UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 863 September 6, 2012

Owning Your Story

There’s a movement sweeping business, design, and communication right now. But it’s not a new technology, and it has nothing to do with people, patterns, or processes. What it has everything to do with is you and your story.

Storytelling has quickly become one of the most talked about topics in user experience and beyond—to the point that it’s almost cliché. Most of the ideas presented around storytelling are focused on simple reasons why storytelling is important and some marginal tips for telling a better story. The problem there is that we’re a step ahead of ourselves. We’ve gone straight to how to tell the story of an experience or a product and skipped over the crucial element of why we’re telling these stories in the first place. Before we focus on how to tell the stories about the products, businesses, and experiences we create, we need to first ensure we are making the right products—creating the right stories and experiences for people to participate in.

We’ve all seen new products described this way: “It’s like Pinterest for _________." This type of comparison is so rampant that there are actually websites like Nonstartr and IsThisForThat dedicated to making light of the trend. Entertaining tho it may be, this represents an underlying issue with the state of innovation and how it’s affecting the quality of the products we design and create.

In The New York Times article "The Creative Monopoly," David Brooks writes about a course that Peter Thiel is teaching at Stanford’s Computer Science Department. A key theme, according to Thiel, is that we often confuse capitalism with competition. “We tend to think that whoever competes best comes out ahead," Brooks writes. "In the race to be more competitive, we sometimes confuse what is hard with what is valuable. The intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value.”

Today, too many products are derived not from truly solving a problem, but from repurposing existing products in some slight way. It makes sense. It’s often easier to extend an existing idea rather than embark on the journey of mining a new one. But, if we truly want to make great experiences and products for people, we need to stop focusing on competing and start focusing on creating—creating products that are extensions of our own personal stories.

Ron Conway gave an excellent talk at Start Up School 2011 that focused on the qualities of a defining entrepreneur. A key trait he mentioned was that product visionaries must “own the mind of the consumer." Conway cited people like Steve Jobs, Jack Dorsey, and Mark Zuckerberg as having the gift of intrinsically knowing what their customers are thinking before they do.

So how do you own the mind of the consumer? How do you own their story and create a great experience? I believe that to successfully own the mind of the consumer, you first must be the consumer. What you create must stem from your own personal story. You must live and breath for the experience, product, or business you are creating.

What people don’t realize about the creation process of great products is that, most often, these ideas are rooted deep in the life story of their creators. Twitter is one of my favorite examples of a product being completely birthed from someone’s life story. I recently listened to Jack Dorsey give an address to the Stanford Technology Ventures Program called, "The Power of Curiosity and Inspiration." I never realized the power of a personal story so clearly until I heard him speak about the influence that his life experiences had on the idea for Twitter.

Dorsey grew up in St. Louis, and has always lived in a city. Of his childhood he said: “I was surrounded by this urban atmosphere, and I just loved it. My first love was the city … it was a joy and wonder to me … that love and obsession was made most tangible by maps. I became obsessed with maps. I would wonder what was happening at a particular intersection or area.”

Dorsey went on to talk about getting his first computer and learning to program because he wanted to draw a map on the computer screen. Once he was able to do that, he used a CB Radio to access police scanners so he could see in real time what was happening in St. Louis—visualizing the pulse of the city as it lived and breathed.

Dorsey followed his passion for maps and cities by getting a job at the biggest dispatch firm in the world, where he wrote software to visualize New York City. He quickly realized that what was missing from these visualizations was actual people. So he created a prototype that allowed him to receive an email on his Blackberry and send it out to an email list. However, once it was built and he sent his first message, he realized two things. First, no one else cared and second, no one could respond. So he put it aside—great idea, not so great timing.

In a quest to understand consumers better, he went to work for a company called Odeo that, at the time, was focused on podcasting. However, according to Dorsey, no one at the company was excited about podcasting, nor did they want to be consumers of it. So the team challenged themselves to dream up something they’d really like to be working on. Dorsey presented his messaging prototype, and that was the beginning of Twitter.

I love this story because it provides such an authentic demonstration of the power of your personal story and the impact that your personal life experiences can have on the quality of the experiences you create for others. Before you can own the mind of the consumer, the idea must first own your mind—your story.

Recently, Michael Skok (an entrepreneur turned venture capitalist) wrote an article for VentureBeat that speaks to the notion of the product and experience you create being an extension of you and your personal story.

“At the center of that value proposition is you. What problems do you understand uniquely well? What can you deliver uniquely well? What sort of disruptive business model can you bring to bear?” he writes. “Be true to yourself and play from a position of strength. A little self-awareness can go a long way in crafting a value proposition with power.”

Last year I became fascinated with the idea of product stories and wrote about the idea of why storytelling should be applied to the product development process. Since then, I’ve watched the topic of storytelling spread across industries. I’ve spoken with technologists, filmmakers, venture capitalists, professors, and designers alike. Everyone is talking about storytelling. It belongs to no single industry—it has no borders. It carries power and passion and can evoke the empathy and emotion required to create a personal connection. I’ve become obsessed with the power of story. When it comes to the quality of the experiences and products we create, ultimately, if we aren’t creating the right story, then it doesn’t matter how well we try to tell it.

