Design by Story: A New Way to Build Great Products

(This blog was originally published in 2015 on wodenworks.com)

In 2014, Tory Burch was given a gift by her staff to celebrate the 10th anniversary of her incredibly successful fashion company. It was a book that paid tribute to all the work that she and her team had done over the past decade to turn an idea into a billion dollar business by chronicling all the moments that got them there. The book reaffirmed Tory’s own belief in why she created such a successful brand. “It’s all about storytelling,” she said, “it’s years of stories.”

How do you design successful products? For businesses trying to get their feet off the ground, this question usually factors in pretty quickly. We all want to find a way to design better than everyone else has. Whether that means a less time-consuming work cycle, better accounting for what the audience is looking for, or more features, the core goal never changes. How can I do the job better than the people that have come before?

Methodologies for leaner, more efficient, and ultimately successful business models and effective development strategies are everywhere. But can applying story and storytelling to design lead to better, more successful products — in a way these models and strategies overlook?

The effect a good story can have on a business is usually understood in purely marketing terms. You get people’s attention by appealing to their emotions and you solidify your brand identity with anecdotes that resonate. We believe in these things — that story is the definitive marketing solution of the modern day — but we also believe that you can go even further with story. What if we took all those elements — creating an emotional connection, reaching out to your audience — and built them directly into the product itself?

A built-in connection

By “building stories into the fabric of the ‘system’” as Charlotte Fereday of the Guardian puts it, the emotional connection you’re looking for is intrinsic to the product itself. She uses Nest, a brand of smart thermometers, as an example. Nest introduces features naturally in the process of using it instead of overloading you with cumbersome instructions in the beginning. The user interaction is intuitive with a genuine sense of progression as it adapts to your particular settings and behaviors. It feels good to use, has a genuine personality, and you form a connection because of that.

The team collaboration tool Slack — valued in 2015 at 2.8 billion dollars — has taken this principle of story design to new heights. What started as a relatively niche chatroom app quickly ballooned into the definitive internal communications tool for businesses and organizations of every size. How did this happen? The answer, put simply, is story-centric design.

Andrew Wilkinson of MetaLab, the design agency behind Slack’s user interface, recently put his thoughts in on why Slack’s iconic look and feel played a major role in its remarkable success story. Before Andrew got their hands on Slack, according to him “it looked like a hacked together version of IRC in the browser.” IRC (Internet Relay Chat) is the bog standard for chatroom services. The UI is clunky and basic, but it gets the job done. Andrew and his team took that diamond in the rough and shaped it into an incredibly user-friendly design that leveraged one core principle. Fun.

So how does story-centric design fit in? When Andrew set out to improve Slack, he applied many of the same principals that story design encourages. Just like Nest thermometers, Slack has a genuine sense of personality. It practically bleeds fun with its vibrant colors, friendly typeface, emoticons, and entertaining feature integration like Giphy. Slack has an identity. It feels more like a friend than a tool. You form an emotional connection because it makes you feel something when you interact with it. Just like a good story.

Building products with a storyboard

Braden Kowitz believes quite literally in designing products like a story. He makes the case that designing with a storyboard rather than a blueprint will make for better products. When you build with a blueprint, you take a bunch of elements and place them on an interface without any sense of how they fit together. There’s no cohesion, no identity, and no story. You’re building a hacked together version of IRC. You’re not building Slack.

In story-centered design, according to Kowitz, “teams critique work by looking at dozens of sequential mockups that function like frames in a filmstrip.” You design by going through each sequence in the same way that your user would interact with the product, step-by-step. If the first interaction smoothly leads to an eventual problem solved then you have built a successful product. If there are any problems on the way there, they’re easy to spot because you can clearly recognize the break in the story’s flow.

Storytelling is the future of design

We’re living in what Daniel Pink calls the “Conceptual Age” in his book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brain Thinkers Will Rule The Future. In the Conceptual Age — unlike the Industrial and Information Age before it — the skill to create, design, and tell stories will be the most powerful sort of currency. Pink writes:

“We’ve progressed from a society of farmers to a society of factory workers to a society of knowledge workers. And now we’re progressing yet again — to a society of creators and empathizers, of pattern recognizers and meaning makers. We’ve moved from an economy built on people’s backs to an economy built on people’s left-brains to what is emerging today: an economy and society built more and more on people’s right-brains.”

Right-bright thinkers are at the forefront of a society that is placing ever increasing value on the ability to make connections and tell good stories. These stories are at the heart of everything that we do even if we can’t always see them. They are the mortar — invisible, but essential — that turn a stack of bricks into a structure that will last. There is no more powerful force in the world when it comes to making people care about what it is that you do and that’s something that you should be building directly into your products.

— ZK

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.