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Why Storytelling in Product Development Matters

Corrina Wang

Corrina Wang

Senior Product Designer

“When a story takes shape, we’ve taken a string of events and invested it with meaning.”

Philip Martin

Storytelling is an incredibly powerful tool that product builders often overlook – but doing so comes at a cost. Good storytelling allows you to leave a lasting impression on your clients, team members, and stakeholders. As product builders, we are in a unique position to not only influence the product vision, but how the product delivers a meaningful difference to the lives of our users. 

And our knowledge of the user is where the power of storytelling exists. We spend countless hours trying to understand a person’s journey, finding a solution to their frustrations, yet some of this context is inevitably lost to stakeholders when the conversation dances around usability, tech feasibility, timeline, and other project-specific conversations. 

By building a story around each and every project, you are taking your audience on a journey beyond what is shown on the page and reminding them of the protagonist. It is one of the best ways to help the audience uncover meaning and emotionally connect with the information that is being presented. What’s powerful about this approach is that it demonstrates that your product is about more than facts, it’s about the people you’re designing for and stories are the way to help stakeholders build empathy with your users as three-dimensional people.

So how do you craft a story around your product?

The protagonist is your user

Give your audience a hero to root for. This hero is not you or your product. This hero is the person you are making your product for, they are your target users or personas. To accomplish this, let your audience bond with the user by allowing them to see the world through the eyes of your character. Convey and elicit the feelings and experience of your character to create an emotional narrative. 

For people to want to engage with this hero’s journey, your protagonist’s needs should feel important. Who are they? What makes them relatable? Make your character familiar and provide reasons for why their success is important. Convey what happens if they fail to get their job done. Most importantly, help your audience truly empathize and understand why they should care about the goals of this person.

Plan your story

It’s important to have a clear structure or plot in the stories we tell. If you distill your favourite stories, you see a common pattern of three basic parts: beginning, middle, end. This linear flow is called a narrative arc. 

Typically, an engaging story follows a protagonist who takes on a call to action. The character must resolve some sort of conflict and achieve their goals. Like a rollercoaster, complex narratives that surge from high to low and back again gives the audience a sense of completion and makes the story whole. It may seem overly simplistic, but the same story structure can be articulated through the product user’s core need, desire, or job to be done. After all, solving for defined problems and presenting a clear solution, reinforces why and how a product is going to bring value to a target user.

Positioning your ideas can be told through the same narrative arc: 

  • Beginning: The Setup 
  • Middle: The Conflict  
  • End: The Solution

The Setup:

The setup is about setting the stage and providing context for your audience. Your audience should get an idea of who your protagonist – your user – is, what their day-to-day life is like, and what their goals are. Place your audience into the scene and allow them to relive the life of your character.

The Conflict:

The conflict describes the challenges and the problems that your character is facing. The aim is to establish an emotional impact connection with your audience. By doing so, you’ll create a shared understanding and shared goal across different audiences of the problem that you’re trying to solve. Top tip: Connect your audience to the problem by linking the conflict with something that is familiar and relatable.

The Solution:

Now that the context is fully established, you can present the solution. Depending on where you are on the product-development process, the solution is the idea, strategy, wireframes, or product that will enable your protagonist to overcome their conflict. The key is to tie everything back to the context you’ve established. Reinforce why this solution will solve the problem you’ve presented, giving the protagonist (your user) the tool they need to have the heroic ending they deserve.

Know your audience

Understanding who your audience is and what information is meaningful to them should impact the choices you make in how you tell the story of both the user and the product. You may want to create a persona of your audience to get a better idea about the demographic you are presenting to. 

To illustrate, let’s imagine telling an engineer the story of the Three Little Pigs vs. telling the same story to the CEO of your company. These two people have wildly different priorities, one needs to understand exactly what is being built and how they should do it, the other must focus on the why from a vision and a commercial standpoint. As a result, it’s likely that the way you tell this story and the information you choose to expand upon or leave out will look somewhat different in terms of the detail, structure, or tone. As the storyteller your choice of language can be the difference between gaining or losing trust, investment, and motivation.  

Your goal is twofold: to retell the story in a digestible way, and to help the audience understand why your story is important to them and why they should care. At the core, knowing your audience allows you to communicate in a way that ensures that your product emotionally resonates with your listeners.

Source: “The Story Coaster – New York Times”

Storytelling keeps your audience engaged and makes your meetings more fun

Take advantage of these storytelling techniques to make your presentations more impactful. Stories bring clarity, engage your audience, and build mental connections. In product development, storytelling has often been viewed as a “nice to have”; but in reality, it is essential for winning the interest, attention, and trust of colleagues and stakeholders alike. Ultimately, telling the right story is a crucial step in ensuring that your great product idea becomes an impactful real-world product.

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