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Product story telling.

February 16, 2020

Lets start by defining what is plot.

Plot is the series of related events that make up a story or drama. Each event hooks out curiosity and pulls us forward to the next event.

Here’s my thesis on product development: for a product to be successful it has to have a strong plot, it has to have coherency, it has to tell a story. Below I’ll give examples from traditional story telling theory and how that applies to product development.

Lets base the conversation about structure on the following diagram:

Story telling structure

Looking at the picture above we can identify 5 distinct areas of a story telling arc.

  • Exposition: Beginning of story. This is where we introduce the characters, setting (time and place) and conflict.
  • Rising Action: Conflicts develop, interest or suspense builds. Action leads to climax.
  • Climax: Story turning point. Character faces the conflict. Protagonist changes in some way.
  • Falling Action: Plot loose ends tied up. Conflict is resolved.
  • Resolution: Story comes to a reasonable end.

Lets look at those 5 points in the context of product development.

Exposition

Like every story, a product needs to start with a good Exposition. Exposition, in story telling, is the point where we are introducing the main characters, setting the pace of the story and describe the conflicts. In Product development Exposition is where you introduce your product to the world, what’s the added value and ideally what’s the entry requirements. We could say that the exposition is happening on the landing page. The first entry point of a user. Lets look at those exposition principles one by one.

Introducing your product. To achieve an optimal introduction of your product on your landing page you need a lot of trial and error. Each product and industry is unique in the type of crowd it attracts. The things I’ve seen working in designing a landing page are:

  • enough space to be able to drive the eye where you want it to go.
  • Try not to overload users with a bunch of text.
  • From that point onward add data tracking and see if your page is driving acquiring new users.
  • Learn, change, track, repeat.

Setting the pace. This is a very tricky part and one often overlooked. The plot of a story is framed by a time span that suits the purpose. The timing of the story can also be manipulated to control the emotions of the viewer by either slowing down or speeding up the time. When it comes to product design the best way to understand and apply that concept is in the design of forms. Lets look at some examples.

The UK government digital services is a good example for form design. Their basic principles below are a great way to set a platform for controlling the pace of your form.

Structuring forms:

  • Know why you’re asking every question
  • Design for the most common scenarios first
  • Start with one thing per page
  • Structure your form to help users

With that in place we can then employ things like, asking a few questions in the beginning and only display the user those pages that are relevant to them. This is speeding up the pace. Also the fact that you you have one thing per page is actually slowing down the pace, in order to achieve greater focus to the thing that needs solving in that case. You can see that with some basic rules a setting of pace is being applied for optimal results.

Government Digital Service form example

Finally, in the topic of setting the pace, we need to mention flashbacks. You might have seen them in movies where we see a glimpse of the past for added drama and context in the now. The same can beautifully be applied in product design. Breadcrumbs on the top of the page for example can be a form of flashback, as it answers the question “How did I get here?“. Another form of flashback can be the main list of your banking app. There you are seeing all your past transactions. The challenge for product designers there is how to utilize all that past information to make the user use the product more efficiently. A good example from TransferWise for example is a feature that enables you to repeat a past transaction. This is a great use of using past information to speed up your workflow. Chances are that if you sent money once to person A, you need to do it again at some point.

Transferwise Repeat Transfer example

Rising action

Conflict can be defined as the struggle or clash between opposing characters or forces. Conflicts can be external (fireman VS fire) or internal (fireman VS fear). When it comes to product design using conflict as a tool can be very controversial. You might have seen things like a counter on top of a form when you are trying to book a ticket, or other timers when choosing tickets. Those timers are there only to create a conflict between the app and you, it’s tapping on the fear of yours that you will lose a good deal.

Easyjet example on rising action

The conflict is very important because the entire plot is build around the conflict. Why did you go to EasyJet website? To find a good deal on your next trip. Why is the business there? To resolve that internal conflict of your, that you need to do that trip. One could extrapolate and say that identifying a conflict is how you identify a new business opportunity. Social media? I need to connect with more people. Fintech? I need more control on my finances. Buying organic products? Man vs Nature, you want to do good to the nature that’s around us.

