Authour:Josina Vink
Edited by Christine Keene


Understanding complexity, developing empathy, establishing common ground, and eliciting participation and collaboration with stakeholders.


Storytelling is a flexible design research method with a broad range of applications, associated processes and variations. While there are no universal standards for implementation, there are a variety of documented procedures for using storytelling for different purposes within a design research project.

Used When

Storytelling can be used throughout the process of a design research project.

Project Formulation

In the earliest stage of a project, problem formulation, story gathering and story making/building can help researchers, participants, clients and other stakeholders make sense of complex interconnected situations. It can be a tool for information or narrative gathering from participants to explore the way people interpret the world and their place within it, which can often be difficult to assess through other means. It is considered a generative tool for co-design that captures participants’ self-expression (Sanders, 2000).

Often a precursor to more formal analysis, storytelling can be effectively used as a technique prior to survey development to help researchers gain a better understanding of related emotions and issues that might otherwise be missed or misunderstood through a more structured method (Harrington & Mickelson, 2009). In addition, story making/building synthesizes personal stories of research participants into a group story that can be a platform for further discussion and analysis (Wilkins, 2004).

The telling of stories in the problem formulation stage merges synthesis and analysis, making abstract concepts more concrete. It is also an effective method of developing empathy for stakeholders, providing inspiration for later research and design work. Furthermore, storytelling is often used within a research team to facilitate the sharing of research experiences and develop common ground among diverse team members (IDEO, 2009).

Solution Formulation

In the solution formulation phase, storytelling can be a useful tool for collaborative design, making it possible to engage users and other stakeholders in the process of exploring possible solutions, generating feedback and refining the solution (Gruen, 2000). Because there is an important role for the listener in the co-construction of meaning, storytelling can become an iterative process of evaluation and co-creation. At this stage, storytelling can be used to help a listener experience something new, such as a new product or service, by providing a context and making the new experience tangible yet still allowing for different interpretations (Parrish, 2006). Storytelling is often an important communication tool to convey the progress of a solution even when some uncertainty remains.

Solution Implementation

In the later stages of a design research project, storytelling can become an effective method for design knowledge transfer (Erickson, 1996). Stories can assist in convincing people of the validity of a design, developing buy-in among stakeholders. Because stories are engaging, memorable and easily passed on, they are powerful communication tools.

Note: Some challenges associated with using storytelling include: a weak ability to generalize, lack of acceptance in some organizational cultures, due to its interpretive nature; discounting because of subjectivity; and liability for reinterpretation or rejection.


As storytelling can take on a large variety of forms, there is a great deal of variation in the process and procedures associated with its different uses. Common processes related to storytelling are outlined below; however, the method of storytelling offers room for flexibility and creativity in approach.

Narrative Research
The following elements outline the general procedure of narrative research (Miller & Salkind, 2002):

1) Domain – Identify a research problem focusing on personal or social issues.

2) Demographics – Identify individuals with stories to tell and gather stories through interviews, documentation (e.g., participant journals), observation, etc.

3) Story Building – The following are the steps to story building (Wilkins, 2004);

  1. Share individual personal stories;
  2. Mediate stories through a journal, picture, etc.;
  3. Re-tell stories publicly modified by others’ input;
  4. Recast stories based on previous steps and other information (e.g., a literature review); and
  5. Synthesize a group story in which participants can see their own story. (This can be done by pairing people together to come up with one story from both of their personal stories and then continuing to pair groups until one group story is formed.)

Storytelling in Design

In the process of developing a design story, there are some existing guidelines on what makes a good story and how a designer/researcher should go about creating it.

The following are elements of a good story for design, inspired by Western literature (Gruen, 2006):

  • Detailed characters with whom the audience can empathize;
  • Rich, contextualized settings;
  • Goals (what the protagonist is trying to accomplish and why);
  • Causality; and
  • Obstacles (what problems the protagonist has to overcome to accomplish the goal).

Guidelines for creating and using design stories include the following (Parrish, 2006):

  • Use it to communicate ideas to the client and team;
  • Use it as part of formative evaluation;
  • Use analysis details as the back-story;
  • Establish character and setting;
  • Inhabit the learner in the story;
  • Improvise and allow yourself to be surprised with the outcome;
  • Write rapidly;
  • Animate a single idea or research question;
  • Use present tense and include learner reflections; and
  • Explore the motivations, desires, etc. of the learner in the story.

Note: Although not documented here, there are a wide variety of methods for using storytelling as a generative design tool or in collaborative design.

TED Talks: Zahra Ebrahim captivates an audience with the story of her professional journey.

3) Record – “Re-story” personal stories into a chronological sequence, including rich context and highlighting key themes.

4) Analysis – There are number of processes to analyze storytelling activities and stories, including analysis for inspiration only. Other more intensive methods include: thematic/content analysis (sorting content into patterns/categories); discourse analysis (reviewing the language used); and structural analysis (analyzing a story’s structure to explore experiences). Throughout the analysis, it is important to check with participants to ensure that the interpretation of the story remains accurate.

There are a wide variety of storytelling techniques, including but not limited to the following:

  • Digital storytelling;
  • Visual storytelling;
  • Storyboards;
  • Scenario generation;
  • Storytelling through videos;
  • Skits/plays;
  • Animation;
  • Talk and image; and
  • Text and image.

Example: Gruen (2000) provides several examples of how Lotus Research has used storytelling to improve computer interface design.  In an example of working with a software subscription system company, Lotus research was originally asked to make a story board showing the various screens the customer would access throughout the process of managing their subscriptions and accounts.

During the project, Lotus Research emphasized the need to get the story right by understanding in detail who would use the system, why they were interested in the software in the first place,  and what their concerns and goals were. To better answer these questions for the story, the software company had to extend their team to include people from other departments. In addition, some customer interviews were completed.  Together, this information was used to sketch out the details of the context and characters of the story.

The characters depicted in the story ranged from the fictitious playground manufacturing company’s non-technical CEO to the accounting person who handled the company’s purchase orders, to a sales manager whose salespeople were complaining of the difficulty of getting up-to-date sales materials to their customers.  One key understanding that evolved out of story development was the need to think beyond the monolithic “customer” and consider the individual needs of the various people at the customer site involved in purchasing and managing a software subscription.  In this example, storytelling played an important role in having the design team empathize with the customer.


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Greatrex-White, S. (2010). A research perspective: narrative research. In Fowler-kerry, S. & Pfud, R. (Eds.), Perspectives on Palliative Care for Children and Young People, 99-123. Retrieved from

Gruen, D. (2000). Beyond scenarios: the role of storytelling in CSCW design. Locus Research. IBM Research. Retrieved from

Harrington, J. & Mickelson, W. (2009). Fostering storytelling: a qualitative approach to enhance questionnaire development. American Association for Public Opinion annual meeting. Retrieved from

IDEO (2009). Human Centered Design IDEO Tool Kit. 2nd Ed. Retrieved from

Lieblich, A., Tuval-Mashiach, R., & Ziber, T. (1998). Narrative research: reading, analysis and interpretation. Retrieved from

Miller, D. & Salkind, N. (2002). Handbook of research design and social measurement. Retrieved from:

Wilkins, P. (2004). Storytelling as research. In Humphries, B. (Ed.), Research in social care and social welfare: issues and debates for practice, 144-153. Retrieved from

Parrish, P. (2006). Design as storytelling. Tech Trends, 50(4), 72-82. Retrieved from

Saunders E. B. N. (2000), Generative Tools for CoDesign.
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