearly 20 books and has hosted or produced four public television series. As an instructor of professional writing at Santa Clara University, he laments about how his students, mostly senior English majors, seem to be oblivious to the fact that this “networked, fast-moving, and protean culture of the twenty-first century needs people who can take complex subjects and turn them into cogent, compelling, and well-written stories.” He’s noticed that most of his starry-eyed, liberal arts students have their sights trained on being a great novelist or screenplay writer. He notes that it takes them—the ones who actually succeed at writing professionally—until sometime after graduating before they realize the truth of Malone’s conviction: that “storytelling will be the most important, differentiating business skill of the twenty-first century.” He explains it further, this way:

[T]his world doesn’t really need a greater flow of new novels. What it does need is storytellers. Millions of them. And it needs them quickly.… I’m increasingly convinced that a great storyteller is even more important to an institution than a great code-writer, an accomplished research scientist, and maybe even a talented CEO.

Narrative—For More Coherent Print Documents

Many technical writers, after gaining some experience in their particular field or industry, and after getting their proverbial arms around their subject matter, may instinctively (or by reason of their knowledge of expository composition) apply a narrative approach in much of their writing, as technical as it might be. This is good; in fact this is what makes for good technical communication, just as it makes for good fiction, playwriting, or filmmaking.

Nishadi De Silva and Peter Henderson of the University of Southampton have proposed that a generic document narrative (DN) of a typical technical document looks something like this:

[This is the background to the problem.] | [Here’s the problem.] | Here’s our solution] | [and the motivation that led us to find this solution.]

A DN, they explain, is a précis of the story that the author intends to convey to the reader. They suggest that a possible, more elaborate DN for a research proposal would take the form of what is shown in Figure 1.

[We will achieve the required results in the given timeframe.] | [These results are beneficial to you and the scientific community at large] | [because there exists this unsolved problem to which our results are the answer.] | [Studies into previous work in this area show that existing solutions do not address all the complexities of this problem.] | [Our solution is unique and different to previous attempts.] | [To achieve this, we will need total-time] | [and these resources] | [The research will be carried out by researchers in the following institutions] | [because they have an impressive track record of work in this area.]

Figure 1. Generic Document Narrative (DN) for a Research Proposal (Source: Nishadi De Silva and Peter Henderson)

On the basis of some experiments they conducted in 2006 to evaluate the narrative-based writing of those studied as well as their analysis (using Rhetorical Structure Theory) of the ways in which the writing could be improved, De Silva and Henderson make the case that the coherence—or lack thereof—of technical documents can definitely be attributed to the implicit narrative conveyed by them—or not. They suggest that proponents of the “pyramid principle” of document planning (one which posits that the Introduction section of the document—the top-most section of the pyramid—is supported by the rest of the document’s contents—all other sections of the pyramid lying below) would prescribe a structure for the Introduction itself that is narrative in nature.

  • Situation—the current state of the subject (that you know the reader agrees with)
  • Complication—complication to this state
  • Question—the question that the document answers
  • Answer—the answer to this question
Narrative—Rediscovered for Digital Communication

Interestingly, it is also the pyramid motif that is used by a (unofficial) spokesperson, Dan Rajan, for the new narrative-based school of website and digital media design to relay the importance of story to the totality of user experience. Rajan, who describes himself as a “video editor, creative content designer, and passionate writer from the UK,” in a blog article titled “Telling Stories with Your Designs,” claims that Web content “can’t simply be ‘dropped’ into the site post-design; it needs to be built up in the correct order: story, content, and then, finally, design.” He uses the diagram shown in Figure 2 to stress the fact that the use of narrative is the foundation for effective digital design.

Figure 2. The Fundamental Role of Narrative in Web Design (Source: Dan Rajan)
Figure 2. The Fundamental Role of Narrative in Web Design (Source: Dan Rajan)

To Rajan, the importance of the narrative paradigm for Web design cannot be overstated: “The narrative of your site is the essence of your story, and encompasses all your content. Your narrative is the video embeds in your site; it is the content on your about page; it is your background image; it’s virtually all your content coming together to bring the user an overall experience that forms a narrative.”

Mark Bernstein, in his blog article titled “Beyond Usability and Design: The Narrative Web,” recommends that the narrative quality of a good website shouldn’t be an ephemeral thing, but rather something that buoys the user experience across the entire site: “The promises offered by the landing page and the site structure need to be kept by the entire site—not merely for consistent branding, but as a contract with the audience.”

Stories may play significantly into almost every stage of digital media design, as Whitney Quesenbery and Kevin Brooks contend (in what may be the seminal contribution to narrative-based design—their book Storytelling for User Experience). They offer many insights as to why and many examples of how “stories serve to ground the work in a real context by connecting design ideas to the people who will use the product.” They list four major roles that stories play in user experience design:

  • They explain research and ideas
  • They engage the imagination and spark new ideas
  • They create a shared understanding
  • They can persuade

So there does seem to exist a consistent and ever-louder rallying cry among digital media design gurus that storytelling is the most direct route to a satisfying user experience. Is it possible that this widely shared feeling about the importance of narrative (among their peers in related professions) is going to open up some new doors for technical communicators to play a more significant role in the production of digital content? That’s hard to say with any certainty, but it does sound like it is becoming a more writer-friendly atmosphere to work in!

Stories for User Research and Audience Analysis

UX narratives are designed to address the quintessential questions: “Who are my users/readers?” and “What are my users/readers really like?”

