love what you make
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love what you make

Does a story shape a great product?

© Apple Inc

In a day and age when technology is shaping every industry from finance to healthcare and even agriculture, it seems to be the king. Past are the days when books and movies shaped our lives? Has AI become our new story-teller? Whether humans tell stories or AI does, we humans understand our world through stories. Mike McHargue says “story is a sense-making machine”. We are drawn to them since the beginning, from the early cave paintings to the latest Pixar movie. It is Andrew Fletcher a Scottish writer who said “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws”. Good stories bring us together. Even though I try my best to present you amazing facts to build my case about the importance of the story in designing products, I cannot draw your attention or connect with you without it. Likewise great philosophers and thinkers needed stories to share their ideas. Steve Jobs, the great business storyteller said, “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.” Have you heard of the impact of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the civil war in the United States?

If you want to tell your experiences, ideas, history to other people, build organisations or communities, sell products, provide services or even start movements, you need stories. They connect and bring us together. “It teaches us about other people and it’s a practice in empathy and theory of mind,” says Joseph Carroll. Studies have shown that reading or hearing stories activates various areas of the cortex (brain) that are known to be involved in social and emotional processing, and the more people read fiction, the easier they find it to empathise with other people. Stories are not just for leisure, they shape our work, business and even economies. Every human experiences is shaped by them. They make us truly human.

So what does story have-to do with the products we make? Products that we build, — and services that we offer are not just things or invisible services, — but they touch us! Donald Miller wrote a fascinating book Building a StoryBrand on brand building, in which he argues that clarifying your message to your customers is critical for your business. He says “If you confuse, you’ll lose.” So, he proposes his formula, The StoryBrand Framework for clear communication. He says, “The narrative coming out of a company must be clear. In a story, the audience must always know who the hero is, what the hero wants, who the hero has to defeat to get what they want, what tragic thing will happen if the hero doesn’t win, and what wonderful thing will happen if they do. If an audience can’t answer these basic questions, then the movie will lose millions at the box office.” While the story driving your communication is fine, but I see this is true even for product design.

© Apple Inc

In 1983 when Steve Jobs launched Lisa, he released a nine-page ad in New York Times, explaining all its technical features which nobody out of NASA was interested in. The computer failed. But after he left Apple, his experience at Pixar (where he was surrounded with professional storytellers), may have taught him the power of storytelling. That’s why when he returned to Apple, his campaign was with just two words Think different. Yes, the messaging got changed, but did it shape the products as well? The Story of Apple before Pixar was about itself, but later it was about you! They understood their customers were all living, breathing heroes. You are the hero in the story. Donald Miller notes what Apple did in building its story. “(1) It identified what their customers wanted (to be seen and heard), (2) defining their customers’ challenges (that people did not recognise their hidden genius), and (3) offering their customers a tool they could use to express themselves (computers and smartphones).” These are the pillars of the ancient storytelling. Story is probably one of the primary factors responsible for Apple’s growth.

© StoryBrand

What is a story?

Most good stories have at least these seven basic plots. Donald Miller puts it this way. “A character, who wants something, encounters a problem before they can get it. At the peak of their despair, a guide steps into their lives, gives them a plan, and calls them to action. That action helps them to avoid failure and ends in success.” You will see this structure in different forms in different stories. For example in Star Wars: A New Hope, you see how Luke begins a journey of becoming a Jedi to defeat the Rebellion. At no point in a story we should be able to pause and be unable to answer these three questions:

1. What does the hero want?
2. Who or what is opposing the hero in getting what she wants?
3. What will the hero’s life look like, if she does (or does not) get what she wants?

Bobette Buster, a story consultant at Pixar and other major studios around the world says, “Storytelling is a transaction, an exchange, where you always have to be thinking about who your audience is and asking yourself, ‘Who wants to hear this story? Who would be delighted by this?’ A big thing I’m seeing is that stories are being produced and released that have no sense of audience — it’s just the story, the storyteller wants to tell.

In most of the software product development, I see the same problem. We don’t have clarity about who the hero is. Most products are technology-driven, so just because we have technology we build products. For that matter, even if we make good looking products by our wealth of designers, it will not work. People don’t buy products that don’t shape their lives and story, no matter however great the technology or aesthetics are. So anything that doesn’t fit the plot it has to go. The story is not just for your brand communication or website landing page or product launch presentation like Steve Jobs did. It should drive every aspect of your brand, both external and internal. So, what is the story you are working on right now?

The first mistake we often make is that we think our brand is the hero.

