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Building Products with Story

by Donna Lichaw

An excerpt from Donna Lichaw’s book, The User’s Journey, published by Rosenfeld Media.

“…in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby.”

—Stephen King,

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Let’s face it: you probably don’t make multi-million dollar epic movies like Star Wars; instead, you make websites, software, digital or non-digital services—all things that people don’t just consume, but actually use. Just as with a movie, story flows through how people find, think about, use, and recommend your products.

Consider this photo for a moment (see Figure 2.11). It tells a story of an Apple product that comes installed on every iPhone. You can probably guess what product it is.

older couple looking at smartphone

FIGURE 2.11

A still image from an Apple commercial showing two people using a built-in iPhone app.

Assuming you guessed FaceTime, you are correct. If you guessed “Tinder for seniors,” that’s not an Apple product. But, as some of my past workshop attendees have demonstrated, a product like that also has a compelling story to it: a story that you can easily use to prototype to test out a design hypothesis. What we see in this still photograph is an entire story encapsulated in one simple frame. Rather than spell it out for you, I want you to take a moment to consider this narrative within the framework I’ve laid out so far.

What do you see?

How do you know that these people are using FaceTime?

Well, they’re older, so maybe they’re grandparents. They’re smiling. What makes grandparents smile? Grandchildren? And? Maybe their grandchildren are far away, and they want to see them. Why can’t they see them? It’s too expensive to fly and not realistic to do that on a regular basis. Why not call them up? They already have an iPhone or an iPad and use it to play the crossword puzzles all day. And so forth . . . they are calling them up. Just with video. Using FaceTime is as easy as using the phone. It is a phone. But with video. You just look at it instead of holding it up to your ear . . . like magic.

This is the type of computational math that your brain makes during a series of microseconds when you look at a photograph like this and try to understand what you see. Your brain seeks out a story in the data it consumes. And that story has a structure to it, whether you realize it or not. This behavior is so natural that you probably don’t even notice that you do it.

Story is not only a tool your brain uses to understand what you see, it’s a tool your brain uses to understand what you experience. In other words, the same brain function that you use to understand what you see in a photograph is the same brain function you would use if you were one of those grandparents using FaceTime. Life is a story. And in that story, you are the hero.

In Badass: Making Users Awesome, Kathy Sierra argues that creating successful products is not about what features you build—it’s about how badass you make your user on the other end feel. It’s not about what your product can do, but instead about what your users can do if they use your product.

Amazon, for example, is not a marketplace with lots of stuff. It’s a way for you to have a world of goods at your fingertips. Using this perspective, you can see how your job building products comes down to creating heroes. When I rush-order toothpaste with one-click on Amazon to replace the toothpaste I used up this morning—as boring as it sounds, I’m a hero in my household.

This job you have of creating heroes isn’t just an act of goodwill. In the time I’ve spent over the past two decades helping businesses build products that people love, I’ve seen what happens when people feel good about what they can do with your product. They love your product. And your brand. They recommend it to others. They continue to use it over time . . . as long as you keep making them feel awesome. They even forgive mistakes and quirks when your product doesn’t work as expected, or your brand doesn’t behave as they’d like. People don’t care about your product or brand. They care about themselves. That’s something that you can and should embrace when you build products.

What’s great about story and its underlying structure is that it provides you with a framework—a formula, if you will—for turning your customers into heroes. Plot points, high points, and all. Story is one of the oldest and most powerful tools you have to create heroes. And as I’ve seen and will show you in this book, what works for books and movies will work for your customers, too.

About the Author

Donna Lichaw brings us over 15 years of experience guiding startups, non-profits, and global brands in optimizing their digital products and services by providing them with a simplified way to drive user engagement through impactful storytelling. As a consultant, speaker, writer, and through her Storymapping Workshop, Donna utilizes a ‘story first’ approach to help teams define their value proposition, transform their thinking, and better engage with their core customers. Her book, The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products That People Love, is out now and has garnered lots of early praise.