Human-Centered Design: Where are the Product Storytellers Today?


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Great marketing IS storytelling, and it is the essence of connecting with your audience. So why aren’t there more storytellers in product – especially in high-tech?

Many companies gather customer requirements, build in a few of the most important needs, create a prototype, and collect beta-test feedback. Then, after fixing a few things, marketing creates “messages” to promote the product to customers. Far too often, storytelling begins after the product is built.

Yet, the most important storytelling happens before and while the product is being built. Story drives the product into being – it’s what inspires the best design. From Pixar to LEGO to SAP, some of the savviest designers know that telling the story of your customer and their human challenges first is necessary into order to design a product that fits into a customer’s world. Your customer has a story and the only story a great product can tell is how it fits into a larger human narrative. Unfortunately, too many companies create a story as after-thought or as extension of their corporate product strategy narrative and force that onto the customer. That is bass-ackwards, as the saying goes!

Forget “Features!” Story-Driven Products Win

Why? The best products work with the flow of human behavior rather than against it. Product adoption that depends on customers to change their human behavior – thus, asking them to change their daily narrative to center around some product – often stalls. Granted, disruptive technology works this way; however, most human-centered innovations are evolutionary, small breakthroughs that yield big results because they don’t ask customers to change their story – they offer a solution to a common problem, and work with the grain of customers’ daily routine.

When product designers work this way, the “story” behind the product’s value is already well understood before any product is completely designed and built. The value story behind great products isn’t created by marketing as an afterthought; it’s the forethought that gives design its inspiration. A value proposition makes the ‘case’ to a customer why he or she should bring a feature-driven product into his or her existing world. That’s backwards. In story-driven development, a customer’s world shapes how a product should be designed.

At SAP for example, a VP of Product told me his team tells stories about the customers with the customers present, and they tell stories about what the product can do to help the customer as the product is being created. This is the central focus of “design thinking” as practiced. Stories provide an important roadmap – a vision to help products stay on target and stay customer-focused.

“Human” Need, Not Product, Drives Narrative

A great example of fitting a product into an existing need and narrative is in the area of catheters – a major source of hospital infections. Though not particularly exciting as a product, it exemplifies how design thinking works with the flow of human behavior. A company recently came up with a catheter cleaning mechanism (with a disinfecting dispenser and cleaning head that operates at the push of a button). This company looked at the entire process of “human” events that lead to contamination and built a solution to the entire process. For example, nurses putting catheters in their pockets for later use. That very act contaminates the catheter. Now nurses can disinfect right before insertion, without having to change their daily routine in a major way! A small tweak in design that understands the entire human chain of events can have a huge health impact.

Nest Labs is another great example. Tony Fadell, the founder of Nest also created the iPod. The company designed a learning thermostat to reduce costs of home cooling and heating. It is a simple, elegant design that solves a real need without requiring people to master a steep learning curve. Nest Labs’ product “learns” peoples’ preferences and works with their needs, desires, and narrative. Nest fits into human habit; rather than asking people to change their story to integrate a new product into their world. Nest understood the story of energy consumption and that many thermostat systems were too complicated and inefficient. That story and the need for energy savings inspired the design of the product. It is that simple. It’s not feature-rich; it doesn’t have to be. It is a story-driven, not a features-driven, product.

Stories Are a Precursor to Marketing, Not the Byproduct of it

Storytellers are critical in product development and marketing. All great marketing is storytelling. Products designed and inspired by stories of human need are easier to market because they fit into the customer’s existing narrative, rather than asking customers to change their stories.

If done right, product stories are never an after-thought; they a core part of the inspiration behind the product and a driving force for innovation, not after it. By building customer narrative into the product, human-centered design strengthens the marketing message and gives it credibility. That’s the difference between human-centered marketing and advertising.

So, companies, please bring the best storytellers back to product strategy. Your customers are waiting!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Kathy Klotz-Guest
For 20 years, Kathy has created successful products, marketing stories, and messaging for companies such as SGI, Gartner, Excite, Autodesk, and MediaMetrix. Kathy turns marketing "messages" into powerful human stories that get results. Her improvisation background helps marketing teams achieve better business outcomes. She is a founding fellow for the Society for New Communications Research, where she recently completed research on video storytelling. Kathy has an MLA from Stanford University, an MBA from UC Berkeley, and an MA in multimedia apps design.


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