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While some companies are rewriting the playbook on product and service design, too often storytelling begins after the product is finished.

Some of the most important storytelling, however, happens before and while the product is being built. The savviest designers know that telling the story of your customer and their human challenges first is necessary to design a product that fits into an existing human narrative to make it better.

Focusing on Story-Driven Products, Services, and Experiences

"Human" products work with the flow of human behavior rather than against it. Adoption that depends on customers to change their daily narrative to center on a product often stalls. Granted, disruptive technology disrupts behavior. However, many successful innovations are evolutionary, small breakthroughs that yield big results because they don't ask customers to change their story, but they solve common problems by working with the flow of customers' daily routines.

Story-driven approaches ensure that a product's "story" is well understood before it is built and marketed because the customer's world shapes how products/services/experiences are designed. You must figure out how your product fits with—and improves—customers' lives as they are.

That approach is deeper than personas. It's about empathy for customer needs and frustrations, and co-creating with the customer through the experience. Customer stories, then, provide a consistent roadmap for the whole experience including sales, customer service, delivery, and post-purchase follow-up. 

Examples of How the Human Story Inspires Design

Catheters—a major source of hospital infections—exemplify how story-driven design 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). The company looked at the entire process of human behavior that lead to contamination (including, for example, nurses putting catheters in their pockets for later use), and built a solution to the entire process. Now, nurses can disinfect right before insertion, without having to disrupt their daily routines. Thus, a small tweak in design that factors in the entire human chain of events can have a huge health impact.

Nest Labs is another great example. The company designed a learning thermostat to reduce costs of home cooling and heating. Nest understood the customer desire for conservation and recognized that many thermostats were too inefficient and too complicated to use properly. Based on the customer story of frustration and need, Nest designed a product that "learns" peoples' preferences in a short period and adjusts automatically. Nest fits into human habit rather than asking people to change their world. That need for energy savings and simplicity inspired the design. Now, marketing has to tell the story that has been "baked into" the product.

One of my favorite examples is LEGO. Not too long ago, LEGO had a whole generation of fans who wanted to introduce their kids to the brand, if only the company had an online user experience as great as its physical bricks.

Kids today are increasingly drawn to games and online play. There was no easy way to play with LEGO online, and that fragmented experience caused the company to lose market share. Kids jump around from toy to toy—and from online to offline play creating stories about what they build as they go.

So, LEGO brought together the online and real worlds in ways that enable kids (of all ages) to bring their ideas to life. It designed an online service allowing people to submit their own designs, and the company ships them the bricks to build that design. LEGO also created an app that allows users to create and share online stories about the items they built online and offline. By designing around the natural flow of play that enables kids to move seamlessly between offline and online experiences, LEGO expanded its market.

* * *

If done right, product stories aren't a "positioning" after-thought; they are the inspiration behind product innovation. And that gives marketing messages and storytelling after the fact far more credibility.

So bring your best storytellers—including your customers—to product strategy. Your customers are waiting.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

image of Kathy Klotz-Guest

Kathy Klotz-Guest, founder of Keeping It Human, helps companies turn marketing-speak into compelling human stories. A comic improviser and marketer, she also runs a marketing podcast. Reach her via kathy@keepingithuman.com.

LinkedIn: Kathy Klotz-Guest

Twitter: @kathyklotzguest

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