Storytelling and design: 5 lessons from Hollywood for UX

Jul 24, 2023|By atomix
Read time: 10 mins

At the age of 14 I had a fleeting dream to become a screenwriter. I think I liked the thought of building a world around people and delving deep into what drives them and the decisions they make. My first point of call was heading to Amazon and buying Syd Fields ‘Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting’. After committing myself to learning the theory, I sat down to write. Admittedly, my first and only screenplay was awful and whilst those dreams of accepting an Academy Award for best screenplay were short-lived, some of those theories from Syd’s book have stuck with me as I navigate the world of UX design.

1. Create the backdrop

We are all incredibly familiar with James Cameron's visually stunning film Avatar; unfortunately, I'm not going to be discussing the significance of the glowing plants in the movie. There are plenty of other blogs for that. Instead, let's explore the meticulous research that director James Cameron undertook. He embarked on extensive expeditions to remote locations, studied indigenous cultures and their relationship with nature, consulted with anthropologists and environmental experts, and even developed a unique language for the Na’vi people. Cameron enlisted help and took inspiration from existing human languages, drawing on elements from various linguistic families. He did this all to ensure the feeling of authenticity in his storytelling.

How does this help?

UX design is all about research and understanding the problem you are trying to solve, the context surrounding it and who you are solving it for. Talk to the users suffering from the problem, conduct stakeholder interviews, engage in contextual inquiry and conduct diary studies (along with other methodologies). Begin to understand your users more deeply by considering their beliefs, their values and their behaviours. The more research that you conduct, the more accurate your user’s story will be. Use their story to design a product or service that reflects their narrative.

The more research that you conduct, the more accurate your user’s story will be.

2. Develop character arcs

Forrest Gump, Katniss Everdeen and the Joker all had a detailed and comprehensive past. A past you don’t know about, and a future that is yet to happen. All your favourite characters do. Was Woody from Toy Story once a child? Did Andy Dufrene from Shawshank Redemption have a good relationship with his mother? 

Syd introduces the idea of establishing a character's backstory and motivations that exist before the start of the screenplay. This pre-story development helps to shape the character's actions, choices and reactions within the screenplay. By understanding a character's history, desires and conflicts, a screenwriter can create a more authentic and multidimensional character. 

Similarly, Syd suggests considering what happens to the character after the events of the screenplay. By envisioning the character's future beyond the story's conclusion, a screenwriter can better understand the character's ultimate arc and ensure consistency in their development.

How does this help?

Consider the entire journey that your users take before and after interacting with your website or service. What conflicts arise? Why are they coming to you? What are they searching for? And how are they feeling at every stage? Is your service, website or application well-placed to provide an experience that helps?

Are there even more places along the journey that you are able to influence, perhaps even after they have bought your product and moved on? 

Use your understanding of your users, and their journey to create a realistic user persona (remember to give them a name and a photo). I love doing this - it’s probably the screenwriter within me. Personas make it easier to consider your user and align your team when making critical design decisions. Ask yourself, “How does this decision impact Jessica?” "How would Adam feel at this point in the journey if X happened?”. Start to build a story around your user that highlights their distinct goals, behaviours and preferences.

Furthermore, just as Syd suggests exploring the character's arc beyond the confines of the screenplay, you can employ customer journey maps to visualise the entire user experience, from initial interaction to post-engagement. These maps provide a holistic view of the user's touch points, emotions, and actions at each stage, allowing you to identify pain points, uncover opportunities for improvement and design solutions that cater to the user's evolving needs.

3. Develop the central plot line

Do you remember the part in The Lion King when extraterrestrial aliens, with advanced technology and mind-control abilities, landed in the Pride Lands and attempted to take over the kingdom creating chaos and confusion among the animal inhabitants? No? Well, that’s because I just made up that subplot.

Syd encourages screenwriters to establish a single central conflict or problem that drives the story forward, avoiding excessive subplots or convoluted storylines that can confuse or distract the audience.

According to Syd, simplicity in storytelling allows the audience to engage more easily with the plot and characters. By presenting a clear and focused storyline, the screenwriter can effectively communicate the core themes, conflicts and character arcs without overwhelming or losing the audience's attention.

