By Jon Kolko
As design strategy consultants, we are often hired to develop a strategy to complement other strategic approaches in technology or marketing, each with its own priorities and perspectives. Telling the stories of the people who benefit from the products and/or services allows us to advocate for their needs when working with stakeholders.
There are a few key considerations when shaping an effective design strategy.
One of the most important parts of a compelling story is showing the people involved—their context and behavior. Videos are a direct way of doing this but can often be too realistic because they leave little to the imagination. Combining static imagery with audio and text helps bring a set of abstract circumstances to life while allowing viewers to fill in addition details based on their own experiences. Using captions to reinforce spoken words prompts additional mental images and relationships.
It’s important that the behavior, wants, needs, and desires of the research participants aren’t broken down into bullet points or text summaries. These familiar presentation formats shortcut the most important part of the stories: the people themselves. Overly distilling the uniqueness of the human whose story we’re telling means we lose the unique details and attributes of the real people involved—and those details are paramount to learning.
Prior to a research project with ground-crew handlers at airports, I had an abstract understanding of, say, how my luggage gets from the check-in desk onto the correct plane, then to the baggage carousel at my destination. In the field, following baggage handlers in the belly of the Zurich International Airport, I gained a robust mental model of the full airport context and by sharing my experience though visuals and audio, I can transfer some of this fidelity to my audience.
The stories we craft need to evoke emotion in order to bring participants to life. To do this, we need to contextualize both their behavior and their sentiments.
In a recent session, we asked Jason, a millennial gig worker in Glendale Arizona to tell us about his day in detail. He described delivering food for Favor, driving for Uber, installing a fence on a construction site, and, finally, participating in our study. Depending on the listener, this could seem like a lot of work for too little money. If we hear about his actions without understanding his emotions, the behavior may sound untenable. Yet Jason is proud of his hustle, emphasizing that he loves waking up in the morning without a plan and deciding what type and how much work to do that day.
By considering “what he does” paired with “how he feels,” the behavior suddenly resonates across multiple audiences. Whether or not we can picture ourselves living like this, we can start to see why Jason makes these choices.
In the best stories, the characters feel like relatable people instead of actors and we are transported away from our own world and into theirs. While the sensation doesn’t always have staying power, it can transfer the protagonist’s beliefs and experiences to the viewer, allowing our real world to temporarily slip away. This happens when a viewer’s attention is captured through a combination of vivid imagery and feelings.
Katy, a fifth-grade teacher, told us about the professional development her school district mandates. Just a week before our interview, she—along with 12,000 other teachers—participated in a half-day training seminar. She described the traffic mess of 6,000 teachers arriving for an afternoon session while another 6,000 teachers left the auditorium at the same time. Not only was the session not professionally useful for her, it created a huge sense of frustration and anger.
She felt strongly that the session was a disaster and as I listened to her and was transported, for a moment, into the mess of the traffic jam, I couldn’t help but agree.
The design research that leads to strategic storytelling focuses on people’s aspirations and behaviors, which are presented during field work as narratives occurring over time. We typically work with between 15 and 25 participants in two-hour sessions, which generates a huge amount of data. We can’t include all or even most in a strategic summary. In fact, we may have time for only two or three stories, and within those, will likely need to focus on two or three main emphasis points. Through the curation process, we narrow the focus to the most compelling, self-contained, and supportive stories that support our emergent strategy.
The stories we tell challenge preconceived beliefs, provoke cognitive dissonance, and, frankly, make audiences uncomfortable. It’s easy for an audience member to interpret this discomfort as an indication that either their existing schema or the stories are wrong. Yet when the stories are presented in a strong and rich manner, they demand attention and make it much more difficult to ignore the disconnect.
One of our projects focused on people who were considering buying insurance. We watched many of them glaze over during the process—some people viewed the purchase as a serious and important one while many others saw it as a tedious activity, approaching it with a cavalier attitude. One participant, Joseph, even did his research on his phone while running on a treadmill at the gym.
However, our client viewed the purchase process as thoughtful, assuming that prospective customers would carefully consider their options before deciding on such an important purchase. Watching a man on a treadmill casually make a decision that our stakeholders believed was deserving of a well-researched, intellectual consideration created dissonance. It challenged the way our clients viewed their business and their customers, provoking questions. Surely the man is an outlier. People don’t really do that, do they? Why doesn’t he treat this as seriously as we do? Resolving the disconnect between our clients’ beliefs and the participants’ actions became the focus of the conversation—which is exactly our goal when proposing a design strategy.
We think a great deal about empathy in design—our ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes. But when we tell a story in design strategy, we often employ sympathy, our ability to care about someone and their circumstances. We provoke feelings of sadness, caring, or worry, so that our audience wants to help the protagonist on an emotional level.
When speaking with a photography student who, close to graduation, was thinking of dropping out of college because she couldn’t afford tuition, we learned that her father had incorrectly filled out the financial aid documentation, and then had tried to hide his mistakes. She loved her family, and didn’t blame him, but her educational outlook was grim even though she only needed $3,000 to complete her degree. As my research partner and I left her house, we briefly discussed mailing her an anonymous gift of the money—we didn’t, for a variety of reasons based on research ethics—but the session did exactly what it was supposed to, evoking sympathy so that we sincerely wanted her to succeed.
If we can present that story in a way that evokes similar sympathy in people who weren’t there with us and cast our emergent design strategy as a way to help her and other students like her, this emotional connection can drive positive action.
We tell the stories we hear. Since our participants can’t be present in the boardroom, it is our responsibility to stay true to their experiences—to give them a voice in the design process. In some ways we are using their voices to drive our own agenda, so the key to working ethically is to first shape a strategy that helps them, and only then bring in their stories to push that strategy as a way of demonstrating real, meaningful need. This is one of the main differences between design strategy and other strategic approaches, we should always advocate for the people we interviewed and the other users they represent.
The most important part of using stories to shape and drive a design strategy is that we’re not using made up characters, archetypes, personas, or any other form of demographic conglomerates—these are real individuals. Precisely why the stories resonate on such a human level and, as an audience, we come to believe in and advocate for a single individual. We want to help them, specifically, as we might want to help a friend.
Jason really is a gig worker. The baggage handler, though anonymous, works at the Zurich airport. Katy, the fifth-grade teacher, hates professional development, and Joseph really did shop for insurance on a treadmill. Their experiences are believable because they actually happened.
A great author can bring fictional characters to life with fidelity, but most of us are not great authors. The uniqueness of our participants—their quirks, comments, grimaces, and laughter—become our way to bring real human beings to life in a boardroom, so that they, not just business stakeholders, have a voice in the process of developing new products, services, policies, and strategies.