Storytelling in Product Design

Discover your product story during engineering

Product myth: Storytelling, for many, includes a heroic protagonist in a fictional narrative.

Discovery: Storytelling in product design takes a very different shape and form that helps frame meaning for both customers using the product as well as engineering teams building the user experience. Storytelling during product engineering helps guide and shape the product vision so teams can more easily make decisions about the product design.

Storytelling tools such as user scenarios or personas help focus the design around a person’s life. Personas become characters; user scenarios or workflows have narrative structures around a product’s lifecycle and so on. However, the key to effective storytelling in design is the ability to unbias the user experience from all extraneous elements that may actually contribute to a fictional narrative in the product design rather than around a real-world need.

Industry Insight: To do this, let’s consider how your product ultimately weaves its way into your customer’s story. For a banking customer, a product story might go like this. “I lost my ATM card while on a date last night and I had to pay for dinner with the banking app on my phone.” In this story, the bank application is a mere plot point in a customer’s story, but it’s not the customer’s story. The customer’s story is saving face while on a date by easily using a banking app to pay for dinner and being saved from possible public shame and embarrassment.

As product designers and engineers, our goal in the products we make is to ensure that when our products find their way into our customer’s narrative they play a positive role in their lives.

Under rigorous product release deadlines, it can be easy to oversimplify or not think beyond best-case scenario situations that perfectly validate an existing product vision rather than addressing edge cases or the underpinnings of the user experience.

Being able to pay for dinner with a phone application may not have been at the top of a product marketing feature list for the bank, but it could be an unforeseen feature that builds trust with your customers and helps your product stand out over the competition.

Storytelling, fictional or not, has key elements that carry the reader along whether they’re consumers or your product engineers by eliciting emotion with the product. The story behind any great product leaves people feeling an emotional connection. There are two key areas where emotion can play a critical role in product design.

I. Emotion in the things we create

Consider the last novel you read or the last movie you watched. They undoubtedly had narrative tension that probably made you feel uncomfortable or concerned during the moment. Yet, unless you’re a hospital and probably even then, these aren’t typically feelings we focus on during product design.

Yet, consider how Hangar Clinic, makers of the Hero Arm, elicits an emotional connection around an engineer who builds a bionic Hero Arm for a stranger who was born without an arm. The story doesn’t focus on the technical biomechanics, instead, they focus on how the solution solves a basic need in someone’s life. Anyone around this story can feel good about the product and we want to be part of that story because it emotionally resonates with a desire we all share to unlock human potential.

To create an emotional narrative around a product, the tone of the story needs to be focused on how the product will be used by people. Copy, visuals, and interactions can all have the same tone to convey and elicit positive emotion throughout the experience.

II. Emotion in the product design

The biggest misconception a product team can make is to assume aesthetically pleasing designs are like magnets that will just draw people in and sell solely on aesthetics. This, of course, is not the case. If you can’t get your stakeholders on board with your vision, your design skills mean very little.

Effectively building a “story” around a product vision, has these common elements:

  • Setting Context (tell me why this is important)
  • Demonstrate the Solution (solving the problem)
  • Defining Success (how will the user know if this works)

Setting Context: This is the most critical component because no one will sign onto a vision if they don’t understand why it matters.

Setting context isn’t about communicating why the work is important to you, it’s about communicating why the work should be important to the audience. This is an important distinction because often we approach the idea of setting context by walking people through our process. What research we did, how we did it, what we found, our personas, our flows and so on. While these are the important things to us, these are not important to most other people. The key is to use the information you’ve gained from the design process to get others excited about the project. Why should they care? Answering this question means you have to have an understanding of the many roles within the company, the individuals who fill them and be able to conceptualize your work through the lens of their goals and needs.

Context requires repetition. To keep an organization focused and on the same page you need to constantly remind people why a project is important. Every check-in at each stage of a project should include at least a brief reminder of the context at the outset. This even includes one-on-one design reviews with the person who assigned you the work. It may feel redundant but it frames all conversations around what’s important.

Demonstrate the Solution: Once the context has been established, show the solution. Depending on the stage of the work this could be anything from a conceptual discussion to high fidelity designs to an interactive prototype. As long as work is anchored to the context and how it’s solving the problem, the work will not only feel important but that it’s heading in the right direction.

The solutions detail will likely be relative to the audience and the goal of the meeting. A functional design review with engineering is probably going to require a significantly higher level of detail than a walkthrough for the executive team. Understand your context, both through the lens of goals and individual expectations, as it’s not a one size fits all deliverable.

Measuring Performance: In terms of importance, defining success is a close second to set the context. Defining success does two things in building a vision and eliciting emotion. First, it allows people to conceptualize and take ownership of what is important in a project. Clarity around the definition of success empowers each team to determine how to improve that features user experience.

Moreover, measuring performance codifies a shared goal across the team. This is what we are trying to accomplish and here is how we will all measure it together. Setting this expectation and getting buy-in on the definition means that if the project succeeds everyone gets to celebrate and if it fails everyone gets to work together to determine why and figure out next steps. Without defining success everyone is just left to wonder if his or her efforts were worth it.

In design, our goal is to elicit feelings of delight through clarity, understanding, and intention. If you are clear on the emotions you’re trying to drive, understanding the people who will engage with your work and are intentional with your approach, the product narrative writes itself.