How To Use Narrative Structure To Create Better Experiences

If you want to understand how to tell good stories, ask an experience design educator – so that’s just what we’ve done.

Mat Duerden breaks down the three building blocks of storytelling and explains how to apply them to design memorable, meaningful and transformative experiences.

There is a lot of good content out there about the intersection of storytelling and experience design. What I’d like to add to the discussion is a process-oriented piece the distills the incorporation of storytelling into experience design down to a manageable number of actionable steps. I call it the experience design storytelling process.

Before diving into the process let’s first briefly review its three main building blocks:

  1. Narrative structure
  2. Experience phases
  3. Experience types

Narrative Structure

You can boil down most narrative structure models (e.g., the Hero’s JourneyFreytag’s pyramidVonnegut’s man in a hole model, etc.) into five primary parts which have the most relevance for experience designers.

Five Elements of Experience Design Storytelling

  1. Someone living in their ordinary world
  2. A transition into a new extraordinary world
  3. A variety of experiences within the extraordinary world
  4. A transition out of the extraordinary world back into the ordinary world
  5. A return to the ordinary world as a changed individual

Experiences that intentionally incorporate each of the above steps are more likely to make participants feel like they are part of an unfolding story and make it easier for them to tell stories about the experience to themselves and others.

Experience Phases

Experiences can also be broken down into a series of common steps or phases. Bob Rossman and I in our book, Designing Experiences, use a three-phase model of experiences: anticipation, participation, and reflection

The anticipation phase should prepare individuals for the participation phase, priming them to be able give it their full attention. The participation phase is the extraordinary world the designer has created for them: it’s when and where the main experience occurs. The reflection phase occurs after the main experience and provides participants an opportunity to articulate and curate the memories resulting from the experience.

Experience Types

In some previous work, my colleagues and I have proposed two broad categories of experiences, ordinary and extraordinary.

Ordinary experiences are ordinary – we notice them, but they don’t leave any lasting impressions. Extraordinary experiences, which we separate into memorable, meaningful, and transformative, impact us in different ways. Memorable experiences involve strong emotion, positive or negative. Meaningful experiences couple emotion with discovery – we learn something new about ourselves or the world around us. Transformative experiences produce emotion, involve discovery, and facilitate change in attitudes, behavior, and even identities. 

Extraordinary Experience Types

  1. Memorable: emotion
  2. Meaningful: emotion + discovery
  3. Transformative: emotion + discovery + change

Pulling the Building Blocks Together

If we incorporate each of these building blocks it looks something like this:

If you think about your favorite book or movie, I wouldn’t be surprised if you notice the same sequence of experience types as what we’ve laid out in our model. The main character will often have experiences early on in the story that produce emotion (memorable), then she will begin to learn from the experiences she’s having (meaningful), and finally she transitions out of the extraordinary world and returns to the ordinary world changed (transformative).

So what does this all mean for us as experience designers? Well, I think it speaks to a process we can use to design more narratively structured experiences. Here are a few steps to help you engage in the experience design storytelling process.

The Experience Design Storytelling Process

  1. Make the anticipation phase memorable: as you prepare your participant to transition into the extraordinary world you’ve designed for them, make sure to build in some memorable touchpoints that evoke emotion. Don’t wait until the participation phase to engage your participants emotionally. You need to prepare them logistically and informationally, as well as prime them emotionally for participation during the anticipation phase.
  2. Link memorable and meaningful experiences: As individuals move through the participation phase, help them transition from memorable to meaningful experiences. That means you need to give people opportunities to reflect on what’s happening, as opposed to simply barraging them with one memorable touchpoint after another. Reflection is required for individuals to learn from the experiences they are having and for memorable experiences to become meaningful.
  3. Transformation happens on the road home: While not all experiences need to transform individuals, if you do want to target transformation, you have to recognize it’s most likely to happen after individuals leave your experience and return to the ordinary world. It’s one thing for participants to experience a change in the extraordinary world you designed for them, and quite another thing to have that change continue after they return home. You have to think about how you help your participants see the relevance of what they’ve learned during the participation phase to the world outside of the experience. Help make it as easy as possible for them to transfer their transformation back home with them.


Stories matter. Experience design matters. I hope some of the ideas shared in this article help you mash them together more intentionally. This piece represents my preliminary thoughts on layering some topics I see as connected in interesting ways. I’m continuing to build out these ideas by adding more specific examples and detailed processes. This piece is a step towards that end and I hope even in its current prototype form reading it has sparked some insights for you, maybe it’s even been meaningful a meaningful experience (we’ll have to wait to see if it’s transformative).

About the Author

Co-author with Bob Rossman of Designing Experiences (published by Columbia Business School Press), Mat is an Associate Professor of Experience Design and Management in the Marriott School of Business at Brigham Young University. He teaches courses in experience design and need finding at the undergraduate and MBA levels. His research focuses on experience design in a wide variety of contexts, including work and leisure.

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