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Not just for kids

Everyone loves reading or hearing a good story. Recent research shows there is a reason stories are so captivating. A story is an information processing strategy – narrative processing. Whether we are entertaining ourselves with the latest novel or movie, enjoying a five course meal at our favorite restaurant, or shopping the Web for that new car, we are engaging in narrative processing. The narrative stories we build as we experience the world provide a reliable way to organize our plans of action. By using narratives that we store in memory, we are able to interpret the world around us and make decisions about the future.

What's in a story?

Narrative processing does much more than influence decision making and memory – it provides an "emotional" interpretation of our experience. It helps us develop our attitudes, preferences, and even our self-concept (Markus & Kunda, 1986). The stories we create and use to make decisions provide meaning and are, in that sense, the full "user experience."

Stories and personal meaning

HCI and consumer research has begun investigating the impact of presenting information in a narrative style. Narrative research (Mandler & Goodman, 1982; Mandler, & Johnson, 1977; Stein & Albro) demonstrates that narrative presentation enhances comprehension and memory, and is used by readers and listeners during text processing.

Recent consumer research shows that narrative product ads can influence the narratives that consumers then use for themselves and others when thinking about products and brands (Escalas, 1998). When people are asked to generate a narrative about products that support their goals, they tend to create a positive bond with the brand, termed a "self-brand-connection" (Escalas & Bettman, 2000).

Jennifer Escalas looked at the impact narrative ads have on self-brand connection. She hypothesized that presenting information as a narrative would lead to more self-brand-connection, and that the overall result would be better consumer brand attitude and acceptance scores.

The study

For the experiment, the content of two TV ads (American Express, and Kodak) were digitized and then organized into a visual storyboard format. The materials for each set were further organized either in a narrative (story-like) or vignette (non story-like) presentation.

First the author tested the hypothesis that presenting the ads as a narrative would lead to more consumer narrative processing. Participants were given a questionnaire measuring brand familiarity and attitudes before they saw the product storyboard. Participants then viewed the series of ad content for one product in either narrative or vignette style, and then documented what their thoughts had been during the content presentation. The participant reports were scored according to how well they told a well-developed story (rating scale items were based on a schema defined by Pennington & Hastie, 1986, 1992).

The participants that observed storyboard ads presented in a narrative style did engage in narrative processing of the information more than those that saw the vignette presentations. (p<.001). This was true for both sets of advertising materials.

In the second part of the study, the author studied whether the narrative presentations would result in more self-brand-connection and more intention to purchase. The research showed that the narrative ads resulted in a more positive attitude about the brand and a higher incidence of intent to purchase.

Stories matter

People like narratives. They understand them. Narratives also affect the way people process information. If you use stories to present information to consumers you can influence their decision making process, their emotions, and their intention to purchase. What may be even more interesting to those of us in the usability field is the impact that stories have on the way we do our work. When we use stories (personas, scenarios) in our user-centered design processes we are using a powerful method that fits the way people think, learn, and process information. We have always noticed that when we use stories this way it helps get buy-in from stakeholders and developers involved in the design process. Now we know there is a research basis for the power of the story.


Abelson, R.P., & Prentice, D.A. (1989). The psychological status of the script concept. American Psychologist, 36, 715-729.

Escalas, J.E. (1998). Advertising narratives: What are they and how do they work? In B. Stern (Ed.), Representing consumers: Voices, views, and visions (pp 267-289). New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Escalas, J.E. (2004). Narrative processing: Building consumer connections to brands. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 14 (1&2), 168-180.

Escalas, J.E., & Bettman, J.R. (2000). Using narratives to discern self-identity related consumer goals and motivations. In C, Huffman, S. Ratneshwar, & D.G. Mick (Eds.), The why of consumption: Contemporary perspectives on consumer motives, goals, and desires (pp 237-258). New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Mandler, J.M., & Goodman, M. (1982). On the psychological validity of story structure. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 21, 507-523.

Mandler, J.M., & Johnson, N. (1977). Remembrance of things parsed: Story structure and recall. (1977). Cognitive Psychology, 9, 111-151.

Markus, H., & Kunda, Z. (1986). Stability and malleability of the self-concept. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 585-866.

Pennington, N., & Hastie, R. (1986). Evidence evaluation in complex decision making. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 242-258.

Pennington, N., & Hastie, R. (1992). Explaining the evidence: Tests of the story model for juror decision making. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 189-206.

Stein, N.L., & Albro, E.R. (1997). Building complexity and coherence: Children's use of goal-structured knowledge in telling stories. In M. Bamberg (Ed.), Narrative development: Six approaches (vol. 1, pp 5-44). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

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Reader comments

Rajesh Kalidindi

Thanks for newsletters.

Yes, I have seen the effect of narrative presentation in my current project. As mentioned in this article, we know the power of Personas and Scenarios in the UCD (User-Centered Design) process. Now I have experienced the power of stories in requirements documentation. As part of Agile methodology, requirements wrote as stories gave better results for developers, testers and project stakeholders. We observed that short stories are more effective than lengthy stories.

Hank Zucker, Ph.D.
Creative Research Systems

Thanks for the newsletters. I have appreciated getting them.

As a fellow researcher, I'd like to make a comment on this one. You quote statistical significance below without giving any quantitative information about the size of the effect. Does the narrative style result in 2% more narrative processing of the information or 50% more? Either could potentially be statistically significant at the .001 level, but would have a different impact on how much folks should worry about presenting info in a narrative way.

Well, my two cents anyway.

Raghavendra S. Rao

I agree that narrating any topic in a story engages people and makes them remember the events in the story with topic under discussion. I have used this method while I was a teaching assistant during my graduate studies. I also use this technique in my current job. Nice reading. The article itself was written in a storyboard

Rajesh Ghodke
Philips Design

Stories are primary means of communicating someone's message/s. When users are kids the complexities of the narratives are simple and with direct focus. As we grow up the stories get intricate and messages within them also get interdependent. This helps to build the curiosity level and so are desirable, interesting. It is also observed that things which are interesting attract attention and the result is people understand them as they concentrate more and are eager to understand the semantics.

Best examples can be novels, emotional advertising, family oriented serials. This formula of narratives has been in use for a long time. Why do we like Mark Twain and we remember his poems even long after our schooling? Maybe he is more successful in creating the curiosity though the use of words which compel people to visualize the environment he wants to portray.

Human progress can be observed as built around the fact that he was/is and will be curious about the world around him. I think the more the level of curiosity, the more are the chances of being a successful story.

Wanda Lamb
Shasta County Foster Care and Adoption

We are wanting to use our personal family stories and I was pleased to read that this is an effective way to recruit more families. The human touch goes a long way to sell an "I can do it" idea...

Alastair Middleton

Interesting piece - thank you. I'd like to have read more about narrative as it might play into the design of web interfaces, so as to encourage greater interaction, enjoyment, and - of course - increased propensity to buy. Will be exploring the works referenced. Thanks again.

Maleka Ingram, Intel Corp

Great article. I would like to see real life examples of where narratives have been used in the business world.


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