How the Cruise Consumer Design Team Tells Great Stories

Justin Stahl
4 min readJul 27, 2022

Great storytelling is an important skill for designers, who have to share their ideas with partners, write user problems, present designs, and explain features to new users. However, it can be challenging for designers to communicate the problems they’re solving and the rigor they put into their work when their audience may have limited time or attention span.

Over my career, I’ve learned some simple techniques to tell great stories that I now teach to the Consumer design team at Cruise to help them build features for riders, educate customers about autonomous vehicles, and craft visions of the future of transportation.

How Stories are Structured

It’s common for designers to share their thought process in order, taking their audience through the same journey they went on, but that process is often long and winding. Great stories, on the other hand, are linear. Every movie, book, and tv show follows this basic structure:

  • Context: First, there’s an overview of the situation and relevant facts the audience needs to understand.
  • Problem: There’s a problem and root causes to be solved.
  • Solution(s): There’s a solution, or several solutions, to the problem.
  • Trade-Offs: Finally, the solution has positive results, but potentially creates new problems to solve.

Organizing our design stories this way creates a natural, familiar flow that’s easy for our audience to follow along with.

A diagram that shows the flow of a story from left to right. The first item is Context. The second item is a Problem. The third item is a Solution, and the last item is the Trade-Offs.
Every story follows this simple, linear path.

Designers may have multiple ideas or solutions to share in their story, and in that case, we can organize our solutions and trade-offs together.

A diagram that shows the flow of a story from left to right. The first item is Context. The second item is a Problem. The third item is Solution 1 and its trade-offs, then Solution 2 and its trade-offs, and finally Solution 3 and its trade-offs.
For designers, organizing solutions and trade-offs together can make the story more clear.

Let’s look at an example from Cruise, where designer Lauren Argo and her team solved a pain point for some of our driverless grocery delivery customers.

In Phoenix, AZ, Cruise is piloting driverless grocery delivery in partnership with Walmart. After ordering their groceries, customers are sent an SMS message to opt-in to driverless delivery. Because there is no driver, when the vehicle arrives at the curb, people must unlock the door with our web app to retrieve their bags.

Picking up groceries from a driverless vehicle is a new experience for our first-time customers. Sometimes they don’t realize we need them to unlock the door with their phone because they missed the SMS instruction, didn’t tap a link to our web app, or left their phone inside when they went out to the vehicle.

The Delivery team educated customers on the unlock experience in three ways.

  1. They added a GIF to the opt-in message showing customers unlocking the door with a phone. The GIF sets expectations for customers, but they may not scroll to see the full opt-in text.
  2. They added an instructional carousel to the web app. It also sets expectations, but could get in the way of quickly unlocking, so is only shown to first-time customers.
  3. They added a sticker to the door showing a phone-unlock icon. The sticker reminds customers to use their phone, but adds some cost and installation time.

By implementing these solutions, the team has dramatically improved customer education in unlocking the door for retrieval.

A woman is opening the back door to a self-driving car parked on a street curb in order to retrieve her groceries from the backseat carrier in Phoenix, AZ.
Showing images and GIFs of people unlocking the door with their phone set expectations for new customers.

In a few short paragraphs, we’ve summarized weeks of research, data, and design into a simple clear story that covers the context, the problem and its causes, the solutions, and the trade-offs.

Refining Our Stories

Using the storytelling structure can help us understand which aspects of our story need to be more succinct, clear, or impactful. For instance, if our audience asks a lot of follow-up questions on the situation, we might have provided better context. If they didn’t understand why we chose a specific solution, we might need to refine our problem statement or trade-offs.

A helpful tool for refining a story is to write down a theme, a word or short phrase that represents the core insight or takeaway for your audience. In the delivery example above, we want our audience to understand the importance of education, a recurring theme for our designers at Cruise as we teach people how to interact with driverless vehicles.

Lastly, to make our stories more succinct and impactful, we can remove unnecessary information until our audience asks for it. I’m a devotee of the rule of three, a writing principle that suggests people more easily consume and remember information in groups of three. If we keep problems, solutions, and trade-offs to only the top 1–3 relevant items, we remove less important details and make our stories more memorable.

With practice, this structure becomes natural and easy to use on the fly. Although I’ve been using them for years, I return to these techniques every day to structure my communication to my partners and team, and I’ve seen the impact it’s had on my designers in all the situations they need to tell stories.