Designing Products? Here are Three Reasons Why You Should Storyboard them first

Can film making teach something about designing engaging products for the digital age? I go down the rabbit hole.

Venky Ramachandran
Aug 23, 2017 · 9 min read
The storyboard you see above made sure that the scene you see below creates a foreboding sense of chilling terror. Created by one of the greatest storyboard artists of Hollywood, Harold Michelson, for Hitchcock’s classic The Birds (1963). Credits: Universal Pictures ( Used for educational/illustrative purposes alone)

I started my “career” (if you are fond of that archaic 20th century term once used for automobiles) by making three outrageously bad remix documentaries about the Internet back in 2010. I have collaborated with film makers for crowdfunding film projects, and last year I taught Content Strategy and Storytelling at a film-school in Hyderabad.

Despite all of this, I never saw the connection deeply with the work I did in the Internet. As the karmic law of hoary clichés goes, the dots didn’t connect.

It took me an unforeseen project, few months back, when I found myself redesigning an Enterprise SaaS platform, to observe my instincts gnawing at me.


One thing led to another, and I began to chase the curious rabbit running with a waist-coat pocket: Is it possible to storyboard a SaaS product, with all its intricacies as much as any film-maker would go about composing a complex shot, with all nuances and details?

Talking of nuances, did you notice the hand-written note below the third image of the storyboard saying “Hold for 20 or 30 feet”?

That’s Harold instructing those who are responsible for bringing those storyboards into celluloid to hold the close up of the protagonist for 20–30 feet of film reel, approx 15–22 seconds, based on the inputs given by Hitchcock: “We will hold that close-up, until the audience can’t stand it” (Source: The Making of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”)

Having experimented with story-boarding for designing Content and SaaS products, I can safely say that it is one of the best methods to kick start the design process.

Not convinced?

Alright, Here we go.

I present to you three long reasons, starting from the philosophical bedrock to the tactical storey elements, as we do bottoms up.

You are forewarned. I am going to take some time to build the foundation. I will proceed faster, once the foundations are set.

Reason #1: If humans experience “reality” through stories, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to design experiences through stories?

In the early 1990s, Daniel Kahneman and Don Redelmeir designed an interesting experiment using patients undergoing painful colonoscopy. Back then, patients didn’t have the kind of drugs we have today, and so the experience was a deeply painful one.

Daniel set up this experiment to test two patterns they were noticing in previous experiments.

  1. The duration of the painful procedure didn’t affect the rating of the total amount of pain experienced by the patient.

On the face of it, it looks counter-intuitive right? Say, twice the duration of the procedure, it should be twice as painful right?

If you look at the data gathered from rats and humans, it tells you something else.

Duration had NO effect on the total pain experienced by the patient. In fact, if you look at the second pattern, it tells us that researchers were behind something far more interesting.

2. The total amount of pain experienced by the patient can be predicted by the average of the level of pain reported at its peak moment and the end.

For the sake of our exploration, let us imagine two patients- John and Michael, who participate in this experiment.

The graph below indicates the total amount of pain experienced by the patients throughout the time duration of the procedure.

Based on the graph above, which patient suffered the worst experience of colonoscopy? No doubts here. It has to be Michael, if you go by the area under the curve. Now, after these patients had gone through the procedure, they were asked to rate the “total amount of pain” they had experienced.

Now, can you guess which patient among the two would have reported the worst memory of the experience?

Obviously, Michael right??

No, you are wrong.

It was John who reported the worst memory of the experience.

So, what exactly is happening?

Although both John and Michael had the same rating (8) at the worst moment of their experience, John’s last moment of pain was rated 7, in comparison with Michael whose last moment of pain was rated 1, before the end of the procedure.

The peak-end average for John turned out to be 7.5 while, it was 4.5 for Michael.

THIS is the fundamental cognitive bias, my dear readers, which makes us suckers for stories.

Our human brains are wired to confuse the memory of an experience, with the actual experience

Why do humans experience “reality” through stories?

Because, stories are all about a) Duration Neglect b) Peak moments and the resulting closure (The french who invented cinema have a more sophisticated term for this. They call it denouement ) — those two patterns which have been repeatedly confirmed in the experiments conducted by the legendary Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman.

[Book Recommendation: Check out Thinking Fast and Slow for a detailed, fascinating account of each of these experiments in great detail. I have only provided a succinct summary of this experiment from this book]

The second pattern that we discussed earlier is now an established psychological heuristic called “Peak-End-Rule”No matter whether an experience is pleasant, or unpleasant, humans judge an experience based on how they felt at its peak, and at its end.

Why do we dismiss an entire movie as “bad” although it was only the last 15 minutes of the climax which we couldn’t tolerate in the movie?

Why do we dismiss three hours of restaurant experience as “bad”, although our mood turned sour as a vinegar only in the last 10 minutes, thanks to that frustrating argument with the valet?