I don’t have a magical process for understanding your personal life story and identifying how it can influence what you make. But what I do know is that to see people’s stories, we have to stop being distracted by looking at each other and getting caught up on the thrill of competition. We exert too much energy trying to compete on execution. And, although there’s certainly opportunity there, we’re missing out on a chance to truly invent and to be inspired by the experiences and interests that we know best—our own.

So today, take some time out to consider your personal story. How can the passions, interests, and experiences in your life provide unique perspective? What has your journey afforded you to be an expert in? How have the challenges that you’ve faced equipped you with a deep understanding of a problem that needs to be solved? What experiences have influenced you the most? What ideas own your mind—from childhood until now? Study your personal story and allow it to help you create a better story for the people who use the experiences and products you create today and the ones you have yet to imagine.

 

Book photo courtesy of Shutterstock

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Sarah Doody is a NYC based user experience designer and product strategist. She works with startups to help them launch their initial product as well helping companies already in market optimize their user experiences.

Sarah enjoys teaching about user experience, she co-developed and taught General Assembly's first 12 week UX course. Sarah writes about user experience, design, and technology on her website, www.sarahdoody.com and can be reached on Twitter @sarahdoody.

Sarah also publishes a popular UX newsletter, Sarah's Weekly UX Notebook. It's free, sign up at: bitly.com/uxnotebook 

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Comments

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Sarah, thanks for emphasizing the importance of "knowing your own story first." Humans tend to be very interested in the background, context and motivations of others. Maybe that's why the About Us page is one of the most frequently read pages on websites.

http://sevenstorylearning.com/sales/about-page/

It's also why the "twitter as radio dispatch" story you shared adds so much depth to what most people saw as another SMS texting solution. What do others think? Does the back story matter this much?

Andrew Nemiccolo
Seven Story Learning

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Sarah -- thank you again for writing such a fabulous article! I agree -- people don't know where to focus when working with stories in business. Your points are right on.

I like your article so much that I've brought it into my curated content on business storytelling. It will be published tomorrow (Oct. 3) and you can see it here at www.scoop.it/t/just-story-it.

In fact, I also curated your other article why storytelling should be applied to the product development cycle and love that one also!

Enjoy and have a great day :)

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I'm wondering what the real need is for storytellers in UX. I've been reading articles about the necessity of storytellers but don't ever see this need in job forums/sites, etc. I would love to be on this side but don't know how to do it. I fully believe that storytelling is part of any experience--customer experience, user experience--because of the personal aspect and empathy in storytelling. This is my strength, now how do I provide this value to UX?

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@sarahdoody good article again. I wanted to know what should you think an entrepreneur should do if he/she working on a product which has not been a big part of your life story. For example if he/she is a software developer and decide to work on a product for fashion designers. Just to make the point clear I will say that the product has a good market after analysis. Do you think it is essential for us (as software developers) to get someone on board from fashion industry? Or just speak to as many designers as possible to collect the experiences they have had? Now based on which option you select your final outcome may change.

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Yes, indeed. Love this thinking, especially the bit about competitiveness.

But there's lots of models for personal story inspiring great new products...even if they're literary products.

You steal. Like crazy: not plagiarism, but to kickstart your own stuff. I find it really useful to see how something universal (like a failed love affair or getting fired) becomes particular in the hands of someone who knows their story...and then, if it's true, it becomes a universal again.

Without getting too pointyheaded, try this on for size.

The ancient Greeks took religious rituals predicated on
shared chant and choral narration and made them vernacular storytelling vehicles,
means of exploring conflict, drama, morality, human purpose. It would do Aeschylus or
Euripides no disservice to call them Western Civilization’s first cause marketers: they
allied art with the exploration of social good.

Shakespeare and his Elizabethan colleagues (the radical cultural rebels of their day) did
the same thing with mediaeval histories and the politics of the century before: they took
the rituals of the miracle and history plays and rendered them vernacular, populist, and,
at their dramatic peak in Shakespeare’s masterpieces (King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth,
Romeo and Juliet) universal. They spoke emotional truth. That's the key to passion: truth.

This thinking begs a tantalizing question: if it were possible to somehow render the
storymaking process computable—to identify and reveal storytelling’s inner emotional
logic and assign that logic computable values—might it not be possible to align human
invention and the power of collaboration in new modes, to co-create new products and services in new ways grounded in the complex emotional truths of great storytelling?

The tricky bit is that those of us who are professional storytellers (novelists, journalists, game designers, screenwriters) tend to be soloists. Sharing the core skills that expose the kinds of experiences others want to be part should be one hell of a lot more participatory---which raises a fascinating solution. Shared story is really the social currency of the web: it's how we meet, grow close, decide to collaborate and network further---and, I do believe, refine our own sense of ourselves.

Now there's an idea that hasn't seen light of day---sharing one's own story as a means of inspiring co-creation....one voice inspiring many inspiring one. Hmmm....