Story is a profoundly important device to unite design teams around a shared product vision. This powerful communication tool helps us retain information and empathize with others. 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 towards success.

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, “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?”

We’ve been using stories to answer big questions for thousands of years. Long before humans could write, we used stories to share our most important messages. Through story, Aborigines passed down their origin through thousands of generations, and ancient cave painters depicted the movements of the constellations and the magic of the spirit world. Story is a tried-and-true methodology for collective understanding.

We’ve been encoding information in stories for so long, our minds have evolved into story super-processors, easily plucking out important messages for long-term recall and helping us empathize with others. Jennifer Aaker, Professor of Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, has found “people remember information when it’s weaved into narratives up to 22 times more than facts alone.” Findings from a study published in the journal Science suggest that literary fiction “uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences.” In other words, we can more keenly empathize with others when we learn about them through story.

Like thousands of stories told through the ages, product stories connect people and ideas. There are many ways to tell a product story, but they all start with a little planning.

Planning a product story

Product stories find their origins in research, not genius. Customer interviews will expose important moments of frustration, aspiration, and triumph—all of which are potential plot points in your story. Pixar uses a simple narrative structure to capture the essence of a story.

Pixar’s narrative shorthand makes it easy to flesh out a plot for a product story, and makes plain why your product is important to build. For example, let’s plug Airbnb’s product into this framework:

Once upon a time there was an artistic couple in Asheville, NC living in a charming home with a guest cottage out back. Every day they left each other and their lovely home to earn the money to help them pay their mortgage. One day they discovered a way to earn extra money by renting their guest cottage. Because of that, they were able to pay off their mortgage more quickly and save a bit extra for retirement. Because of that, they spent less time working and more time together. Until finally they were able to retire and live the life they’d dreamed of.

Unlike design comps and prototypes, product stories aren’t concerned with the UI of the product—just the people who will use it and in what context. A product story is very high level, answering a simple question: how will this product fit into the lives of others?

To answer this question, we can follow these principles

  • A good product story demonstrates how a cast of characters—your customers—behaves in specific settings.
  • An effective product story shows how your product creates value in your customers’ lives.
  • An achievable product story takes place in the near future—freeing your team from the technical constraints of today. Show people the future that can be created if everyone works together.
  • A product story is a visual explanation. It should be shared as a storyboard, a map, a comic, a series of illustrations, or a video.

Humans are visual thinkers. We often need to see something before we can comprehend it. Visuals will turn the abstract ideas of a product concept into a North Star that can guide teams to deliver on that vision.

One thing to keep in mind is that a product story shouldn’t be overly prescriptive about how to realize that future. Every team involved—designers, developers, marketers, ops—will have to use their own domain expertise and judgment to deliver on their end of the work. The product story should inspire and inform but never dictate.

Creating the product story

Product stories can take many forms: journey maps, storyboards, videos, even comics. Like any story, there’s an element of entertainment required to generate excitement among your teams and stakeholders.

Crafting user journey maps

In The User’s Journey, Donna Lichaw points out stories tend to follow a common structure. We’re introduced to the characters, their goals, and the setting for the story in the exposition. Conflict ensues, rising to a climactic event, then the characters find a resolution to their problems. Pixar’s narrative structure seen earlier follows a very similar story arc.

Following this story structure we can create a user journey map—an exploration of the myriad ways in which users interact with your product or service over time and across different channels.

A user journey map can be done in many ways, but simple sketches like those presented in The User’s Journey are particularly powerful as they’re fast and more fun than formal documents.

Quick tips to build your user journey map

  • Identify the main character’s goals and the problems they face.
  • Be specific where possible. Quotes from customers and specific findings from research will give your user journey map details that will bring it to life.
  • Point out the hurdles the user must overcome to get to the resolution they desire.
  • Include the devices and channels of communication involved in the user’s journey.
  • Speech bubbles let you expose the customer’s thoughts and words along the way.
  • Use a whiteboard or big paper on a wall to work as a team.
  • Your user journey map will reach more people if it’s informative and fun.

Storyboarding for product design

Storyboards—a collection of illustrated panels with short descriptions depicting key points in a story—are a tool often used by animation and film studios to work through narrative concepts. They were first developed at Walt Disney Studios during the production of Three Little Pigs in 1933.

However, storyboards have found their way into the product design process. According to Nate Blecharczyk, co-founder and CTO at Airbnb, the act of creating a storyboard was a “galvanizing event for the company.” Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, was inspired by how Disney Studios made a huge leap from short animations to their first full-length film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, using storyboarding to shape the narrative.

Airbnb’s quick initial success portended a large opportunity for growth, but Chesky struggled to see where they might best invest the company’s resources. Taking a cue from Disney, he worked with the design team to produce a storyboard showing the story of their 2 types of customers: guests and a hosts.

As Brian Chesky explains, “When you have to storyboard something, the more realistic it is, the more decisions you have to make.” The act of drawing the frames of their storyboards forced the Airbnb team to consider the way their customers feel in each step of the process of renting or hosting.

