The Importance of Being Buffy (in UX)

I am a long-time User Experience Designer who’s spent the majority of his career working in consultancy. I have my projects on the side like most of us out there working the tech racket. Some of these projects are hitched to academic interests that I managed to picked up along my paperback journeys. Others are related specifically to consultancy, but the common thread between both is the application of strategic design. For the user experience design community, this means taking our trade into new realms where our insights may bring about a new brand of benefits for users.

So here is my medium. I am hoping to write for consumption and inspiration. Maybe I can light a fire in the minds of other UXD’s out there and we can start to explore these topics together. Or, at least provide a bit of mental stimulation for my fellow intellectual drifters riding the morning train to work.

Joss Whedon’s pop-culture television series ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’(BtVS) is a widespread favorite topic of study for a variety of academics. According to The Atlantic’s article The Rise of Buffy Studies, and Slate’s Culture Blog Community, BtVS’s mass appeal in academia is credited to its elegant parodies on the popular social mores of its day. The show was designed with potent storytelling intended to encourage viewers to drop the preverbal mask that society has imposed upon them.

So what’s so important about storytelling for a user experience designer?

A long time ago on a campus not so far away, a literature review was published on the use of formulated storytelling to influence people’s opinions on social issues with emotional conditioning. It was one of many papers on this topic, and in its own way explained why the application of formulas for storytelling has been put to effective use since the dawn of civilization.

Formulas in storytelling have commonly been used to create a character that gradually becomes relatable to the audience, adhering to a strategy of storytelling from one episode to the next until a vicarious bond is formed and the character’s revelations more easily become the audience’s own revelations.

Joseph Campbell identified many of these formulas, the most popular of which is called ‘The Hero’s Journey.’ This particular formula is more commonly known as The ‘Monomyth,’ a term Campbell coined from James Joyce’s Finnigan’s Wake. But the term ‘Monomyth’ can really be used to describe any formula ascribed to a story to make it compelling.

Formulas have traditionally been used to purposefully engage audiences with tales intended to rear listeners into proper adult thinking, for the benefit of their group, tribe, or society.

Many of our favorite movies and television shows have consciously adopted the prescribed monomyths of effectual storytelling, using formulas to make storylines more enticing so an underlying theme or message can feel relevant to the audience.

A popular theme that was addressed in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the trauma of gay adolescents who are unfortunate enough to be brought up in a rural stereotype of the 90's; a setting where family and friends view homosexuality as a curiosity to be held apart from the ‘normal’ human experience (at best).

The parody expressed in Buffy’s trials is specific — her identity as ‘The Slayer’ is her identity as a lesbian. Her friend’s and her mother’s resistance to accept Buffy’s true identity is the catalyst for her painful challenge throughout several episode leading into the third season of the show. The parodies and themes of the show become more apparent to the audience as their relationship with the characters flourish under good writing. And as the themes reveal themselves to be introspective journeys, the audience is compelled to consider the underlying message as it applies to their own lives. This is Buffy’s message of self-acceptance, and the show set it to the contemporary theme of living as a teenage lesbian in ‘today’s’ world of the 1990’s.

‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ can serve as a valuable template for storytellers as they work to fill in the gaps between their own story and their characters’ personal perspectives by enriching them with purposeful themes.

In 1895, Oscar Wilde’s hit play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ had similar remarks to make on the value of using themes to reorient perspective.

The main characters in Wilde’s play decide to play a game where they set aside the sycophantic burdens of victorian culture to adorn masks (figuratively), masks that then allow them to express themselves unabashed. The results are uncomfortable, hilarious, chaotic, and an altogether poignant statement on the importance of holding on to that unadulterated aspect of your personality, else you lose your humanity, or even worse — your sense of humor.

So, once again, what does this have to do with user experience design? If you’re starting to pick up the scent of personas and use cases and user journeys then you’re on the right path.

User experience designers, particularly those who do a lot of testing, know that users often contradict what they say with what they do, even if they’re being honest. That’s why we rely on eye and click tracking, A/B testing and data from large sample sizes to get to the truth of a design challenge. Unfortunately, the gap between the users’ vocalized perceptions and what the test results reveal is often left unaddressed, leaving our design logic vulnerable.

“Try to understand what it’s like to be your users.” I have found myself repeating this statement to clients time and time again. Sure, the users said they love your product, but test results reveal that they really don’t enjoy using it. Are you prepared to explain why your test results are contradicting what the users are saying? If not, your client will be happy to explain it for you — you screwed up the tests.