Looking at different kinds of conflicts might actually help identify a lot of those patterns. Here’s the conflict types that we can find in story telling theory:

  • Person vs Person. These are interpersonal conflicts. A protagonist vs an antagonist (classic banks vs neo banks)
  • Person vs Society. These are conflicts against society or government. One could say Bitcoin is a type of that conflict.
  • Person vs Nature. This is one of the most dramatic conflicts, because it’s a fight we can’t win. The industry around organic products, ethically good produce etc are based on that conflict.
  • Person vs Machine. This is a bit more Sci-fi as this is man vs technology and we are, well, in tech. But industries like workout apps, gyms etc are based on that conflict.
  • Man vs Self. This is self descriptive. This tapping on our own internal battle with ourselves. Mindfulness and Productivity apps fall within that category in my opinion.

Climax

The most difficult part of any story telling is building up the story and rising action. Leading to climax is a good place to be and it’s a place where you have a lot of creative freedom. Same principles apply with product development too. If we go back to the example of completing a form the climax could be the final page after you’ve completed all the sections. This is where you look back and you verify that everything is as you expect them. This is also the area where you are building trust with your user. They spent all that time on the product, time to complete that journey.

Amazon is an example a lot of people know. On their website, before sending your order you can see a full transcript of all the relevant information. Delivery details, product details and expectations. This page is by no means fancy in terms of design elements but it’s very practical.

Amazon final screen example

Falling action

The plot ends here, time to tie any loose ends. This is where the user clicks a button, submits a form, saves some progress. This is the point of committing. If your user reached that point you managed to convert them. They are not a user of your product and certainly it’s a small success on your side.

In the example above the falling action is the buy now button. Note the prominence of the position of the button and the styling. It’s top right corner, styled in way that draws attention and in general it’s very strategically placed. Having talked with Amazon product managers I can tell you that the amount of thought and research that has been done on the placing and styling of that button is non trivial.

Resolution

Time for a reasonable end. Emphasis on the reasonable part. While this might seem like the least important part I actually feel this is the MOST IMPORTANT part for the retention of the user. We want them to come back. We want them to leave without any questions. We want them satisfied. This is an area where we need to start thinking about things like follow up emails, screens that verify that everything was successfully completed and generally setting the expectations.

When it comes to emails I am really happy with the work TransferWise has done and keeps doing to on their folllow up emails. If we take a closer look to the email below we can see some pretty interesting bits. The money sent is there (verifying what we already agreed, building trust). The expected delivery day is there (again, building trust by setting expectations clearly). A “track your transfer” button is there (helping to proactively answer any questions the user might have, working towards retaining the customer). Finally to the very bottom we can clearly see an option to change what notifications we get. You can easily unsubscribe there or change how they approach you. I also like the fact that these are all clearly highlighted.

Transferwise email example

Push notifications are also an option when following up and helping with the resolution of the customer journey. Apple for example is utilizing its own platform to send push notifications on your devices once you order a product and the status has changed. The issue with push notifications though is that they are slightly more invasive. So while you might be trying to do good, you might find that users are churning, simply because they receive more push notifications that they want. It’s “The boy that cried wolf” but for product design.

Apple push notification example

Finally another interesting, albeit a bit controversial, example of notifications around the resolution is Amazon again. If you are an Alexa user you will notice that once you order a product Amazon will send a notification to your Amazon echo product. The echo will spin a light blue ring letting you know where your product is. This type of integration is utilizing the smart devices we might own.

Recap

So to recap all of the above, your product needs to tell a story. It needs to introduce your user to it clearly, create interest for it by identifying the conflicts that it’s trying to address, providing a clear solution to that conflict and finally resolving it. Overall it has to have a continuity that you can clearly identify.

When to worry? If you find that the product is comprised by elements that are very loosely connected then that might be a good red flag. More often than not I’ve observed software that is more akin to a toolbox, rather than a product. It’s a collection of little utilities but there is not story to be told.

Can you clearly see the added value? If your product hasn’t identified any clear conflicts to solve and doesn’t clearly provide a solution to it then this is also a red flag. You have to identify the problem you are solving and fall in love with it.

Are you clearly setting the pace? This is also something to pay attention too. If your product is confusing and not clear enough on how to navigate it then the user will certainly get lost. If acquiring users is hard, keeping them is even harder. Don’t lose them because you haven’t set the pace.

Have you provided a clear resolution? Finally, care for your customer even after they have completed the journey. Clearly communicate with them what’s next, what they agreed on and generally make them feel heard.

Special thanks: This post was based on a lecture by Dr Thaleia Deniozou from Brunel University London where she talks about story telling in the context of games design.


Thoughts of a developer, a photographer, a runner, a cook. All of them the same person. George is also on Twitter!

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