What is it about reading a good story that makes it seem so effortless? In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall writes:

“…authors trick us into doing most of the imaginative work. Reading is often seen as a passive act: we lie back and let writers pipe joy into our brains. But this is wrong. When we experience a story, our minds are churning, working hard.”

We evolved as storytelling creatures, and the power of story has never left us. As companies scale and teams sprint through product iterations, it’s easy to lose sight of how your product should fit into the lives of your customers. The best way to keep everyone pointed in the right direction is with a clear, compelling story—a story that will unite and guide teams toward success.

Related: Secrets of design leadership—from Stanley Wood of Spotify

Product roadmaps guide team milestones, but they only show us what to build and when. They don’t show us why we’re building a product. Stories, however, are great at explaining why. In Start with Why, author Simon Sinek proclaims that, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.” Similarly, the best product teams don’t merely follow a process; they march toward a shared destination—a vision of the future presented as a story that answers, “Why are we building this?”

Talking about the why

Design leaders need to craft the vision for a product and communicate how it fits into the lives of others. There are many mediums for conveying this story; some design teams create large boards that show design style or tell the story of how their product will fit into the lives of their customers. Others create short videos to illustrate to all how the product will fit into the customer’s lifestyle.

While preparing for a major app redesign, the UX team Aarron Walter led at MailChimp produced a vision video to guide the company on what was to be a 4-month project.

The research team had noticed after a number of customer visits that people were doing work differently. Persistent internet connections on phones and tablets let people work anywhere and all the time, ducking in and out of small tasks. This created a sense of found time that was quickly being filled up with more to-dos.

As people became overwhelmed with their work, they needed to hand things off to others. Seeing these behavioral patterns, the UX team realized they needed to rethink how MailChimp handled collaboration across many devices.

The project required the collaboration of many teams. They wrote a short script and worked with their in-house videographer to produce a brief vision video in about 10 days.

Faced with a major redesign of their platform, MailChimp created this vision video to guide all teams.

The production was inexpensive and relatively fast, but the outcome was of high enough fidelity to guide designers, developers, marketers, and other stakeholders around the company as they worked to realize the vision set forth.

Sketches and storyboards are another great medium for conveying stories. Airbnb worked with Pixar illustrators to create storyboards that showed how their products would fit into the lives of their customers. Their storyboard gave everyone a vision of the product experience they wanted while still giving each team the freedom to solve the problems as they saw fit.

 

The storytelling mechanism you choose is less important than the story you tell. The act of creating a product story before you begin the design process not only helps you mobilize your teams, it also forces you to clarify your intentions for your product. You’ll step out of the maker’s mindset and consider how your product will fit into the lives of others.

Vision—whether presented through a video, storyboard, or some other means—gives purpose and clarity to our work. Without it teams often lose sight of their mission.

 

When you come to a fork in the road, take it

As design leaders, we are often thinking and communicating in terms of how design ties into company strategy, and we become less focused on craft. This is just a normal part of how a role evolves as responsibilities grow. As a company scales, CTOs don’t often do much coding, and CMOs rarely have time to write a blog post or draft an email campaign.

But as designers, we are in a somewhat unique position where our craft can inform our thinking. Don Norman, Director of the Design Lab at University of California, San Diego, writes about the tension between craft and design thinking in his essay The Future of Design: When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It:

The fork in the road does not have to be a choice between two options: this is an opportunity to pursue both. Design as a craft has a long history of providing great value to humankind. Design thinking is as yet unproven, but it has the potential to provide a different kind of value to the world. Both are essential, so let us take the fork in both directions.

In Don’s view, we don’t necessarily have to give up the craft of design to become leaders, or to convey the vision for a product. In fact, this vision could be stronger if we “learn and think by drawing and doing.” So sharpen your pencils, dust off your sketchbook, and start telling better stories to guide your team to success.

Key takeaways

  • Craft the vision for your product and communicate how it fits into the lives of others. This will serve as the North Star guiding all teams.
  • Use story to communicate a design vision. Video, storyboards, and comics are all great mediums to show colleagues the future you’re creating for your customers.

 

Conclusion

Our hope is that, after combing through this guide and the readings we’ve recommended, you feel better equipped to lead your team. You now know how to build and manage a team, you have a plan to operationalize design, you recognize that you’ll need to forge alliances to be effective, and you know how to shape a cohesive design vision so everyone in your organization has a North Star to guide their work.

Though your learning curve as a design leader is steep, the rewards are great. You’re in a position to influence the trajectory of your team and your entire organization—that’s exciting.

Design leaders like you will reshape teams, companies, and ultimately our industry. Your wisdom will grow with practice, and as it does we hope you’ll share what you’ve learned with others. Leaders teach, and in doing so the depths of their wisdom deepens.

Thank you for being a leader! We’re rooting for you.