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A Matter of Character: Knowing your users and their stories

by Sarah Doody
7 min read
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To design a product that fits into the story of users’ lives, try looking at them as characters through the lens of a screenwriter.

I’m fascinated with the concept of applying storytelling principles to the processes of product development to create great user experiences. Of recent interest is the similarity between making a film and creating a digital product or service.

From what I can gather, when you create a film (which I have not!) the most important part is the screenplay. Informing that screenplay (and some argue more important than the screenplay itself) are the characters. Of course, there are literally hundreds of people that help bring that film to life. But ultimately, it’s the screenplay—the story of the characters—that becomes the firm foundation holding the entire film together.

User experience is still relatively immature in terms of its value being understood and embraced by all levels of teams and organizations. Adding confusion to the already misunderstood field is the increasing amount of material that focuses on process, pixels, and product. This can quickly overshadow a focus on specific people, their unique characteristics, and how a product fits into the stories of their lives.

I know, right now you’re thinking, “isn’t this a persona?” Well, sort of. The problem is that personas are often polarizing—people either love them or hate them. This is likely due to the fact that there are so many poorly executed personas, to the point that they almost become a joke for some teams! Vague generalizations like “soccer moms” and “entrepreneurs” don’t to provide enough detail. Elements such as fears, desires, needs, and feelings are not addressed, thereby failing to identify triggers that could impact their interest in, and decision to engage with, your product.

Context is often neglected, and we zoom to a moment in time rather than taking a step back to understand someone’s greater experience. On top of all this, personas are created at the beginning of a project and then often times simply disappear. We start out designing for a specific person, hopefully calling them by name, but quickly our “Jennifer” gets replaced with “soccer moms” or worse, “people,” “someone,” or “users.”

So how can we rework or move beyond personas? I think it starts with trying to see through the lens of a screenwriter and take time to truly develop characters, and deeply invest in understanding their culture, context, conversations, and challenges.

While I was watching the 2013 Oscars, I noticed a greater focus on writing and story than I remember from past years. When honoring people in the movie industry that passed away in 2012, a clip was shown of Richard Zanuck (producer of films such as Jaws, Driving Miss Daisy, and Alice In Wonderland) talking about his devotion to storytelling: “The most important thing is the story; not the script, but the story.”

Building on this theme, Quentin Tarantino spoke about the important impact that the characters have in making movies memorable. In his acceptance speech for Django Unchained, which won Best Original Screenplay, Tarantino said: “If people are knowing about my movies 30 or 50 years from now, it’s going to be because of the characters that I created. And I really got one chance to get it right. I had to cast the right people to make those characters come alive and hopefully live for a long time.”

In the same way, people will remember your product not because of how beautiful it is, or how fast it was, or how cheeky your error page was. No. They’ll remember your product because of how at some point in their life’s story, your product just “fit” perfectly—it fulfilled a need, solved a problem, or afforded them a new opportunity that hadn’t been evident before. Creating this perfect fit for a product within the context of a character’s life can only be achieved if you’ve taken the time to understand your characters’ story.

We can all probably remember a time when we turned off a bad movie, likely because at the heart of it, the story just didn’t captivate us. Most people don’t walk out of a movie because they don’t like what the actors are wearing, or because they thought the art direction was awful, or because they didn’t like the music. My guess is that most people walk out of a movie because it didn’t capture their attention, it didn’t connect with them, and they had no emotional investement in the story.

When it comes to digital products and services, the same hypothesis applies. Think back to a time when you were checking out a product you heard about, but quickly stopped using it or became disinterested. While there are variables, such as site speed and performance, that influence our opinion of a product, let’s take them away for a moment.

Assume that the product is accessible and isn’t having technical issues. What’s the real reason that people abandon it? I’d argue it’s for the same reason people walk out of a movie: because it failed to connect with them. It didn’t show potential for fitting into the story of their life, and didn’t impact and add value to their world and experience.

To create a great product, you must have a great product story: a story about how someone is going to use that product and how that product or fits into an existing story (problem, need, behavior, goal) in their life. Without that story, no amount of sexy looking buttons, linen backgrounds, infinitely scrolling pages, clever copy, or rich photography is going to keep them engaged and excited about the product.

Imagine if the film industry decided to take cues from the way digital products and services are developed. What would that look like? Instead of having a screenplay, they’d have a paragraph or two, some bullet points in a Keynote presentation, or a spreadsheet of scenes and shots, but no story to tie it all together. There would be people discussing lighting, framing, cinematography, music, and locations before the story had was even complete. They would start designing the movie posters before they’d ever shot a scene or even cast the actors. I imagine that if this process were followed, it would not result in a great film.

The screenplay is the basis of the entire production. It’s what actors use to help in their decision process about whether or not to accept a role. It’s what composers use to help guide them as they develop the score. It’s what the cinematographers use to outline the shots. A great film cannot exist without a screenplay and the well-developed stories of its characters.

Why then, when it comes to creating digital products and services, do so many teams often skip over the elements of story and character development? I’d argue that it’s largely due to increasing pressure to get a product into market quickly, or at least have a prototype so you can have a better chance at raising money, attracting the right talent to your team, and start building an audience and customer base. Of course, not everyone does this. However, a focus on how it works and what it does (prior to really understanding why it should exist) is a common trend that I wrote about in a past article called “Why We Need Storytellers At The Heart Of Product Development.”

While researching for this article, I stumbled upon Scott Myers’s page “Go Into The Story” on the website The Black List. In a post that took its title from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey he writes about how he’s a fan and student of Campbell’s work, but worries the principles from The Hero’s Journey have almost become a recipe or formula for a great film. He writes: “I am concerned when a writer’s focus on this paradigm is so absolute because it’s possible to write a script that follows its every jot and title, yet not succeed as a story.” Of course, the natural question then is why? What ultimately creates a great story? Myers goes on to explain this (emphasis mine):

First, for readers to connect with a script, they need to have some level of emotional resonance with the story and its narrative elements. When a writer uses mostly left-brain muscles to craft a script that fits specific plot requisites—and frankly this pertains to any screenplay structure/paradigm—what can result is an inert object, a story bereft of a heart or soul.

Second, it is—in my view—more important to delve into and develop the story’s characters. That work should have primacy over everything else if for no other reason than that is where the emotional, psychological, and spiritual life of your story lies.

Story structure is hugely important when writing a screenplay. After all, a screenplay is a blueprint to make a movie. However it’s your story’s characters with whom a reader will (hopefully) connect. It’s your characters who give the story its emotional, psychological, and spiritual meaning. And I believe by developing characters first, the plot of your story will emerge organically, thereby infusing it with the vitality and personality of your characters, ensuring your story will have a heart and soul.

So, next time you set out to work on a product idea, review some new features, or start a design project, take a step back for a moment and ask yourself if you really know who the people are on the other side of the product and what their stories are. Consider the characters and the story of how your product fits into the context of their lives.

Eliel Saarinen, a Finnish-American architect and furniture designer said: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” In the same way, we must consider our products in the context of the stories of our characters.

As an industry, I believe we can help our clients, colleagues, and customers better understand what we do, and the value of user experience, if we get better at helping others understand why an investment in characters and story will ultimately lead to a product that fits into the story of a user’s life.


Image of wood rings courtesy Shutterstock.

post authorSarah Doody

Sarah Doody,

Sarah Doody is an 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 publishes a popular UX newsletter, The UX Notebook. Sign up for free at: www.theuxnotebook.com

Sarah also 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.



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