A Character

The big mistake we often make is, we think our brand is the hero and that we could change the world with our product. Nothing can be further from the truth. Since we do not build a product for ourselves, it makes good business sense to consider our customers as the main hero. Once we know who the hero is, we must identify what the hero wants in relation to our business or expertise. In knowing what the hero wants, we invite her into the story. Bobette says “When you have character loyalty — you’ve nailed the story.” If we fail at this point, there is no story anymore!

© Star Wars

Has a problem

Problem is the “hook” of the story. A story starts with the hero who wants something. Everything seems to be fine in the life of the hero, until a disaster strikes, or a bomb goes off. Then the hero sets out on a journey to put back things in order. Every story needs a villain. The critical step to understand the problem is to identify the villain. Batman isn’t that interesting without Joker, and Luke Skywaker without Darth Varder. Once we know this one single villain, we need to identify what kind of conflict this villain causes to our hero. Donald Miller says, “What most brands miss, however, is that there are three levels of problems a customer encounters. In stories, heroes encounter external, internal and philosophical problems. Why? Because these are the same three level problems human beings face in their everyday lives.” A villain creates an external problem which is often tangible, which causes our hero to experience an internal frustration, that is philosophically wrong!

A villain creates an external problem which is often tangible, which causes our hero to experience an internal frustration, that is philosophically wrong.

Customers buy solutions for internal problems not just external ones. What stories teach us is that people’s internal desire to resolve internal frustration is a far greater motivator than their desire to solve an external problem. If we own a restaurant, the external problem we solve is hunger, but do all restaurants just sell food to satisfy hunger? Steve Jobs understood that people felt intimidated by computers and wanted a simpler interface with technology. It is critical to identify that frustration, put it in words, and offer to resolve that, along with the external problem makes us deeply connect with the hero’s story. The philosophical problem in a story is about something even larger than the story itself. It’s about the question why. Romeo and Juliet asks weather romantic love is more important than family squabbles and tribal unrest. Our hero wants a solution that resolves external, internal and philosophical problem. Imagine, Tesla motor company knows that their villain is fossil fuel. It identifies its customers’ external problem as a need for a car, but the internal problem is that the customer wants to be an adopter of new technology and wants to help save the environment (a philosophical problem).

And meets a guide

So how is our hero going to solve her problem? If she can do it by herself then there is no story. She is not looking for another hero either, but someone who can guide her. Luke Skywalker has Yoda, Frodo has Gandalf, Romeo was taught the ways of love by Juliet. You as a brand are not the hero, you come in as a guide. Donald Miller says, “A brand that positions itself as the hero is destined to lose.” The story is not about us, it is about the customer. Unfortunately most of the time the story is about our branding, our sales numbers, our technology, our valuation or even our appraisal. The guide has more authority but the story is rarely about the guide.

The guide has more authority but the story is rarely about the guide.

How will the hero know that you are the guide? Donald Miller suggests two characteristics a guide should have. Empathy and Authority. Yoda understood Luke’s dilemma and mastered the skill Luke must develop if he is going to win the day. When we empathise with our customer’s dilemma, we create a bond of trust. Besides empathy, our hero wants someone who is competent and knows what he is doing. That is what it means to have authority. The questions customers are asking themselves are, “Does this brand know what they are doing? Is investing my time and money going to be worth it? Can they really help me solve my problem? Just because we have good technology, doesn't make us a guide.

© Tesla Inc

Who gives them a plan

Your empathy and authority are not enough for your hero to solve her problem. Customers trusts a guide who has a plan. The plan is like a bridge that the hero must cross, in order to arrive at the climactic scene. Juliet must drink the potion, the apothecary gives her in order to trick her family into thinking she’s dead and to be free to be with Romeo.

A plan is not just your product. It involves everything that takes your customer to resolve her external, internal and philosophical problems to reach her desired goal. Steve Jobs did not just release another digital music player when he released the iPod. He released a seamless personal music production — an entire ecosystem that is simple to signup, purchase, use and even exit.

The plan gives clarity and removes all the fears she has. In the case of Tesla car, it’s not just about the car, its brand messaging, purchase options, insurance, service, re-charging network, resale options etc. The plan gives clarity to every aspect of the customer’s story.

And calls them to action

You have defined the desire, identified the problem, empathised with the hero’s feelings, and gave her a plan, but the hero does not take action unless she is challenged to take action. Romeo wouldn’t have climbed into the Capulet’s courtyard unless he has fallen sick with love for Juliet. There is no point building a great product or service if your customer doesn’t use it to solve their problem. Donald Miller stresses on clarifying the message, and says “If you confuse, you loose.” Your call to action should be clear and persuasive.

