The Role of Storytelling in Innovation

Research isn’t enough.  You can observe your customer all day.  You can run dozens of focus groups.  You can conduct countless surveys.  But does having all of that information at your disposal really help you create a product that will make your customers instantly fall in love with it?

Not if the product doesn’t help them tell “their story.”

Storytelling is fundamental to human existence. Before we could write, we told stories (both as individuals and as cultures).  In fact, much of our tradition and known history was handed down from generation to generation through storytelling.

An engaging story has the power to transfix us, to move us, to allow us to see things from an entirely new point of view.

Stories also enable us to find common ground with people that are different from us.

It’s that common ground, the telling of the story, which allows us to understand the customer well enough to give them something that really delights them.

In innovation, if we’re doing it right, we should be gathering information from all sorts of people.  We should be focused on the people that are, or could be, our customers–the people who will buy our products and services or call our help line.

If I’m in human resources, it’s my coworkers or prospective job candidates

If I own a restaurant, it’s the people who eat there.

If I make hammers, it’s the people who drive the nails.

In every case, they’re each having a very unique experience.

What is the story they want to live? What’s their motivation? How should their story be told?

Storytelling can lead to a production–a stage show (more about this in Part 2–edit:moved to part 3.)  The development of the experience we hope our customers are having with our product or service. It doesn’t matter if it’s time spent at the teller’s window at the bank, a meal at a fine restaurant or the power drill they’re using on a home improvement project.

In every case there’s an array of factors that go into creating an experience for the people involved.

They may have some idealized version of that experience.

They may have frustrations they can’t describe.

There may even be opportunities to give them an experience that’s better than what they’re having now.

But how do we give it to them?

First, we have to learn about what they want.  We have to understand their goals and their desires.  We have to understand the “story” they have in mind.  We also have to understand their story might not be complete.

It might not be much more than a vague feeling that things could be better than they are now.  And that means there’s a responsibility on us to help author a better story.

We have to learn as much as we can about what they want, then we have to apply our skills as designers, innovators and “engineers of experience” to create something better for them.  A better something that’s part of a story they can’t always tell us themselves.

Some of the learning we do comes from talking to people.  We ask questions.  We get them to tell stories about themselves.  We learn from these stories.  What are you trying to accomplish?  What is on your mind when you do that?  How do you feel when you think about this thing or this experience?

There’s a lot to be learned from the stories people tell us.

Think of the hammer.  The time that the hammer spends actually driving each nail is only a fraction of a second.  It spends most of its time in a toolbox, on a belt or resting in a hand.  What is its day?  How does it get from place to place?  How does the user get it ready to drive that nail? Are there other things that usually go with it?  How does it travel?  Where does it go when its work is done?  What if it breaks?  Does the user fix it?  Where does he or she get another one?

By following a product or service through its lifecycle, we are telling its story.  We are introduced to it in some way.  We become acquainted.  We learn things about it.  If it’s a device, perhaps we start out unskilled.  Later, as we become familiar, we get better at using it.  It has a story.  The people that use it have a story in mind, even if they can’t tell it.

Think of Jimi Hendrix’s first guitar.  There was a time in his life when he couldn’t play at all.  He picked up a guitar for the first time.  That was the start of an important story.  From the perspective of that guitar, how did the way Jimi interacted with it change over time?  Were his first attempts to play clumsy?  Did he feel a sense of power, even though it was unfamiliar? And, if he happened to hang onto it, think about how it must have felt in his hands at the peak of his career when it was a thing that allowed him to engage with the world.

There’s also a lot to be learned from the stories our customers don’t tell us.  That is, what they show us.  We have to do a lot of observation.  We have to become the storyteller on their behalf.  We must fold what we see in with what they tell us.

In a scenario, they might have goals, things they’re trying to accomplish.  They might have an ending in mind. We can observe what they do, how they act and how they react to those things and learn by seeing it for ourselves.  We can build a story and reflect it back.  We can envision a new product, a new service or a new future and describe it.

We can build entire scenarios around what doesn’t exist yet.  But, like any great storyteller, we need to make sure it’s plausible.  If we truly understand our customers and their context, we can start to build new stories.

Building that new story and presenting it is the next step.

7 thoughts on “The Role of Storytelling in Innovation

  1. Pingback: The Role of Storytelling in Innovation: Part 2 « story of design

  2. Pingback: The Role of Storytelling in Innovation, Part 4: Putting on a Production « story of design

  3. Pingback: The Role of Storytelling in Innovation: Part 3 « story of design

  4. Great design first thing Second thing the prespective at which you see the sport is quite neutral quite in my words wikipedia style. This is a welcome change from people who are either racist or support a particular agenda.!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s