The most important tenet of service design is working with user stories in mind.

This obsession with user centricity is creeping across business - is there any company exec that hasn't expounded to the press that "the customer is at the heart of everything we do"?

Thankfully, there's a renewed focus on the customer among marketers, too.

Marketers should always be cognisant of what customers want to achieve by buying their product or using their service. How was this focus eroded in the first place?

  • Has the idea of optimisation in digital media deflected from the human aspect of marketing?
  • Has email (the spam cannon) made the marketer too trigger happy and not measured or considerate enough?
  • Has targeted media and increasing segmentation increased workload for marketers, and dulled the message?
  • Has online interaction made the customer faceless?

Whatever hack reasoning or pop psychology I justify it with, there's an argument that the first decade or so of digital marketing wasn't particularly customer-focused. Many in the industry openly pine for the pencil-by-default days of the 'Mad Men', when marketing and advertising was all about getting inside the minds of the consumer.

But as mobile in particular has matured, the complexity of communications channels (and the unwieldy and costly nature of legacy IT systems) has necessitated a return to customer focus. Marketing crosses paths with digital service design, where user stories are gospel.

So, marketers are again obliged to have their user stories at front of mind and, like service designers, should probably have them stuck to the wall, too.

Government Digital Service provides some neat advice on creating user stories in its service manual.

What is a user story? 

'User stories describe a user and the reason why they need to use the service you’re building.'

Why do you need user stories?

These user stories must be front of mind to ensure services meet user needs when they are built, or, from a marketer's point of view, that any marketing encourages engagement.

Image via Jakuza on Flickr

user stories

How to construct user stories

User stories include:

  • the person using the service (the actor)
  • what the user needs the service for (the narrative)
  • why the user needs the service (the end goal) 

A user story may follow the format: As a... [who is the user?] I need/want/expect to... [what does the user want to do?] so that... [why does the user want to do this?].

As GDS points out, the goal is the most important part of the story. Designers and marketers must ensure they are, respectively, solving and addressing the right problem and they know when the goal is achieved.

If I were to construct a user story for an Econsultancy service / product (let's say the SEO Best Practice Guide) it might look like this:

  • "As a CMO, I want to be able to do a quick sanity check on my mobile of the work and the KPIs my SEO agency are talking about, to make sure we are getting value for money."

Or perhaps:

  • "As a digital content manager, I need a better understanding of technical SEO, so that I can ask the right questions of my development team." 

These user stories might inform how the guide is formatted and compiled, but they will also inform how it is marketed.

Each user story can be written up on a card and given a title. The cards can be pinned to a wall, or circulated in a digital format.

How to make use of user stories

Marketers should create user stories and use them to inform their work, their discussions with colleagues, and their progress (which needs have been met?). 

User stories should help in the prioritisation of work. Though this applies more to service design than marketing, it's still a relevant point. Your company may have fantastic products and services available, but if the user isn't aware of, informed of, or enticed by them, they will not be used.

Am I bastardising service design?

User stories are an integral part of service design. Why am I trying to say they are relevant to marketers, too?

Okay, I'm not trying to pretend that marketers, however digital, should be just like a service design team. Yes, there are many crossovers and areas where the teams must work together but all I'm saying is that it doesn't hurt marketers to remind themselves of the user again through the deceptively basic activity of creating user stories.

This activity is a lot like the development of personas, though exists at a more detailed level. If you've ever run a persona workshop, you'll know that some people in the organisation can be dismissive ("We know all this!") and the exercise can be quickly forgotten.

But these people (senior management?) miss the fact that it's the application of personas and user stories in day-to-day work that is important. So, get them in view and on show.

Just as those CEOs parrot, you should be (literally) putting the customer at the heart of everything you do.

To learn more on this topic, check out our Customer Experience training courses.

Ben Davis

Published 30 January, 2017 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (6)

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Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff

One addendum - I understand that ultimately marketing and advertising often addresses complicated, multilayered and even subconscious user goals (as opposed to the comparatively tidy goals of service design). And much of creating a user story in marketing may already be part of market research or positioning work. Nevertheless, the concept of user stories to inform marketing may still be a powerful one, particularly to draw upon for day-to-day inspiration.

over 1 year ago


David Dodd, Principal at Point Balance

Excellent points, Mr. Davis. A few quick comments/questions. First, user stories appear to be based on many of the same basic concepts as the "jobs-to-be-done" approach to innovation/product-service design. Second, once the product/service design team has developed a new product or service (or enhanced an existing product or service) based on a specific user story, doesn't that necessarily guide how the product or service should be marketed from a content perspective? I find it hard to believe that a new product or service will be highly successful if the design team has created it on the basis of a specific user story, but marketers try to generate demand for the product or service using a different user story.

over 1 year ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff

@David Yep, GDS certainly talks about ticking off stories in the same way as ticking off 'jobs to be done'.

I think you're right that marketing can probably benefit from having sight of user stories developed by the service design team. I suppose it depends how user research etc. is organised within your company. Marketing may well be involved in the early phases of service design if this involves customer insight and data analysis.

User stories are just like persona work for a marketer, but I think they are more salient. Having an abridged and prioritised list of them in front of, say, an email marketer, may make it easier for them to create and test messaging, particularly to different segments.

over 1 year ago

Jon Ewing

Jon Ewing, Creative Director at ltd

Fully agree with the sentiment here but FYI the word you want there is cognisant or (let's not split hairs over preferred spelling) cognizant - "cogniscent", on the other hand, is not a word!

over 1 year ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff

@Jon Whoops! Now fixed. Put all blame on editor. Could be a good name for a thinking man's after shave.

over 1 year ago


Peter Jordan, Head of Performance Analysis at Government Digital Service, Cabinet Office

@Ben Davis. I'd argue that insight from user research, quant and qual data and digital analytics are an integral part of creating effective user stories in early phases - as well as when products move towards and into Live - when insight should be key to prioritising user stories for ongoing development and campaigns. You need to work out 'what good looks like' so you can benchmark where you are now and measure if you've got to 'good'.

over 1 year ago

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