Visualizing the experience puts you and your team there in the scene, building empathy with users as you strategize the design solutions. Airbnb’s storyboard helped everyone in their rapidly growing company rally around a common cause to design the products that will best serve their customers.

Though Airbnb’s storyboards are very high-fidelity, you don’t need to hire Pixar-quality illustrators to produce your company’s story.

Quick tips to build your product design storyboard

  • Post sticky notes in a grid on a conference room wall and sketch out each scene with Sharpies. Stick figures will suffice, but if you want to refine your drawing skills a bit check out See What I Mean, Kevin Cheng’s guide to drawing product stories. The act of thinking through the characters and the context of how your product will be used is the most important part of this process.
  • Create photo storyboards using your phone. Get a few people together to act out the product experience, and snap photos of each step. Having a cheap wireless printer on hand will make it easy to produce a high-fidelity storyboard in just a couple of hours. Drop your photos into Keynote or PowerPoint to create a quick presentation that can be shared in meetings or emails.
  • Online tools like Boards let you piece together a storyboard quickly and share with colleagues.

Video product stories

When the stakes are high and the timeline to completion is long, consider producing your product story as a video, which will help the people making a product connect with the customer experience.

Video transports us to new places and makes us feel like we’re part of the story. Video’s immersive qualities also make it good at forming long-term memories—yet another important advantage when mobilizing large teams toward a common cause.

Video is also easy to share. Once you upload your video to a service like Vimeo, your product vision will have a URL that can be dropped in an email or a Slack channel for all to view and reference.

One disadvantage to producing video product stories is the required time commitment: you’ll need to write a script, gather some people to serve as your actors, and maybe rent some basic video equipment.

While preparing for a major app redesign, the UX team I led at MailChimp produced a vision video to guide the company on what was to be a 4-month project. The research team noticed, after a number of customer visits, that people were doing work differently. 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 quickly 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, we realized we needed to rethink how MailChimp handled collaboration across many devices.

The project required the collaboration of many teams. We wrote a short script and worked with our 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.

Quick tips to build your video

  • Determine if the scope of the project warrants a video. New products, long projects, and cross-channel experiences are well served by video product stories.
  • Plan ahead—video shoots can take a bit more time.
  • Avoid specifics like a detailed UI—focus on how the product needs to fit into the lives of your customers, not how the product looks.
  • Keep things simple. Enlist colleagues and friends to act out the parts. Use a DSLR camera to shoot and simple editing software like iMovie to produce your video.
  • Skip the dialogue to speed up video production. Use speech bubble overlays instead.

Product story offshoots

Stories are always better with well developed characters. User personas and job stories can help you transform findings about customers into clear portraits of the people you’re designing for and their behavioral motivations.

User personas

User Personas are archetypal representations of key customer segments. They give a name and a face to otherwise abstract customer data, inspiring empathy and informing design.

Personas can take many forms, from documents to posters, but they’re most effective when visible. The MailChimp UX team created a series of persona posters to guide their product. While pulling a shot from the espresso machine or lunching in the common space, the persona posters reminded everyone in the company of the people using their product.

Quick tips for creating user personas

  • Line up interviews with customers in each key segment.
  • Analyze the findings from your interviews to determine common traits and goals within each customer segment.
  • Create a profile representative of the largest common groupings.
  • Refresh often, as personas are merely a snapshot in time and not built to last.

Job stories

Job stories come from the Jobs to Be Done framework developed by Clay Christensen, Harvard Business School professor and author of the influential book The Innovator’s Dilemma. Core to Christensen’s Jobs to Be Done theory is that we don’t buy products, we hire them to do a job. By discerning the job a product is hired to do, we can better understand the motivations of customers.

Job stories are based on customer interviews that employ a very specific technique that takes the customer back to the moment of purchase to expose the situations and motivations that lead to their decision.

Job stories and user personas are very different. Personas represent specific segments of customers that have a shared set of characteristics, skills, and perspectives. Job stories are only concerned with a customer’s motivations within a specific context.

A job story follows a simple structure:

Breaking down the job story

Each section of the job story reveals a specific piece of information:

  • Situation: When ___________
  • Motivation: I want to ___________
  • Expected outcome: so I can ___________.

For instance:

When I commute to and from work for hours each day in my car I want to do something productive and stimulating so I can feel like I’m not wasting time and actually make my commute productive.

A job story like this provides rich insight into the problem to be solved: this commuting time is ripe for the right product or service to make wasted time instead feel like a newfound opportunity.

Quick tips to create your job story

  • Interview customers following the Jobs To Be Done interview process
  • Identify the situation, motivations, and  desired outcomes related to the customer’s purchase
  • Create a job story for each customer interview
  • Compare job stories for each interview to find patterns

Fitting into the lives of others

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.

Peering through the microscope at the details and execution of a project is important, but only after we’ve gotten the perspective from the Earth to our North Star, getting a glimpse at the future we can create. Story First is a simple principle to help you and your whole company work together on big ideas.