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Why We Need Storytellers at the Heart of Product Development

by Sarah Doody
6 min read
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Storytellers help build cohesiveness in products and within teams.

There’s an interesting question on Quora right now:

If you had to pick between an amazing product designer or an amazing engineer to build a new company around, which would you pick and why?

This question reflects a painful problem that is common at both small startups and large corporate organizations. Far too often, teams focus on execution before defining the product opportunity and unique value proposition. The result is a familiar set of symptoms including scope creep, missed deadlines, overspent budgets, frustrated teams and, ultimately, confused users. The root cause of these symptoms is the fact that execution focuses on the how and what of a product. But in a world where consumers are inundated with choices, products that want to be noticed and adopted must be rooted in the why.

A product is more than an idea, it’s more than a website, and it’s more than a transaction or list of functionalities. A product should provide an experience or service that adds value to someone’s life through fulfilling a need or satisfying a desire. The ultimate question then becomes: who identifies that value? After the executive or stakeholder identifies the initial idea, who in the organization ensures that the product and experience deliver value to the user? Maybe it isn’t the product manager, marketer, technologist, or designer; perhaps what we need is a new role: the product storyteller.

Who are the product storytellers? Part matchmaker, marketer, technologist, and artist, the product storytellers ask questions, find answers, and figure out how to distill a vision or idea into a product story. They develop a plot, identify the people, and shape the product around the specific values it should offer consumers. Product storytellers think about the whole, and they see the big picture. But they also can go deep because they understand that the product’s true value lies in the details of its interactions and every touchpoint that a consumer has with it.

The first goal of a product storyteller is to facilitate collaboration and co-creation. Today, many companies have their product and marketing groups disconnected from each other. Marketing decisions are often made at the executive level—much higher than where product decisions are made. The result is that marketing tells one story, and the product tells a different story. In the end, consumers are left to put together the conflicting messages and try to determine why they should engage with the product. A product storyteller should be positioned in the company to help break down the walls between all groups, facilitate the development of a single story, foster collaboration between groups, and ensure that every interaction a consumer has with a product or brand maps back to that story.

Not only do product storytellers identify the intended product value, they also share and evangelize this story throughout their organizations. This is important because it ensures that the entire team understands the why behind what they are doing. A common understanding of the product story allows a team to incubate a shared vision. This vision turns into passion, and people with both passion and vision are more likely to produce products that others want to use. Without a firm understanding of the why, the team risks becoming task focused, losing sight of the big picture, and deflating any sense of empowerment or excitement that once existed. When this happens, consumers and the team feel the effects. Consumers experience a disconnected product and message and, as a result, don’t have a clear perception of its value. Organizations and teams feel the effects through slow, little, or no product traction with consumers.

If one of the primary factors in consumer arousal, interest, and adoption of new products is the ability of the product to answer the question, “Why would I use this?” then why do so many teams either let execution come before defining the product value or allow multiple groups to do this independently? The answer is simple: the process of identifying a product opportunity and value statement is not easy and the skillset required is still coming of age.

In his book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule The Future, Daniel Pink explains that we’re in the “Conceptual Age” and that skills that were revered in the Industrial Age and Information Age are not as integral to where we are as a society today. Pink writes:

We’ve progressed from a society of farmers to a society of factory workers to a society of knowledge workers. And now we’re progressing yet again—to a society of creators and empathizers, of pattern recognizers and meaning makers. We’ve moved from an economy built on people’s backs to an economy built on people’s left-brains to what is emerging today: an economy and society built more and more on people’s right-brains.

Who are the right-brain thinkers? Through years of research, Pink has identified six aptitudes for the Conceptual Age: design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning. Most relevant to us is the aptitude of story. Crafting stories is not about assembling facts. Instead, according to Pink, people who understand story have “the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact.” The impact to story in business is that, “like design, it is becoming a key way for individuals and entrepreneurs to distinguish their goods and services in a crowded marketplace.” If you want your product to be heard by consumers, it must be rooted in a story that consumers can emotionally connect with.

The challenge today is that we face a shortage of storytellers because our current organizational structures and cultures are not optimized for the activities involved in storytelling. First, as I’ve already discussed, ownership of product value is not clearly defined and instead is distributed across or shared between teams. The result is a series of communication disconnects that produce a product experience and message that is not in line with the original vision—like a childhood game of “Telephone.” But the second, and more interesting, reason for the shortage of storytellers is that the individuals who may have the skills to develop the story are not in the right environments.

Marty Cagan, a product management and product strategy expert, addresses this issue in his book Inspired: How To Create Products That Customers Love. Cagan notes that there are two key responsibilities of the product manager: “assess product opportunities, and define the product to be built.” However, he asserts that product managers often become “consumed in the details and pressures of producing detailed specs rather than looking at the market opportunity and discovering a winning strategy and roadmap.” The reason for this is that product management is often placed within the engineering organization. Ultimately, an engineering organization is focused on execution and that culture is not optimized for the process of discovery, curiosity, and play, all of which are fundamental to those who engage in storytelling.

Product storytellers should be at the intersection of product, marketing, and technology to help ensure that what’s being created clearly maps back to a product story that identifies the plot, people, and perceived value to the consumer. Before a technologist writes a line of code, or a marketer writes a line of copy, or a designer creates a single wireframe or design, you have to establish the story that your product is going to tell.

The role of a product storyteller is not meant to take away from the founder, executive, marketer, designer, or technologist. As well, the development of product strategy and vision shouldn’t be contained in a silo belonging to the product storyteller. But someone does need to own it. Now more than ever, cross-role collaboration is critical to product conception, incubation, and development. The product storyteller synthesizes rather than analyzes, sees the big picture rather than becoming stuck in the details, and ensures that all product interactions and touchpoints form a cohesive and value-based consumer experience.

So whether you are at a small start up or a large organization, whether you are a founder, executive, technologist, designer, manager, or marketer, ask yourself this: do you know your product’s story? And perhaps more importantly, who creates your product story?

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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