© BJ Fogg

BG Fogg behaviour model comes to help here. Fogg says, “Three elements must converge at the same moment for a behaviour to occur: Motivation, Ability, and Prompts.” For example, your mobile phone rings (which is a prompt) but, you did not answer the call. Why? Either you were away taking a shower or busy with something — and so could not answer the call (This is lack of ability). Or, you saw who was calling and you were not in a good mood to talk (This is lack of motivation). So, when a behaviour does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing. So, for a behaviour change to happen in the long term, Fogg suggests to start with doing something easy and gradually increase the motivation level to make difficult decisions. So what do we learn from this?

Firstly, the call to action needs to be very clear. This tells that you as an guide believe in the plan. Secondly when we create a call to action, (which is prompt in Fogg’s model) Donald Miller suggests two types of call to action: direct calls to action like “buy now” and transitional calls to action like offering test-drives, providing free versions etc. If we apply Fogg’s model here direct calls to action should be easy to act on, and transitional calls to action, can begin easy and then gradually increase motivation. Like starting with a free trial to signing up for a premium subscription. How can we persuade our customers from an easy step to taking up complex decisions? Here is an interesting video on persuasion.

Now your hero is convinced to follow your plan. But, to take the first step you must also define the stakes. What’s at stake if the hero does or does not act?

If there are no stakes, there is no story.

That helps them to avoid failure

Every human being is trying to avoid a tragic ending. Now will the hero succeed or will she fail? David Kahneman says “People are more likely to be dissatisfied with a loss, than they are satisfied with a gain.”Donald Miller says, “As a rule, every scene in the movie must answer the question: What’s at stake for the hero?” If there are no stakes, there is no story either. You are probably not solving the right problem or someone has already solved it. We should articulate this question clearly. What are you helping your customer to avoid and what the customer lose if they don’t buy our product? Otherwise we fail to answer their question “So what?”

Once you are clear what your customer will lose, we need to tell it. It is not always true that customers know what is at stake. That is why you are the guide. Here is where many brands fail. In every accept of your communication it has to be made clear. I don’t believe we need to be a fearmonger, which many try to do. If you create false fear or place too much emphasis on it, your customers will resist. On the contrary, put too little emphasis and they won’t know why your product even matters.

Warning about the failure is important, but helping them imagine what life will look like with your product our service is the most important part.

And ends in a success

Steve Jobs in his great iPhone launch presentation, started with this line, “This is a day I’ve been looking forward to for two-and-a-half years”. We know, it is not just the event but, it is unveiling of a clear promise he is taking his customers to. He said, “So iPhone is like having your life in your pocket. It’s the ultimate digital device”. Stew Friedman at the Wharton school puts it, “defining a compelling image of an achievable future”. Donald Miller says, “people want to be taken somewhere”. In a story the resolution must be clearly defined so that the audience knows exactly what to hope for. Like Kennedy said “We’re going to put a man on the moon”. Where is your product taking people? When we resolve our customer’s external, internal and philosophical problems, we’ve truly created a resolution that will satisfy their story.

The guide offers more than a just plan or product. He offers aspirational identity for their customers . Donald Miller lists three dominant ways storytellers end a story. These are, by allowing the hero to: “1) Win some sort of power or position (The need for status). 2) Be unified with somebody or something that makes them whole (The need for something external to create completeness). 3) Experience some kind of self-realisation that also makes them whole (The need to reach out potential)”.

Finally, never assume people understand how our brand can change their lives. We have to tell them. Steve Jobs is a genius in that. Nancy Duarte in her TED talk explains how great story tellers like Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King, Jr told them. Have you told your customers where you want to take them?

Stories do provide a clue to build great products and great business too.

We humans, need good stories. We need them in every aspect of our lives and every sphere of culture. Yes stories do provide a clue to build great products and great business too. Stories don’t belong to artists alone. Engineers, scientists and even businessmen do not have to shy away from them. Making good product isn’t enough, we need to weave it with our customer’s story.

Bobette Buster says. “Pixar has instituted a golden age in excellence in storytelling because they take the time to iterate the story over and over, to get the themes right and the characters right — They go back to the storyboard. In contrast, corporations want to know how quickly they can make money in the next quarter.” Developing a good story is a tedious task, but it is worth it, not just for our profits but for the common good as well. If we are only interested in quarter-on-quarter profits or our start-up valuation for an early exit, then we are probably making products that makes people’s lives, our environment even miserable. Our world today needs good and just stories to help our heroes to solve problems. Go find them and tell them. See you at the storyboard!

For further reading StoryBrand by Donald Miller and Do Story by Bobette Buster

Thanks to Mohan Chandra for editing.



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Mark Raja

Mark Raja

Product designer, Systems thinker, Creative catalyst, Amateur writer, Father, Husband