Quesenbery and Brooks explain in depth how stories can be collected in the process of doing various forms of user research. For research scenarios that involve actual face time with users/readers, they share a wonderful (generic) template for a user interview, shown in Figure 3, which models how to use a mix of closed- and open-ended questions with respondents.

A Structure For An Interview

Do this…

Like this…

Start with a question that establishes the activity you want to talk about.

This question can be simply answered with a yes or no.

"Have you ever [done something]?"

Then ask questions that build up a picture of how this activity fits into their work or life.

You can even suggest answers from a standard list for these questions.

"How often do you [do that thing]?"

"What makes you decide to [do that thing]?"

"Would you say this is something you mostly do at work or at home?"

Now, ask a question to get them to think about a specific example.

"When was the last time you [did that thing]?"

Once they have a specific event in mind, you can repeat the situation, to be sure you have it right, and then ask for the whole story.

"Tell me about that."

Figure 3. Interview Template for User Research Story Collection (Source: Whitney Quesenbery and Kevin Brooks)

These co-authors make the distinction between collecting stories during initial user research and developing stories during more in-depth user analysis (which could be viewed as the direct precursor to requirements development). One particularly profound maxim they offer about UX storytelling is: “Stories are all around us, if you just listen for them. The trick to getting good stories in your user research is to make the time for them.”

One of the actionable tips Quesenbery and Brooks give, along this same line, is to look for (hidden) stories in places such as search logs, customer service records, survey data, and the information you can glean from talking to internal staff (or any other people) who interact with your target users.

Stories for Requirements Development

The use of user stories instead of voluminous business and functional requirements for quickly and effectively articulating the most salient must-haves out of any potential set of client requirements has now become popularized (even in the historically late-adopting federal government IT market) by the practitioners of the Agile (especially the variation known as Scrum) product development methodology. These narratives are the ones that answer questions like “What do my users/readers especially want (or need) to do/buy/learn?”

Jeff Gothelf, in his book Lean UX, offers some of the best arguments ever articulated for exactly why the Lean Startup and Agile methods contribute to the highest quality software and most satisfying UX designs. He defines the user story very similarly to the way other Agile aficionados before him have done:

The smallest unit of work expressed as a benefit to the end user. Typical user stories are written using the following syntax:

As a [user type]

I want to [accomplish something]

So that [some benefit happens]

Australian Web designers Penny Hagen and Michelle Gilmore have written at length on the value of user stories as a strategic design tool. They propose that “user stories stimulate and facilitate discussion and decision making with clients in the development of a UX strategy.” UX design projects, they explain, often come right out of the chutes with a lot of baggage in the form of pre-conceived and vested-interest perspectives on what the new (or re-designed) site is all about, without having focused much on the user perspective. They call this the “inside-out view” of the site. User stories, they maintain, help encapsulate that user perspective you’re after, in order to create an “outside-in view”—the only view that really counts (if you want a lot of repeat visitors to your site, anyway).

Stories for Website Design and Content Strategy

Design narratives attempt to resolve design-specific quandaries such as, “How will my design—both at the site level and at the page level—best facilitate meeting the respective goals of both my client and my users/readers? How should I structure my content to best assist … or to sell … or to instruct (or entertain) my users/readers?”

UX designer, prototyper, and storyteller (as he refers to himself) Braden Kowitz, who leads the Google Ventures Design Studio, elucidates how stories enable better designs. In his blog article titled “Why Good Storytelling Helps You Design Great Products,” Kowitz states very directly, “One of the biggest flubs that product teams make is confusing designs that look great with designs that actually work well.” Later in the piece, he sheds light on how to avoid such confusion and echoes the sentiments of David Hailey, described above, concerning the “construction” metaphor:

I’ve observed that teams often like to walk through UI designs as they would a blueprint—showing where each element belongs on the plan…. The problem is that when designs are presented this way, you’re only building an understanding of how the product looks. You’re not focusing on how the product works, and you’re not simulating how customers interact with it…. The best product designers practice story-centered design. They begin by crafting stories that show how customers interact with a product, and only after they’ve accomplished that do they design screens as a way to tell that story of interaction.

A very useful insight shared by Kowitz is the fact that stories add the element of “time” (or timing) to what can otherwise be static representations or snapshots of user experience during the user interface (UI) design prototyping. Stories are more likely to shine a spotlight on how—and how quickly—a user’s interaction with a UI should flow, identifying unnecessary steps and dead ends that often go unnoticed when wireframing or prototyping the product.

Awaken the Storyteller Within

The digital content strategy and website design communities have obviously been awakened to the notion of how important narrative and story are in fulfilling the promise of the longtime user-centered design movement—whether they continue to view their constituents as users or readers. For this reason, if for no other, this may perhaps be one of the best times in recent decades for technical communicators to awaken to their own opportunities—as purveyors of coherent, technically sound stories in cyberspace. Writers, it’s time for us to dust off and don our technical storytelling hats while we continue to acquire the necessary technological skills for our user experience toolboxes.

Steve Lemanski (slemanski@citi-us.com), a technical writer in the IT industry for nearly 20 years, is a member of STC’s Washington DC/Baltimore Chapter. He enjoys every bit of the storytelling he does, in the analog and (increasingly) digital communications he produces. He received his BA in communication from University of Colorado, and he is currently pursuing a master of technical communication from Utah State University.


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