The Power of Storytelling in Product Development

Storytelling is one of the oldest and best means we have of engaging an audience, and for good reason — stories convey more than facts. Studies show that stories help people empathize and emotionally connect with information, meaning they’re more likely to absorb something when it’s presented in a narrative format. It’s because narratives activate specific parts of the brain, allowing the listener to connect with their own experiences, while heightening their powers of recall.

The basic rule of storytelling is “show, don’t tell.” Marketers know this well, as they aim to craft stories that demonstrate how a product or service will enrich people’s lives. They understand that people aren’t just buying products, they’re buying better versions of themselves which means they want to know how a product will shape their lives and own narratives.

Product design and development teams can also benefit from internalizing this core concept: People are not just buying products, they are buying better versions of themselves, and they want to know how your product will shape their lives and their narratives.

And because stories unite cross-functional teams around a shared vision, they also encourage a collective understanding about what’s being created and why. Simply put, a story acts as a common thread to ensure that the right thing is being built throughout the entire product development life cycle, which includes:

Research and Strategy

Data and analytics tell one part of the story related to what is happening but listening to users can help us figure out why it’s happening, as can ethnographic research. Putting it all into a narrative structure helps us further understand the situation and then find a solution.

Archetypes and provisional personas become protagonists and supporting characters, with the climax of each story sitting at the pain point your product is offering to solve. How can you make them better at overcoming this obstacle? A narrative story structure helps define hypotheses about user behavior, frame design solutions that are user-centered, and define your unique value proposition.

Stories, user journeys and customer funnels all describe a series of steps that people take during completing an action. User testing and funnel analysis help validate whether people are making it through the story, and a story structure provides context as to why people drop off or are unable to complete a task.

Design and UX

A consistent story helps to facilitate the leap from empathy to ideation.

By story mapping a user’s journey, you can map out an intended experience plot point by plot point. As a rule, looking at the user flow in context supports a cohesive and values-based UX strategy.

User flow is the order by which users perform tasks — the “how” — while context is the space in which users are likely to perform tasks — the “where” and “when.” Thinking through the experience as a story creates a system for making decisions about design and timing.

Development, QA and Release

Narrative storytelling helps us find ways to increase engagement with a product and unite a team around a common goal, making it different from agile user stories which primarily serve to organize engineering work.

The most successful digital teams collaborate cross-functionally, so that developers and QA engineers are involved in early research and design planning, enabling them to better understand the business context of a product and gain empathy for users. Narrative stories help to further break down walls between groups and promote a consistent vision.

Engineers ultimately make the stories happen, and their work becomes easier when all potential interactions with a product have been thought about, solved for and communicated in the shared understanding of a story.

Project managers can make sure that what’s being built clearly maps back to the product story and have a ready decision framework to help course-correct when needed.

QA engineers can then test to ensure that a new release doesn’t break the story or impact critical flows, and have a clear expectation of how to test in a realistic context.

Stories help teams get out of the minutiae and remember the “why” — creating a successful product isn’t about what features you build, or what your product can do. It’s about how you can help your users. It’s about what people can do if they use your product.

The Narrative Arc

So how does this all come together? For starters, the same, simple storytelling structure that works for books and films can also be used for products.

Every story needs three things — characters, goals and conflict — and goes through three stages — a beginning, middle and end, with most of the action happening in the middle. This chronological series of events is called a narrative arc.

In “The User’s Journey,” product storytelling expert Donna Lichaw maps out the common plot points of a story on a narrative arc, which include:

Taken from “The User’s Journey” by Donna Lichaw

To explain things further, we’ll use Star Wars as our case in point:

  • Exposition — We meet Luke Skywalker, a young man living on a moisture farm in Tatooine with his aunt and uncle, where he’s bored and left yearning for a life of adventure.
  • Inciting incident — R2-D2 gives Luke a message from Princess Leia, asking Obi-Wan Kenobi to help her.
  • Rising action — Obi-Wan Kenobi gives Luke his father’s lightsaber and offers to train him, they meet Han Solo and Chewbacca who agree to take them to Alderaan, then the Death Star destroys Alderaan and the allies save Princess Leia.
  • Crisis — Darth Vader kills Obi-Wan and Luke joins the rebels as a pilot to destroy the Death Star.
  • Climax — Luke follows Obi-Wan’s advice and uses the Force to help him destroy the Death Star.
  • Falling action or denouement — The Empire suffers a shattering defeat and Luke and Han return to the Rebel base as heroes.
  • End — Luke has succeeded in his goals of leaving Tatooine, becoming a pilot and fighting the Empire , and more importantly, taking his first steps towards becoming a Jedi.
Luke Skywalker — A New Hope

What works for movies will also work for products. Product stories flow through how people find, think about, use and recommend your product. It’s an approach my Smashing Ideas colleagues and I took when it came to creating an engaging digital product for Philips by the name of Sparkly…

Case Study

Meet Sparkly!

To help Philips promote a kid-friendly, Bluetooth-connected version of its successful electric toothbrush, Smashing Ideas created a companion app that would take advantage of the new tech to make it fun for kids to brush their teeth, building healthy habits that will last a lifetime.

We identified key archetypes, or our characters: kids aged seven to nine, and their parents. Initial research helped us better understand daily bathroom routines for these families and discover insights into pain points to identify opportunities where we could help — developing hypotheses to validate through user testing.

For instance, this is how we approached the first time flow to onboard users to the app, using story structure:

  • Exposition — Parents frustrated by the daily battle to get their 7-year-old daughter to brush her teeth, and to brush them properly, purchase a new Sonicare for Kids toothbrush on a recommendation from their dentist.
  • Inciting incident — At bedtime, a parent helps download the companion Sonicare Kids app on an old iPhone, and introduces it to her daughter.
  • Rising action — She launches the app, creates a profile with her first name and a photo, watches an animated sequence where she is introduced to her new pet, Sparkly, and gives it a name.
  • Crisis — Before brushing, she’s prompted to pair the toothbrush to the phone, but has some issues connecting with Bluetooth. Troubleshooting screens appear and removing the brush from the charging cradle resolves the issue, and the pairing is completed.
  • Climax — She enters the brushing experience, where she sees an animation of her Sparkly brushing its teeth and hears the instructions to follow along on her own teeth. After a completed brushing session, a gift appears for Sparkly, a new hat!
  • Falling action or denouement — Tooth brushing becomes something to look forward to, as she becomes attached to her Sparkly and wants to take care of it and earn new toys for it to play with.
  • End — The introduction of something fun into the routine made it less boring and less of a fight for these parents, and helped teach their daughter proper brushing techniques.

Framing the app in this way helped our team think through the flow of the bathroom routine, informing functionality and content.

Insights from in-home user testing with prototypes helped further guide design decisions, validate hypotheses and prioritize feature development.

Having clearly documented user flows proved invaluable when it came to communicating between design, development and business stakeholders, as well as defining clear testing scenarios for QA and launch-readiness.

Lesson Learned, a.k.a “The End”

Good marketers and product people get it — don’t focus on the brand. People buy your product because of what they want to do, not because they like your app or your company.

Always remember that a product is a tool that enables someone to do what they want or need to do. Which means that when you compete to make your user awesome at what they want to do, instead of making your app or product awesome, you start to have a real, lasting advantage over the thousands of other products competing for people’s time and money.

The best story is built around the customer, not the product. So, lesson learned: Make your customer a hero, and your product their magic weapon.

Originally published on AW360 on February 23, 2018.

Digital professional, creative life. Product manager for design systems at REI.