Once Upon A Time: Using Story Structure For Better Engagement

Once Upon A Time: Using Story Structure For Better Engagement

Once Upon A Time: Using Story Structure For Better Engagement

John Rhea

2018-06-11T14:00:52+02:00
2018-06-11T17:52:46+00:00

Stories form the connective tissue of our lives. They’re our experiences, our memories, and our entertainment. They have rhythms and structures that keep us engaged. In this article, we’ll look at how those same rhythms and structures can help us enrich and enhance the user experience.

In his seminal work Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell identified a structure that rings true across a wide variety of stories. He called this “The Hero’s Journey,” but his book explaining it was 300+ pages so we’ll use a simplified version of Campbell’s work or a jazzified version of the plot structure you probably learned about in elementary school:


The Hero’s journey begins in the ordinary world. An inciting incident happens to draw the hero into the story. The hero prepares to face the ordeal/climax. The hero actually faces the ordeal. Then the hero must return to the ordinary world and finally there is resolution to the story.
Once upon a time… a hero went on a journey.

The ordinary world/exposition is where our hero/protagonist/person/thing/main character starts. It’s the every day, the safe, the boring, the life the hero already knows.

The inciting incident is the event or thing that pulls or (more often) pushes the hero into the story. It’s what gets them involved in the story whether they want to be or not.

In the rising action/preparation phase, the hero prepares (sometimes unknowingly) for the ordeal/climax which is when they go up against the villain (and prevail!).

After the hero prevails against the villain, they must return to their ordinary world and bring back the new knowledge and/or mythical object they got from/for defeating the villain.

Finally, in the Resolution, we tie up all the loose ends and throw a dance party.

We can apply this same structure to the experience of the user or — as I like to call it — the “user journey.”

  • Ordinary World
    Where the user starts (their every day).
  • Inciting Incident
    They have a problem they need solved.
  • Rising Action
    They’ve found your product/service/website and they think it might work to solve their problem, but they need to decide that this is the product/service/website will solve their problem. So in this step they gather facts and figures and feelings to determine if this thing will work. It could be deciding if the type of video game news covered on this site is the kind of news they want to consume or deciding whether this type of pen will solve their writing needs or whether the graphic design prowess of this agency can make their new website super awesome.
  • The Ordeal
    The fight to make a decision about purchasing that pen or adding that news site to your regularly checked sites or contacting that agency for a quote.
  • The Road Back
    Decision made, the road back is about moving forward with that purchase, regular reading, or requesting the quote.
  • Resolution
    Where they apply your product/service/website to their problem and it is mightily solved.

If we consider this structure as we look at user interactions, there are lots of ways we can put ourselves in the user’s shoes and optimize their experience, providing support (and sometimes a good shove) exactly when they need it.

Here are some techniques. Some apply to just one part of the User Journey while some apply to several parts at once:

Journey With Your Users

Stories take time. Movies aren’t done in two minutes; they take two hours to watch and absorb. They are a journey.

If you always only ever shout “BUY! BUY! BUY!” you may make a few quick sales, but you won’t encourage long-term loyalty. Journey with your users, and they’ll count on you when they have a problem you can solve.

InVision’s newsletter journeys with you. In this recent newsletter, they sent an article about Questlove and what we can learn from him concerning creativity. If you click through, other than the URL, the word “InVision” does not appear on the page. They’re not pushing the sale, but providing relevant, interesting content to the main audience of people who use their products. I haven’t yet been in the market for their services, but if/when I am, there won’t be much of an Ordeal or fight for approval. They’ve proven their worth as a traveling companion. They’re someone I can count on.


InVision provides great, usable content that addresses customer interests and needs without shoving their products in your face.
InVision is on a quest to have you love them.

Journeying with your users can take many forms, only one of which is content marketing. You could also build training programs that help them move from beginner to expert in using your app or site. You could add high touch parts to your sales process or specific technical support that will help you come alongside your user and their needs. In contexts of quick visits to a website you might use visuals or wording that’s down-to-earth, warm, welcoming, and feels personable to your main audience. You want to show the user they can count on you when they have a problem.

Give ‘Em A Shove

Users need an inciting incident to push them into the user journey, often more than one push. They have a lot going on in their lives. Maybe they’re working on a big project or are on vacation or their kid played frisbee with their laptop. They may have lost or never opened your first email. So don’t hesitate to send them a follow-up. Show them the difference between life without your product or service and life with it. Heroes are pushed into a story because their old life, their ordinary world, is no longer tenable given the knowledge or circumstances they now have.

Nick Stephenson helps authors sell more books (and uses the hero’s journey to think through his websites and marketing). Last fall he sent out a friendly reminder about a webinar he was doing. He gets straight to the point reminding us about his webinar, but provides value by giving us a way to ask questions and voice concerns. He also lets us know that this is a limited time offer, if we want the new life his webinar can bring we’ve got to step into the story before it’s too late.


Nick Stephenson follows up with content and value to help his audience not miss out on opportunities.
Didn’t want you to miss out if your cat barfed on your keyboard and deleted my last email.

Give your users more than one opportunity to buy your product. That doesn’t mean shove it down their throat every chance you get, but follow up and follow through will do wonders for your bottom line and help you continue to build trust. Many heroes need a push to get them into the story. Your users may need a shove or well-placed follow up email or blaring call to action too.

Give Out Magic Swords

By now you know your users will face an ordeal. So why not pass out magic swords, tools that will help them slay the ordeal easily?

Whenever I have tried to use Amazon’s Web Services, I’ve always been overwhelmed by the choices and the number of steps needed to get something to work. A one button solution it is not.

But on their homepage, they hand me a magic sword to help me slay my dragon of fear.


AWS touts how easy it is to get up and running.
The horror-stories-of-hard are false. You can do this.

They use a 1-2-3 graphic to emphasize ease. With the gradient, they also subtly show the change from where you started (1) to where you’ll end (3) just like what a character does in a story. My discussion above could make this ring hollow, but I believe they do two things that prevent that.


Source: Smashingmagazine.com

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