Storytelling Tips from a UX Designer

Storytelling Tips from a UX Designer

By: Rishma Hansil

What do designers and teachers have in common? We both tell stories. Why are our minds captivated by stories? And how can we take advantage of this when teaching?

With the increase in multi-media devices in the classroom, educators are realizing the possibilities for storytelling are endless (Alismail, 2005). As a UX Designer (a designer who specializes in designing systems and products focused on user needs), I rely on storytelling to frame product functions in digestible ways for users; in the same way, teachers can use storytelling methods to help students engage with language. As one who has long used stories in design, I would like to share a few techniques I’ve brought in to create storytelling magic in the classroom.

What Technology Do You Need to Tell a Good Story?

In a recent workshop, I asked educators what technology was available in their classes, “technology” being defined as any tool that advances learning in the classroom—anything from laptops to markers. It was clear that we all wanted to accomplish similar goals but had access to very different resources. Designers use low-tech and high-tech prototypes when modeling products; teachers can do the same. Low-tech storytelling activities with students might include drawing comics on blank comic strip pages, cutting out images from magazines to tell a story, or building paper prototypes for a new invention. High-tech activities might include using an iPad to make a short movie, taking digital photos for a photo essay, or using audio recorders to tell stories from the perspectives of different interviewees. Storytelling is a versatile medium used by both designers and teachers to help their users (in this case, students) to learn new things and solve problems. Whether you teach in a high-tech or low-tech classroom, you can easily tailor the activities to suit your needs. Let us look at a product design activity that uses storytelling, one I have found popular with my students.

Visual Storytelling and Memory

Even with minimum classroom materials, visual storytelling can help students make much-needed connections. Researchers have found that the use of storytelling in teaching helps students retain new information, as well as aiding comprehension of difficult material (Robin, 2008). When expressing a narrative visually, you can use a variety of media—illustrations, photographs, graphics, GIFs, videos—that create a story in the mind of your audience.

Students can demonstrate their understanding of the content through visuals and learn to organize ideas, ask questions, and construct narratives. One such activity can be the creation of a user journey in designing something, like a mobile app. A user journey is the visualization of the process that a person (user) goes through in order to accomplish a goal. Designers often use user journeys when building apps and websites, as a way to empathize with the user and gain insights into user needs. The activity above is an example of a low-tech prototype. Print out blank mobile phone mock-ups and ask students to design an app, drawing each screen of their app, following the path a person might take when using it. Students begin by using the target language to explain what actions, functions, and features can be found on the home screen of their app. Then, they describe the target user of the app and what that person’s individual journey, or story, looks like in their application design.

With visual storytelling you can simplify complex ideas into memorable moments.

Storyboards and Student Stories

The UX designer’s approach to storytelling uses mobile application screens, digital prototypes, and user journeys to tell the story of the user’s relationship to the product. But how can we inspire students to be the authors of their own stories? Storytelling helps students explore the meaning of their own experience, give value to it, and communicate the experience to others on multiple levels (Jakes & Brennan, 2006). We all have stories to tell, let’s give our students an opportunity to tell theirs.

"Stories are how we remember." (Fryer, 2003)
Robert McKee

The same way students used user journeys to design a mobile app, they can use storyboards to design a personal story. The basics of storyboarding will be familiar to students who are avid manga and comic book readers. Using storyboard templates and template pages from comics, students use the target language to fill in the blanks and write their story. From a designer’s perspective, comic strip panels are signifiers which visually tell the students how to craft their story without the need for lengthy instructions. The difficulty level can increase based on the level of your learners and the details required for their stories. For younger learners, storyboarding tasks build sequencing skills and critical thinking skills. In one of my English Communication classes, we designed a lesson on “cultural miscommunications” from the perspective of someone moving to Japan for the first time. In groups, students came up with a few scenarios, drawing them out as storyboard panels, adding dialogue and finally filming them as skits with an iPad. The students memorized the dialogue in English, acted out the scenes, and combined them into a movie. The students saw their stories come to life and used language in a meaningful way.

Structure, Logic, and Patterns in Storytelling

In an article on cognitive psychology, Jaryd Hermann wrote: “The human brain is wired to see structure, logic, and pattern as this helps us make sense of the abstract world around us. We love mental shortcuts” (2020). Structured storytelling activities can help students map out information in stages, providing a framework for more discussion later on. Post-it notes are some of the best, low-cost materials to tell stories and can help students find the shortcuts needed to express succinct ideas.

Post-it notes are essential in a designer’s toolbox and can be a great communication tool in the classroom. How can we get our students from point A to point B? One fun storytelling activity is based on a character on the way to the airport. In teams, students race to work out as many steps as it takes to get this character from “wake up” to “aboard the flight,” using post-it notes to represent individual steps.

Post-it notes can help students work in groups, brainstorm efficiently, sort information quickly, and notice patterns in their discussions. Student who are less confident in speaking are able to voice their opinions using the notes.

For essay writing and brainstorming essay topics, post-it notes can help students share their opinions without having to commit to them in the initial stages of sharing ideas. Students stick to the board as many ideas around a topic as possible and then collectively sort the ideas into pro and con lists or subtopics. This allows students to make a careful analysis and select information without diminishing anyone’s contributions. They physically move notes from one side to another and build out their ideas in a collaborative way. This underrated design tool can keep everyone engaged in the learning process.

Storytelling and Literacies

Summarizing the work of researcher Bernard R. Robin (2008), storytelling in the classroom promotes 21st Century Skills (digital literacy, information literacy, media literacy, etc.) by including emerging technologies in the creation of student-centered stories. Any student with an active social media account has at some point written a blog, posted a tweet, or made a video on TikTok. These are examples of “user contributed content.” Students are already sharing stories on personalized social media platforms, Robin suggests taking advantage of user-centered content by creating digital stories in the classroom.

Students aren’t the only ones benefiting from these activities. Teachers have an opportunity to learn about emerging technologies from their students. Sharing in the learning process can make instant connections with your students and create pathways for understanding. A teacher-created story can be used to enhance a lesson in a unit or facilitate discussion about a topic, capturing students’ attention and increasing their interests in exploring new ideas.

UX design is a multidisciplinary study with an arsenal of tools ready to be used in the classroom; storytelling is just one of them. Teacher-centered stories can be a most effective ways to connect with our students. By sharing our stories, we tap into our innate abilities, we encourage students to find their voice, and we help them make meaningful connections along the way.

What stories will you tell in your classroom next?

Rishma Hansil (MA) is a UX Designer and English language instructor at a private high school in Tokyo, with a passion for educational technology. She’s the author and illustrator of Animal Adventure, an activity book for young learners, inspired by her childhood in the sunny Caribbean islands of Trinidad & Tobago.

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