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Transforming users into heroes

Transforming users into heroes

We hear a lot about journeys these days, not least from the endless reality shows that seem to dominate TV schedules. So many contestants speak of the “journey” they have been on, even if that only appeared to involve mixing flour, eggs and sugar together. 

We similarly hear a lot about customer, or user journeys in design, and as with all industry–speak the more these words are thrown around, the greater the chances that they will mean different things to different people.

One popular misconception is that user journeys represent some form of coercion, or an absolute ability to control how people interact with a product or system. Related to this is the idea that user journeys will be followed in systematic manner. Neither idea is particularly achievable – or indeed desirable – however, journeys can be planned in a structured way.

Some years ago I learned about a narrative pattern called the ‘Hero’s Journey’. American Academic Joseph Campbell wrote about it in his book ‘The Hero with A Thousand Faces’, the result of years of study of myths and legends from many different cultures from around the world. What he discovered was a set of common elements and story beats that appeared to suggest a formula for mythic story construction. It goes something like this:

– Our protagonist heeds a call to adventure
– A mentor or guide helps our hero to see beyond their current limitations
– The adventure begins, featuring trials and obstacles
– A revelation transforms our heroine/hero into something more than they were
– They overcome a major challenge that has been set for them
– They return home, changed for the better, and share what they have learned with others

Ever since Campbell put his findings in writing, cues from the Hero’s Journey have been used to to create some of the most beautiful, most inspiring stories in popular culture. You need look no further than the original Star Wars (A New Hope to aficionados) to see the template at work. The thing is, although you may be aware you are watching or reading something inspired by Campbell’s work, it doesn’t make it any less stirring or appealing.

The use of a formula simply provides structure to a narrative, offering readers or viewers a familiar pattern around which highly individual tales can woven.

It’s not difficult to see this pattern reflected in user journeys online and the experiences we have all been put through when dealing with challenging interactions.

Our ‘call to adventure’ is the goal that motivates us to use a new product; our trials might centre on how to come to grips with something unfamiliar, and how quickly we can make it work for us.

In his 2012 book “Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become?”, author Michael Schrage argues that only by thinking of a better future state for customers, and providing the gateway to that ideal, can a business truly transform itself. Without this thinking, the user’s journey from current state to a better version of themselves will end in failure.

This idea was summarised nicely in a 2014 blog post from UserOnboard. “People don’t buy products,” they said, “they buy better versions of themselves”.

Where our story as users tends to deviate from Campbell’s monomyth is that we embark on these journeys, and remain, largely on our own. We have no mentor to guide us. When we approach a new product, it’s just us and the system. If we can’t overcome the challenge of that product, we’ll ditch it. And that would be the end of that particular tale.

No–one actively seeks out difficult–to–use products and very few of us like to have to guess how something will work. Familiar patterns help to guide us, research–led design is our mentor, allowing us to get on with the journey towards our goal as quickly and easily as possible.

Human factors continue to represent the most important elements in communication and interaction. And so a user–centred design process remains the best formula for offering the simplest journey for users to get from where they are to where they want to be.

By Rick Monro

Rick was UX Director at Fathom from 2014 to 2017, when he left to take up a role as Principal UX Architect at Puppet.

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