I sed to be an avid reader. When I was a kid, I would go to the library and check out more books than I could carry home or ask my parents to drop me off at the bookstore (aka my backup library) on their way to work and spend the day reading there. As I got older, reading became less of a priority. I would relish books I had to read for homework and the passionate conversations we would have in class the next day, but I didn’t spend as much time reading for fun.
A few months ago, I found myself living a two-hour train ride away from work. The first week was dreadfully boring, but I quickly realized this was four hours a day being handed to me on a silver platter. Three months and 6,616 pages later, I’ve noticed an unexpected side effect of rediscovering my first love: It’s making me a better UX designer.
When an author describes a story from a character’s point of view, it allows me to see the world through the character’s eyes, experience their delight and frustration, and understand why they make the decisions they do. A richly drawn character is a reminder that people are multidimensional, always a product of their circumstances.
Take The Kite Runner for example: The protagonist is cowardly, unlikable, and entitled. His actions hurt the people who care about him the most, but the author describes why. Through the author’s words, I feel the protagonist’s jealousy toward anyone who receives his father’s affection, his paralyzing fear when he encounters a bully, and his heart-wrenching guilt when he instantly regrets his actions. Reading allows me to see the world through his eyes and empathize with him despite never having had his experiences in my own life.
Developing a deep understanding of characters who live in different circumstances than myself continues to teach me to empathize with user groups that I don’t belong to. For example, at Punchcut, I worked on a project that aimed to help people find their purpose. It was challenging for me to personally relate to this problem, but I thought back to the main character in Siddhartha and how he goes through the course of self-discovery. His journey helped guide the decisions I made when designing for this group of people.
The relationships I’ve built with the characters of the stories I’ve read have allowed me to develop a nuanced empathy and understanding of diversity that helps me design for a wide range of people. At a larger scale, I’ve gained a detailed awareness of a greater variety of circumstances. I’ve started to view the world as more diverse — not just in terms of demographics, but as a spectrum of experiences, customs, and lifestyles.
Reading a book requires me to use my imagination to visualize the world I’m reading about. When I read a book, my brain has the creative agency to explore as my imagination takes me to different places, events, and time periods. Hamlet transports me to a castle in Denmark, back in the late middle ages. A Clockwork Orange takes me to a dystopian future with a scheming totalitarian government. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I travel to Narnia, a fantasy world full of talking animals. My imagination is the train that takes me there.
Imagination is like a muscle: The more you use it, the more creative you can be. This is essential to UX design — I use my imagination to visualize scenarios, context, and design elements as I’m coming up with concepts.
When I was working on a concept project recently, I had to imagine how a specific technology could be used though the technology does not yet exist. Reading about imaginary worlds has taught me how to conceptualize how something will look, act, and feel before it exists and has improved my ability to solve problems in innovative ways. All of those are core design skills.
Books aren’t all written the same way. Numerous techniques can be used to tell the same story — with devices like flashbacks and symbolism — and depending on the story, some work better than others. Reading has armed me with a toolset of storytelling strategies and new ways of communicating my ideas. Through example, literature continues to develop my understanding of how best to communicate based on the audience and content.
Books reveal details with a deliberate order and pace to tell the story in a digestible way. By sharing information when it is most relevant, the author keeps the reader focused. This is parallel to the interaction design technique known as progressive disclosure, a method of revealing details in a design as they are needed.
I’ve found the concept of storytelling just as important for presenting my designs. When I was putting together a recent presentation, I thought back to two books with drastically different communication styles. Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a book that discloses details with restraint, weaving the context and plot together like a mystery leading up to a great reveal. Catch-22 invests in setting the scene to provide ample context before diving into the plot. The former builds anticipation while the latter is direct. The contrast between these two books helped me better consider my audience and decide that they were more of a Catch-22 bunch.
As a UX designer, the art of storytelling is essential for communicating my ideas. By reading, I’ve observed and developed my own eloquence, making me more effective at telling the story of my designs.
The analysis I naturally do while reading — picking out devices like metaphor, foreshadowing, and irony — has developed my eye for identifying motives, patterns, and themes. This is essentially the core of research synthesis. Design even uses some of the same methods as literature, such as identifying themes, hero moments, and archetypes. During a recent project, my team was collecting information about user behavior and actions when ordering medical supplies. While synthesizing these findings to identify patterns and insights, I realized this is exactly what I do while reading (except without the Post-its). Literary analysis is to reading what synthesis is to UX research. They use the same skills, so the more I read, the more instinctive synthesis becomes.
Over the past few months working at Punchcut, I’ve been able to use literature to help me empathize with people who are struggling to find their purpose, imagine the future of emerging technology, effectively communicate a story through a slide deck, and analyze problems people have when they order medical supplies. I can’t wait to see how I can continue to use my favorite stories to inspire design solutions in the future.