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User “Choose Your Own Adventure” Stories: A Creative Research Deliverable You’ll Actually Have Time to Execute

Journey maps are often linear. Your customer’s experiences almost never are. Here’s a new spin on an old research tactic that’ll engage and energize your stakeholders.

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Emi Tolibas

You’ve heard it before:

We need to tell the story of our users.

We need to be the voice of our users.

We need to keep our users top of mind, company-wide.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably compiled a playbook of deliverables for making your user data resonate: personas, journey maps, blueprints, archetypes, Jobs to be Done timelines, etc.

And if you’re like me, you probably occasionally find yourself overwhelmed by it all. Or worse, bored by it all.

Throughout my career, I’ve reached continuously for these deliverables as a way to share my insights. I’ve taken data set after data set, and have done my best to distill it into digestible visuals and ideas.

But with this practice comes some loss of context. It’s impossible to fit every vital insight and quote into a persona. I’ve spent many hours debating what to keep, and what to cut, as I attempt to truly represent users. And lately, as I've done my best to compile personas, or customer journey maps, or JTBD timelines that my teams could understand—I've started to feel uninspired. The outputs of hours and hours of research were starting to feel dry and stagnant. 

So to combat my growing methodological apathy, I wracked my brain (and Medium) for other methods. 

Jump links:

(Choose Your Own Adventure stories) gave you multiple options to choose from, causing you to flip to one page or another, making your way through the book and feeling like you had an impact on the ending. That was the feeling I wanted to convey to my team.

Nikki Anderson

In my search, I came across some creative ideas—like Facebook's mini-museum, deep-dive stories, and UX Comics. But I had to be honest with myself. There was no way, as my agile company’s sole user researcher, I could pull these methods off.

I wanted to tell a story that colleagues would actually be interested in. I wanted to draw in my audience and have them live the moments alongside their users. I wanted to inspire active engagement and an authentic connection.

And that’s when I had my “eureka!” moment. I thought back to the most alluring stories I have read, and I remembered something from my childhood: Choose Your Own Adventure novels. They're stories that gave you multiple options to choose from, causing you to flip to one page or another, making your way through the book and feeling like you had an impact on the ending. That was the feeling I wanted to convey to my team.

User Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) stories

So how do we relate this to our users? Can we convey the feelings and thoughts of our users, as well as insights, through this medium? I had three goals in mind when I decided to try my hand at this method:

  1. Growing empathy at the company by having colleagues genuinely connect with users
  2. Giving colleagues a way to interact with users outside of research sessions and presentations
  3. Making the higher-level insights easily discoverable

Editor's note: It was brought to our attention that the savvy UX team at Shopify has also used, and had success, with the CYOA approach. You can read their write up of its merits here

What does a user CYOA look like?

Nothing we experience is actually linear—but common deliverables (JTBD timelines, journey maps) often depict the user's journey as a timeline.

CYOA allows for more flexibility when it comes showing the different choices and paths a customer could take. This allows colleagues to have an experience similar to the user, with all their twists and turns. CYOAs also support easy linking to more detailed research within the stories, for those interested in digging deeper.

Currently, I work with a company that helps customers find and book transportation. So for my first CYOA adventure project, I wanted to highlight the different thought processes and actions users went through when planning travel, both inside and outside of our website/app.

The user research I’d done uncovered many complexities within this process, and laid bare how overwhelmed people can feel while planning travel. Participants do a lot of thinking before they land on our website/app. They also continued to engage with us as they compare prices, select dates, and share results with others.

The CYOA story invited colleagues to get into the traveling planning mindset. With each page, they could make similar choices about where to go on vacation, choosing dates, choosing a budget, sharing results with friends, canceling plans, dealing with planning interruptions, etc. The journey of our users is based on many small and large decisions—some expected, some not. The readers had the opportunity to explore these decisions and note where each choice could lead them.

CYOA allows for more flexibility when it comes showing the different choices and paths a customer could take. This allows colleagues to have an experience similar to the user, with all their twists and turns.

Nikki Anderson

How to set up a CYOA

While CYOAs are less intensive than a “mini-museum” or “deep story,” they do take more time to produce than a traditional customer journey map. In fact, usually within a CYOA, you’ll set up user journeys and flows. Also, before setting up a CYOA, I recommend conducting generative research sessions, in which you deeply investigate the mindset and process of your users.

Here is how I went about setting up our CYOA:

  1. Choose a problem you want to bring to light. For instance, I wanted to highlight the non-linear path that comes with planning travel and all the nuances involved. This will give you a good understanding of the type of story you want to create, and which part of the journey to focus on. I always ask myself: What is the goal of the user at this point? Where does that goal start and end? I now have a story starting point and end point, and need to include the details in between. I then choose the most prevalent pain points, needs, and tasks to include in the story.
  2. Create a user flow. Once I had an idea of the overarching story, I broke it down into a flow or journey the user experiences. Mostly, these are steps the user has to go through to achieve that goal identified above. At this point, most of these are linear, task-based steps, without any emotion. It’s okay if they are a little disjointed, and some parts don't connect correctly with others. This stage is really for outlining the basic story.
  3. Infuse emotion. Once I have a basic outline of the story, I begin to add emotions to the context. Instead of simple text, I form scenarios. For instance, "select a date to travel" becomes "Jonas isn't sure which exact dates he will travel. On the website, he sees the option to select a set date range, which annoys him, seeing as he wants to explore several different options." Adding these intricacies allows readers to understand pain points in a way that is not solution-oriented and is product-agnostic.
  4. Add choice. Now comes the most complicated, but interesting, part: adding options. This is where it is very beneficial to get into the mindset of the user and relive the research sessions. Where do your users have to make decisions? What are the triggers that cause them to think: "Forget this website/app, I'm going somewhere else"?
  5. Read your story. Go through the CYOA, ensuring it makes sense, and you have included the different possibilities in an easy-to-understand narrative. The value of a CYOA is that it can continuously evolve and grow as you learn more about your users.
  6. Send it out. I first send these stories to the UX team, so they can glance over to see if everything makes sense. I then roll it out to the broader company. Often these stories are based on personas, so I also make sure to socialize those with the story to give more context.

With this tool, colleagues can experience research at their own pace. As you add to the stories, you can easily send updates for colleagues to explore. Sharing research in creative ways can help break down silos throughout a company. It calls attention to the importance of user research but gives colleagues the chance to understand research in a more immersive sense.

Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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