Use storytelling to turbocharge your design thinking

Humankind has transmitted information through stories since time immemorial. Indeed, hearing and telling stories seem to be a fundamental need for us. Friends are made through the exchange of stories: they bring us together and build trust and intimacy in a relationship.

Design thinking comprises of 5 factors (Carlgren, Rauth, Elmquist, 2016):  1) user focus, 2) problem framing, 3) visualizations, 4) experimentation, 5) diversity. With storytelling permeating every aspect of the collaboration. And it’s a two-way street.

On one hand, you can use storytelling to sell your idea: to convince the stakeholders it’s beneficial to start the project, to make the workshop participants feel at ease and willing to contribute, to create (an authentic) story for the service so that customers feel they can relate and view the service useful.

On the other hand, and perhaps even more importantly, you can use storytelling to understand others. In essence, you could utilize design thinking tools to enable and encourage customers to share their experiences, you let them tell you their stories. Although one rarely comes to you to tell their life history, via means of design thinking, you actively seek to hear people’s stories to better understand and empathize with them.

How, then, do you tell an “effective” story? We think it comes down to empathy. A story that works in a business meeting may not be the one you want to tell to your date and vice versa. Through empathy you should seek to understand your audience and tailor the narrative to fit the context.

However, you can also increase your audience’s receptivity to your “main story”, i.e. the idea you’d like them to subscribe to, by making them feel connected to you. How? By sharing something about yourself, a personal anecdote, to make yourself more relatable. If your audience likes you, they will more likely believe you.

But what if the conditions are not optimal for you to tell the story, to convey your idea? We experienced this first hand at our Design Thinking workshop with Doctor Katja Tschimmel. Due to the prevailing covid-19 situation and the fact that some of our student colleagues live abroad, the workshop had to be arranged as a hybrid with some of the students in the classroom (with masks) and others (including the lecturer Katja) participating via zoom.

Photo by visuals on Unsplash

Through this personal experience we found out yet again that when connecting through technology, it’s much better to connect via video than via audio only (not to speak of a pure text-based approach like chat). Hearing a story is much more effective when you can see the person telling it.

Katja used storytelling techniques exceptionally right from the start. She opened the worksop with a personal anecdote from her doctoral dissertation, where a member of the audience had drawn a picture of her. This instance exemplified 3 major tools of design thinking that we have discussed here:

  1. It was a personal anecdote to make her feel more relatable to us, the students
  2. It was a story to convey the idea of visualization
  3. Simple and easy example of visualization – a hand drawn picture of her

Katja used a story of a portrait made of her as an example and introduction to our next assignment, which was to draw pictures of each other.

In conclusion, we think that both storytelling and empathy work in two directions in design thinking:

Storytelling: 1) Tell a story to sell your idea, and 2) Use design thinking tools to encourage customers/clients to tell you their story (i.e. to better understand and empathize with them).

Empathy: 1) Empathize with your audience (customers/clients) in order to tell an effective story, 2) Arouse your audience’s empathy towards you by telling a personal anecdote to make yourself more relatable and your idea (story) more attractive.

Lastly, we have prepared a couple of practical tips for aspiring young designers to embrace empathy in these covid-struck times:

  • Storytelling is the only thing that can evoke empathy in this situation
  • Video surpasses mere audio (visualization)
  • Acknowledge the situation is difficult for everyone
  • Engage everyone equally and facilitate active participation from both sides
  • Remember that people love stories, encourage others to share theirs!

Written by: Galina Leväsluoto & Tero Jyrhämä

Inspired by:

Brown, Tim (2009). Change by design: how design thinking can transform organizations and inspire innovation. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Tschimmel, K. (2020). Creativity, Design and Design Thinking – a ménage à trois. In Perspectives on Design: Research, Education and Practice II. Ed. Springer “Serie in Design and Innovation”. (in process)

Tschimmel, K. (2018). Toolkit Evolution 6. An E-handbook for practical Design Thinking for Innovation. Porto: Ed.Mindshake.

Kouprie, M & Sleeswijk Visser, F. (2009) A framework for empathy in design: stepping into and out of the user’s life. in Journal of Engineering Design Vol. 20, No. 5, October 2009, 437–448

Carlgren, L., Rauth, I. & Elmquist., M. (2016). Framing Design Thinking: The Concept in Idea and Enactment. Creativity and Innovation Management, Vol. 25, Nr. 1. 38-57.

2 thoughts on “Use storytelling to turbocharge your design thinking

  1. Thank you for the thought provoking blog. The link between story telling and empathy is interesting when we consider empathy as the “starting point” for understanding customers. This can work when people really want to talk / tell about themselves. If the audience is very reluctant -for a reason or another- I wonder which design thinking tools would be best in encouraging the audience? However, the story telling requires someone to guide and lead the process.

    You might have heard about the VAK learning styles (visual, auditory and kinesthetic). These style is not scientifically approved, but one can find some information on how peoples learning styles on average are divided into shares. One division is 40/30/30 where visual is dominant. Considering this, the power of story telling from learning perspective is remarkable. Story telling combines visual and auditory so the “turbocharger” could be as high as 70%.

    Thank you also for the “embrace empathy in these covid-struck times” list with practical tips!

    Best Wishes,
    Johanna

  2. Thank you for a good post! You succeeded in describing the key ideas and the mood of the workshop in a concise and clear manner which facilitates readability and comprehension. Benefits of empathy and storytelling in design thinking are expressed in a personal and lively way. It seems the workshop helped you to deepen your understanding of the topics and reevaluate the already known concepts. Great!

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