Storytelling has entered the world of product development. Brands now understand that they have a unique opportunity to create stories for people to experience.

Independent product strategy consultant Donna Lichaw guides startups, non-profits, and global brands in developing such stories, which can be used to drive engagement and — ultimately —   improve their digital products and services. Lichaw calls a structurally-sound story “one of the oldest, leanest, most effective tools,” which often gets overlooked, and gives workshops and talks around the world on how to utilize it effectively.

We caught up with the author of The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products That People Love to find out how — in a world full of platforms, screens, events, and experiences — you can use UX to tell your story in a consistent way.

How do you keep design authentic to your brand and users?

The best way you can do that is to know the story that people either associate with your brand or that you want them to associate with your brand.

Once you know what that story is, you build it into everything people experience and interact with that is related to your brand — products, marketing, sales, customer service, everything. The more your users and customers experience the right story as they engage with your brand, the more likely they are to get value out of doing so, and eventually recommend that others do the same.

What’s the first step in applying a storytelling approach to product design? How do you find your story?

The first thing you need to do is to ask yourself if you’re looking for a story that a customer already has with an existing brand or product or if it’s a new story that hasn’t been written.

If it’s an existing story, it’s your job to go out and talk to customers to find out what that story looks and feels like, and what all of the plot and action points are. If you’re working for a successful brand or product, chances are that the story is pretty good. You just need to uncover it, so that you can then use it to build or improve anything you’re working on.

For example, you’re building a new custom car widget for a website for the Fast Car Company. They build sports cars. The product you build will likely need to have a different story than a product that you build for ElegantCo Cars, a luxury car brand. What relationship do people have with your brand, with your brand’s products, cars, dealerships, etc.? If the brand is established and at all loved, you’ll find a compelling story in there. That story might be about speed and craftsmanship. That will determine how you design your car builder.

The key here is that the story that you uncover isn’t just catchphrases and buzzwords — it’s something with a structure, plot points, and other elements that make stories most effective in both movies and the digital world.

 How a concept story is structured and operates. This is how people think about and see value in your product.
How a concept story is structured and operates. This is how people think about and see value in your product. Image by Donna Lichaw.

What tools and techniques do you recommend for testing the story to make sure you’re going in the right direction?

Just like good designs, the best stories are drafted and prototyped from the lowest fidelity early on in a project, to high-fidelity later on in a project, and even after you launch something.

I walk through several examples and case studies in my book that illustrate this in action. The idea is to start developing a story by drafting it on paper and testing it as soon as you can. This might be verbally, through user interviews, or with a concierge prototype that tests a product or service concept with humans, rather than computers providing a service. Or if you’re building a website or app, you can jump right into prototyping on paper and then go digital as soon as possible. Often, you can have a clickable or tappable prototype that demonstrates your story after hours of drafting it on a whiteboard.

Doing so will help you sell your ideas internally, as well as test them with colleagues and users. As someone interacts with your prototype, you can quickly see if the story you intended to happen is building or not. And if you’re working early in low-fidelity, you can quickly iterate on your designs and tweak as necessary. During development, you can use more qualitative ways (for example, interviews and usability tests) to test the story. Once you have a live product in the market, you should use web or mobile analytics tools to measure the success of your story. The best stories are data-driven. I talk a bit about that in the book as well.

 If you map out findings from user research on a wall with Post-it notes, you can use plot points to organize your thoughts and insights.
If you map out findings from user research on a wall with Post-it notes, you can use plot points to organize your thoughts and insights. Image by Donna Lichaw.

How can design, product, and engineering teams — along with marketing and sales — develop the story together?

The most powerful stories are the ones that are co-developed across disciplines like design, product, and engineering, as well as with your customers.

When you develop your stories with your customers by uncovering them together and then prototyping and testing them with actual customers, you see how you’re not so much designing stories as much as paving them from well-trodden story-driven cowpaths.

When you develop stories with other people at your organization, whether you work in-house or externally as a consultant, you also find that you uncover stories that people have already internalized, but not necessarily verbalized. Bringing the stories to the surface helps you have a shared language and understanding with people from other disciplines, which helps you work much more quickly and efficiently — which is ever important in technology, where everything is so fast-paced.

Most importantly, however, co-developing stories with people from across your organization helps you work effectively and quickly because you’re doing something that filmmakers have used for years to mitigate risk in similarly huge, tech-heavy projects — you’re engineering engagement with a story diagram on paper or on a whiteboard before you delve into expensive pixels and code. When you work this way, you all see when a story works or doesn’t before you get lost in the weeds of an expensive and stressful design and development project.

Can you give us an example of a brand that uses storytelling really well and what impact it’s had?

This isn’t storytelling as much as an example of good storybuilding, but if you want to see stories in action, think of an app or product that you use every day — one that you love to use, get value out of using, or would not want to be without.

What does it help you do? How would you get that thing done without the app in your life, or how did you do it before? What are the reasons you might stop using this app? What keeps you coming back? What makes you ultimately glad that you’re doing what you need to do with this app? How have you recommended this app to other people?

All of that is a story. It’s not just the brand’s story or the product’s story, per se. It’s your story — and because you keep the business that builds that product in business, your story is their story. The better the story, the more you use the product, the more you engage with the brand, the more you get value out of doing so, and the more you recommend doing so to others. There’s a lot of science behind this that I go into in-depth in my book, but, at the end of the day, I find that reverse engineering the things that you love most helps you see the best stories in action.

 Slack's origin story, reverse-engineered.
Slack’s origin story, reverse-engineered. Image by Donna Lichaw.

What can UX and product design learn from the world of film?

Everything! Films are expensive, complex products with huge budgets, and built by large (often dispersed) teams. In order for a film to be successful, it has to engage an audience. The foundation of that is in the story, which is something that film borrowed from stage plays and novels. Early films didn’t have stories and were more about effects and novelty. As films got more complex, filmmakers realized that they needed stories in order to succeed.

Digital products (and even analog services — any kind of business, really) are a lot like a film, in that they are things that people experience using. Like good films, products need to engage in order for a business to be successful. This engagement happens over time, much like a TV show will suck you in over many years, or like a video game, which owes its core engagement mechanics to story as well. Even though the possible paths that you can take with a digital product or game are variable and many, the story that your brain constructs is linear and has universal mechanics operating at the foundation. As you build the product, it’s up to you to identify what that story (or, more likely, many stories) is and can be, so that it can be amplified and echoed over time.