Stakeholders who hold a vivid vision of their product are much like the writers out there who hate their editor for ruining their story.

The writer understands that the purpose of the story is for others to consume it as literature, but she is creating a journey from her own perspective based on her own assumptions of what readers will be getting out of it. Just as it is with your client and the product, their idea of the story makes perfect sense to them and when the editor/UXD fails to validate their vision, they want to know why. This is where storytelling can play a significant role for the user experience designer, just as it does for the editor trying to shape up the writer’s novel.

Identify the Theme

So here you are in the boardroom again, projecting yet another deck for your client and their chosen council of talking heads. Long after the user persona slides, the stated predispositions, bundles of insights, competitor experience evaluations, and details of your testing parameters, you finally get to the test results slide. And your results are standing in direct contradiction to all of that previous data. Even the hypotheses for your tests have been blown out of the water.

What do you do? Identify the theme and tell the story. Get visual. Get vocal. Remember how deep those personas are buried in your presentation and pull them out again. You need to be vocal and you need to be engaging, especially if you are contending with stakeholders who are already invested in their own ideas. If at this meeting you are unable to make sense of the self-contradictory behavior of the users, your client’s vision will be the only guiding light.

If you are a novice with these soft skills then start practicing them by doing mock presentations in as similar an environment as possible to the real thing, as often as you can. And take extensive notes on what you want to say about your designs before every real presentation you do. If you are already proficient in this area, that means your comfort level is at least slightly above profuse sweating and embarrassing body noises so you’re ready to advocate your user.

A Theme

Predispositions: What the user said before testing

“I bet this software is going to help me slay vampires faster!”

Insights: What the user does and says during testing

[User slays many vampires using software]

“I’m slaying vampires alright, but I ‘d like the software to work differently.”

Message: what you discover the user is trying to communicate

“The way this software works is changing my natural process for slaying vampires.”

A theme in any form that we are concerned with here is a monomyth. If you find yourself having trouble identifying the theme for your journey or group of journeys, taking a quick look at the actual monomyths from Joseph Campbell’s work can help you work one out. The use of Campbell’s monomyths to create UX themes may be a good topic for a future post. He follows quite a rigid anatomy for defining them, but I‘ll avoid the details of it here. The monomyth Campbell calls ‘The Hero’s Journey’ is good one to lean on, and it has been used prominently to communicate messages in many stories, including Star Wars and Indiana Jones. It is also the dominate formula used for Buffy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Any factor that determines how the user is making decisions during the experience can become part of your theme. You could extrapolate details from the environment from which the user is interacting with the product, the user’s culture, or a set of personal circumstances to affect their perspective.

In no time at all you have gone from:

“User A successfully completed the usability test but had the following feedback…”


“We have a user who is on the plane looking at your WiFi-Connect interface on his laptop from an uncomfortable 45 degree angle. The user is a working-class business professional who often flies coach. In the past, the user has had interrupted service, and experienced difficulty connecting.”

Don’t forget the message:

“This experience is about necessity and not enjoyment. Please design for that above all else.”


“if I knew I could be easily compensated for interrupted service I wouldn’t stress purchasing WiFi-Connect.”


“It’s hard enough watching Buffy from a 45 degree angle, why can’t I control this video player with my keyboard?”

Getting this rhythm down where you are always looking for the next message from your users is a value product of iterative design. The messages themselves can often be translated into hypotheses or entire use cases for new product experiences.

Lets get specific on how you can successfully communicate the theme by doing it the Whedon-Wilde way.

Give your client the right perspective by conveying the user’s message with a story. Abandon your own assumptions and judgements about the design and the user so you can fit into their shoes. Sure, Buffy messed up those baddies and gave the vampire lord his just deserts, but how hard did she struggle? What one major change to Buffy’s circumstances could have made her experience an excellent one if you had been living it? Now, put your client into those same shoes and get them to start asking the same kind of questions. Don’t spout off observations — talk about her story like it’s your own and your client will begin to do the same. Consciously apply the user’s predispositions and insights to develop concepts about the message they are trying to send, and then put the whole drama into context with the theme.

The importance of Being Buffy is all about creating a habit of reorientation on your perspective so you can guide your clients into doing the exact same thing. If done well, you will find that this practice can improve the overall health of your projects and your relationship with your client.