The Role of Storytelling in Innovation: Part 3

photo by Reinis Ivanovs,

Characters. You need characters to tell a story. The more vividly drawn they are, the better. This part of the story is about understanding those characters and how that understanding can help you meet their needs.

In Part 2 of this series we talked about actively telling the story of your context. We focused on the action and what’s happening in a particular situation.

We discussed the people in this context, based mostly on what they do and how they act in the space. We called them stakeholders. Each of them has some interest in what’s happening. They won’t all be customers. Some will influence the customer or the situation, but they all still have a role to play. A part in the story.

(Rest of the series: Part 1Part 2, Part 4)

Who are these characters? In a good story the author lets us peek inside their psyche. They share with us something of why they do what they do. In a well-written story, that tells us something about their motivation.

Our job is to create a new product. We can use the idea of story as a tool to help us do that really well. But we need to make sure the user is represented in our efforts.

It’s not practical to include the customer in every meeting and decision, but we can create a proxy, or more accurately a set of proxies, made up of tools we build from customer research.

The focus of these tools is to create a better product or service. We use them to understand customer wants and needs, even when they can’t describe them for themselves. We then work to create something that gives them an unforgettable experience.

We build our proxies using real data. We breathe some life into them with real details from our research to make it feel more like our customers are actually active participants in the design process.


To understand the motivation of our characters, we build Personas. We use them as character profiles. We give them a name, an age, a background.

We include details that tell us something about the person, choosing them from the real people we’ve observed and interviewed.

If we’re creating a profile of someone who is a monster truck enthusiast we might start like this:

Donnie is 43. He’s marred to Janet and they have three children together: Dennis, 9; Donnie Jr., 6; and Emily, 2.

Donnie has been fascinated with trucks for a long as he can remember. The bigger and louder, the better. He became a huge fan of Grave Digger, and its driver Dennis Anderson, when at 19, he saw the Digger team beat Bigfoot for the first time at a show in St. Paul.

He has said about these events, “I don’t really care who wins, it’s about who runs around the track the hardest and puts on the biggest show.”

He has made three trips to Digger’s Dungeon in North Carolina as a part of family vacations.

He subscribes to Trucks Magazine which frequently features articles on Monster Trucks.

He is also an ATV enthusiast and rides on weekends with either his wife or oldest son…

We build this bio to create some life around the person for whom we invite to join our team.

When it comes time to make a decision about a new product or feature, we still consult our research, look at data, conduct polls or create tools to choose features. But we also often ask “Would Dennis actually want this?”

When we build personas, we make use of things we’ve seen during our research. We reference our notes on what people said. We ask them about their goals.

This research helps us to create a virtual customer, a representative of the interests of the user. That’s the person we initially seek to satisfy and delight. We’re working to understand the job they’re trying to do.

That job may be to perform a successful surgery. Or it may be to really enjoy the Monster Truck Rally. In some way we’re enabling an experience.

Get Some Empathy

In some cases we need to get out of our own character and into another. Companies will often rely on their historical knowledge of an industry or what their experience tells them customers are seeking.

It’s easy to stay inside the walls of your company and, from your seat in a conference room, believe you have all of the answers. Many of us attend brainstorming sessions full of the belief we know our customers and what they want.

But can you really be that objective?

There’s no substitute for going out and visiting potential customers in their natural habitat. But, if you can’t, there are also other ways to get some insight and remind ourselves that we don’t actually know what’s going on in the brains of our customers.

To do this quickly, we’ll sometimes use tools that put the development team into the shoes of the user. We’ll help them experience what it’s like to be the customer.

If the customer is older, we may ask them to wear out of focus glasses or gloves and attempt to use a product. If the product isn’t user friendly, we may create intentionally difficult instructions. Then we have them try to live the experience.

If they’re focused on a particular customer service experience, the team will go undercover–actually be the customer. Call that service line and wade through five layers of options. Wait through 18 minutes of repetitive music peppered with messages about ‘How much we care about our customers’ and ‘We’ve just been voted number one again in customer service’ before you get to speak to an actual human being.

Experience the joy of going back on hold while they ‘Ask their supervisor about that’ before having to repeat that experience three more times to get a resolution.

Living through exactly how the customer experiences your company, products, or services might make you think quite a bit differently about them.

Develop Your Characters

Give your product development teams something beyond a set of requirements documents. Sure they can respond to a factual list of what the product should do and be, but their response won’t be much more than a bulleted list.

If you give them people to design for and a story to narrate through your products and services, you’ll get their maximum creativity. You’ll move their focus from completing a checklist to captivating your end user.

The end result could be a timeless love story between your company and your customer.

5 thoughts on “The Role of Storytelling in Innovation: Part 3

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

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

  3. Pingback: The Role of Storytelling in Innovation: Part 3 « story of design : Just Story It – Articles and Blog Postings

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