The screenwriting approach to product management

Sometimes it’s fun to apply the paradigms of one domain to another and see if you learn anything. Here, I’ll consider product management from the perspective of a screenwriter by applying the paradigms of the screenplay to managing product design, delivery and deployment.

You don’t have to be a screenwriter to have some idea of screenplay paradigms. Most people watch movies and have probably absorbed many of these paradigms without even realising it. Most screenplays comprise a series of entities including characters, locations, a narrative, scenes, sequences and storylines. So how does this relate to product management?

Let’s begin with characters — who correspond to customers or users or personas in the product management world. Just as a screenwriter wants to create fully rounded and meaningful characters that an audience can relate to, so the product manager needs to do a similar job in relation to the anticipated product customer/user personas. Poorly developed characters generally result in a weak screenplay in much the same way as poorly understood customers will negatively impact product design.

In most screenplays there are categories of characters — main characters and extras for example — and in product management these kinds of categories can be useful to separate different types of customer/user personas for ranking purposes. However, there are also usually two special characters in every screenplay — the protagonist and the antagonist or the hero and the villain. In product management terms these are the adopter and resistor customers. Just as it helps to understand what motivates the protagonist and antagonist in terms of their ‘drive’ and ‘backstory’, so it helps product managers to understand more about those customers who are likely to or do adopt a product and those who aren’t and don’t.

The action of a screenplay takes place at different locations and to some extent the location conditions the action that can take place. This is no different in product management in the sense that products are used in places and these places can condition how a product can be used and should be designed for that use. An obvious example is extreme location use: How will the product cope with heat, cold, water, wind? So considering the locations for product use is another design parameter product managers must consider.

Screenplays often represent a story comprising a series of cause and effect scenes organized into a coherent narrative. Traditionally, most satisfying stories have a beginning, a middle and an end — just like a customer journey. Today, the beginning and the end of the customer journey have assumed more importance than perhaps they used to have due to factors such as ‘unboxing’ and ‘onboarding’ and sustainability considerations.

Of course the customer journey begins well-before any kind of unboxing experience. Often you want to find the product online, find out about it, make an informed buying decision and perhaps pay for it before receiving it (in the case of typical consumer products) and for a product manager this means everything to do with the product’s online presence — the website/landing page, the SEO characteristics, blogs and white papers, the payment gateways used and so on.

The explosion in unboxing videos on YouTube testifies to how important this initial part of the customer journey really is — just like the beginning or Act 1 of a screenplay where key characters and themes and the overall ‘storyworld’ are introduced. If you are not hooked at the beginning of the screenplay you probably won’t carry on reading (or viewing the movie) into the middle. Equally if the unboxing is an unsatisfactory experience then products are likely to be returned and in some small way, reputational damage incurred.

Not all products are unboxed. If your product is a service then the equivalent of unboxing is onboarding. In fact these days even a traditional product can involve both unboxing and onboarding in the sense of signing up for a support/service website prior to or during actual use of the product. Onboarding is analogous to introducing the storyworld in a screenplay. A storyworld is used to ‘situate’ the audience in the movie. For example are we in the past, present or future; are we expecting a historical drama, a contemporary romcom or sci-fi; where is the action taking place? Product managers also need to think about how to establish their product’s storyworld as effectively as possible to avoid any kind of customer/user confusion.

The ‘middle’ in terms of the user experience and customer journey is focused on the day to day use of the product. This is normally the largest section of a screenplay and you would expect to be the most ‘hands-on’ part of product ( or service) usage. This is when product managers want to ensure that customers are supported and that regular feedback can be obtained (either manually from the user or automatically from the product itself), so that useful data can be compiled from the user that can be used by data product managers to analyze usage and suggest improvements.

Nobody likes an unsatisfactory ending in a screenplay (or movie) and the same should be the case for products. No product manager should want customers to to be asking themselves ‘Now what do I do with this?’ at their product’s end of life. Clear recycling and/or reuse instructions, or dispose and /or donation options should be provided. Just like a happy ending in a movie, this attention to product end of life provides the kind of closure that leaves the audience (the customer) feeling good about the movie (product) and satisfied that they made the right decision to watch (buy) it.

Compelling screenplays — especially the ‘middle’ section usually depend on conflict, character change and turning points. Product managers should consider how their products may introduce conflicts and may change the behaviour of their customers, the aim being to ensure that any conflicts introduced or changes triggered are positive in nature. Identifying turning points in the customer journey is also vital, namely those events that can trigger a change in customer behaviour that may be desired or unwanted. We have already identified one such turning point, the unboxing and /or onboarding experience, but there are likely to be many others depending on the complexity of the product and the sophistication of the target customer.

A screenplay comprises scenes that have certain characteristics and may be grouped into sequences and storylines — not unlike product use cases. Two of the characteristics of a scene are whether it will be shot internally (INT) or externally (EXT) and during the DAY or during the NIGHT. Even these simple characteristics have a product management implication in terms of where and how the product is used. For example a product with use cases focused on EXT and NIGHT uses will have a different design focus from one focused on INT and DAY uses. Take the simple example of a bedside table lamp with a primary use case of INT and NIGHT . Because it is often dark when we want to turn on our lamp in the bedroom it makes sense to design so that an on/off switch is easily visible at night by making it luminous or highlighted by a small indicator light.

Product uses cases are little more than a sequence of scenes, scenes that can either be described in text and/or storyboarded using visual images or drawings — just like a screenplay. In a screenplay, a scene comprises of snippets of action description or character dialog and perhaps an explicit transition (e.g. CUT TO) another location and scene. Product use cases are no different and can benefit from being scripted, with explicit action and dialog, as well as making clear if and how transitions are needed, just like a screenplay scene.

Many screenplays involve multiple storyline ‘threads’ that run through the time-based and event-based narrative and add richness to the story as a whole. Products may also have storylines that should map directly onto individual use cases or combinations of use cases.

Just as screenplays benefit from having a clear theme that is reinforced at different points in the story, products also need to have a clear theme such as quality and ease of use that is reinforced throughout the user experience and customer journey. If the product theme is quality and ease of use then it does not help if the packaging is cheap and the unboxing difficult. Reinforcing theme is important because it constantly reminds the customer what your product is really all about.

So as you have gathered, the screenwriting perspective does have many synergies with product management. And I hope that as a part of your own product management cycle you can make use of this screenwriting perspective to input into your product design, delivery and deployment discussions. Like a movie that visualizes and plays out a screenplay, a product can do much the same thing.

So does your product have a screenplay?

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