Whether we like it or not, we make our decisions based on memory, when we decide whether or not we should repeat an experience.

“This is how the remembering self works: It composes stories and keeps them for future reference” — Daniel Kahneman

Now, what happens when we start mapping the human experience over time to indicate the Peak and End moment?

[Adapted Image from Donna Lichaw’s The User’s Journey — a fantastic book which I highly recommend]

Voila! We get the Narrative arc!

It is no accident that the narrative arc mirrors the fundamental way humans interpret an experience. When we map human experience to a narrative arc — with a beginning, a peak and end — we mimic the way our brains are wired to understand a human experience.

As Donna writes in her book,

“When you experience something like a story, if affects comprehension, utility, perception of usability, memory and choice”

Reason #2: If human experiences are best designed through stories, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to design everything about your product as a story?

In the hopefully long life journey of your product, your audience are going to encounter many stories. Most likely, in this order, if you ask me.

1) How will your product be conceived in your user’s head?

No product (and the organization which created it) exists in a vacuum. It exists inside a category. Now who decides which category your product belongs to?

If you are smart enough, you design your own category. Or if you are too busy building products, you let an Industry Analyst or a tech journalist dictate terms, when he spreads the word out to the market about your existence.

Of course, conceiving the product in your user’s head goes beyond category definition.

It is about harmonizing the three sides of your product conception, viz, a) the side which defines the problem statement for the market to assign a new category b) the side which persuades the user to become the typical user you’ve imagined using your product c) the side which envisions the user buying the solution (not necessarily in monetary terms)

What is a conceiving story?

It is the anchoring story which determines how the user will conceive the product. It orchestrates how the various frames — market category, industry competitor, value proposition, elevator pitch — come together to understand the product in the mind of the user.

And remember. Whether you plan for it or not, all of this will inevitably happen at a subconscious level, before even the user gets to see the product for the first time.

2) How will your product journey be initiated for your user?

When your user sees the website of the product, what story initiates the user to on-board onto the world of your product?

Does the opening value proposition summary in the website (the elevator pitch) compel the user to check out the 2-min product explainer video ?

Does the product explainer persuade the user to sign up, overcoming all the friction (or conflicts, to use a term closer to story world) the user might have in checking out the product?

What is an Initiating story?

It is the anchoring story which determines how the user will be on-boarded to trial your product. It orchestrates how the tactical elements — starting from acquisition channel to product website to explainer videos to Login Page — come together to transpose the value proposition the user conceived onto the on-boarding flows the user witnesses during the first interaction of the product.

3) How will your product be experienced by the user?

When your user starts using the product, what story does the user experience through usage to unlock the value embedded in the product?

What is an Experiencing story?

It is the anchoring story which determines how the user experiences the value embedded in the product. It orchestrates the various steps involved in experiencing the value through the goals met by the user, despite the conflicts faced. ( Yes, you cannot wish away all the user friction/conflict in any product story.).

Aside:Check out this excellent post by Sachin Rekhi on the hierarchy of user friction for a detailed view of the friction which mars the life of a product.

In all the three stories encountered in the life of the product, what matters the most is the synchronicity among them.

When your user is experiencing the product, does the story of the Experience mesh gears to bring coherence with the story Conceived and the story Initiated?

Reason#3: If everything about your product is a story, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to design the product for your user as the key protagonist?

Who is this protagonist that we are speaking about? What is his journey?

The initial stage — Exposition — is extremely crucial for defining the context of the product user journey.

It should address the following questions.

  1. Who is your primary persona, behavior type, or target market for your product?
  2. What do you know about the life of the user, what they do, and how they behave?
  3. From which organization does he or she come from? (in the case of Enterprise products) Does he come from say, a mid-size Enterprise ( $50M — $1Bn Revenue , and 100–999 Employees) ?Or say, a Big Enterprise (>$5B Revenue, >10,000 Employees) ? What could be the estimated Annual Contract Value for such a user?
  4. What are his or her problems?What is the goal? What do they need to do?
  5. If you are designing a dashboard, What would be his or her intelligence requirements?
  6. As it stands, what problem prevents them from meeting their goal?

As you can imagine, I have a lot more to add to this, based on my project experiences and the numerous case-studies I’ve analyzed using this lens.

I decided to not include any industry examples in this post, as I wanted to outline the framework first in greater depth.

I have adapted and synthesized this framework from multiple sources. Key sources include Donna Lichaw’s book: “The User’s Journey”, Category Design Playbook — “Play Bigger” from the author trio — Al Ramadan, Dave Peterson, Christopher Hochhead, Kevin Maney.

I plan to iterate further on this framework, and include more relevant examples across industry. Do share your feedback and thoughts. I am all ears.

An earlier version of this article was published in LinkedIn

Venky Ramachandran

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I play with stories to design products better | I tell stories to help clients grope “Digital Transformation”