He also highlights the importance of clarity in character motivations and goals. By keeping the character's desires and conflicts clear and accessible to the audience, the screenplay becomes more relatable and emotionally resonant.

How does this help?

Both Syd Field's theory of creating a simple and clear plot line in screenwriting and the approach of UX designers to solve a simple and clear problem for users share a common goal: to engage and connect with their respective audiences, as well as align the design team on the direction that is being undertaken.

Just as Syd emphasises the importance of a well-defined plot that guides the audience through a story, UX designers strive to identify and address a specific problem or pain point faced by users.

By simplifying the user experience and focusing on a clear objective, you can create intuitive and user-friendly interfaces that effectively meet the needs and expectations of your audience. In both cases, the emphasis on simplicity and clarity allows for a more engaging and satisfying experience, whether it's following a compelling narrative or navigating a seamless digital interaction.

4. Up, up and iterate

I’m not ashamed to say I cried during Pixar’s ‘Up’. In fact, I embrace it. Would you believe it if I told you that this Academy Award-winning film, known for making adults cry, underwent a number of iterations because those who viewed the first versions had trouble empathising with the main character? In fact, Ed Catmull, the president and founder of Pixar stated that the only things that survived from the original version are the tall bird and the title ‘Up’.

As viewers, we only get to see the final product. The story has been moulded, tested, changed, tested and changed again well before hitting the cinemas. Screenwriters often host test screenings, table reads, feedback sessions and ultimately spend hours rewriting and refining elements of the story until they finally resonate with the end viewer, or they scrap the idea (or should in many many cases).

How does this help?

The theory of iteration in screenwriting not only emphasises the importance of refining the script but also encourages incorporating feedback from various sources. Similarly, as UX designers, we employ a range of testing methods to gather both qualitative and quantitative feedback on our designs. 

Qualitative methods, such as user interviews, usability testing and observational studies, provide valuable insights into user behaviour, preferences, and pain points. These methods allow us to understand the user's perspective, uncover usability issues and make informed design decisions.

On the other hand, quantitative methods, such as usability scale questionnaires, product analytics, heat maps and A/B testing provide measurable data and statistical analysis, enabling us to assess the effectiveness of our designs, identify patterns and make data-driven improvements.

By combining qualitative and quantitative testing approaches, we can iterate and refine our designs based on a comprehensive understanding of user needs and preferences.

5. Format as a method

Ed Catmull, in his book "Creativity, Inc." discusses how animation should always be driven by the story, rather than being solely motivated by technical capabilities or visual appeal. Catmull believes that the purpose of animation is not to showcase the technology itself, but rather to serve as a powerful tool for storytelling and emotional connection with the audience. In the movie 'Toy Story', the use of animation allowed the audience to empathise with the toys and their struggles, capturing the essence of their world and bringing them to life in a way that live-action couldn't achieve. Whether animation, live-action or any other visual style, the story remains at the heart. 

How does this help?

In the context of UX design, this concept resonates with the need to choose design elements and interactions that align with the purpose and objectives of the user experience. Just as animation in film should serve the story, UX designers should create interactive elements, animations, visual effects and, ultimately, features that purposefully communicate information, guide users and create engaging experiences.

The focus should always be on how these elements contribute to the overall user journey and solve the user’s problems, rather than being added for the sake of aesthetics or novelty.

By understanding the story or problem being solved and leveraging appropriate design choices, UX designers can create meaningful and impactful experiences that resonate with users and fulfil their needs.

Screenwriters harness the power of storytelling to captivate viewers, evoke emotions and create memorable experiences. They weave narratives that resonate with the human condition, drawing audiences into a world of imagination and empathy. Similarly, we, as UX designers, employ empathy to craft experiences that captivate and fulfil the needs of the user. We delve into the mindset of the audience, understanding their goals, frustrations, and desires. By placing ourselves in the shoes of the user, we can design interfaces and interactions that resonate on an emotional level. We strive to create seamless and intuitive experiences that leave a lasting impression, fostering a connection between the user and the product or service.

Ultimately, both screenwriters and UX designers understand the power of storytelling and empathy. We both strive to engage and connect with our respective audiences, crafting experiences that captivate and fulfil. By weaving together the threads of narrative and user-centric design, these disciplines converge. They remind us that at the heart of it, all lies the human element wanting to be understood.

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