Metaphor and Stories in Product Management by Elizabeth Churchill

BY MARTIN ERIKSSON ON OCTOBER 21, 2016

Product managers are the vision setters and story tellers of a business, according to Elizabeth Churchill, a Director of User Experience at Google – it’s their job to tell compelling stories and engage users.

At this year’s London #mtpcon, Churchill, who is a psychologist by training, gave a presentation full of insight and practical takeaways, outlining how people respond to stories and why storytelling skills are essential to a product manager’s role. “I love products but I love humans even more, and I love the combination of humans and products,” she said.

Sitting in the middle of tech, business and user experience, product managers are the “translators, listeners, researchers, story tellers, herders, vision setters” in a business. They must tell compelling stories, understand and engage their audience, understand human computer interaction, and build team thinking through persuasion and storytelling.

Storytelling and metaphor

Churchill looked at storytelling from a psychologist’s perspective: Storytelling happens through metaphor, and we use metaphor so that people “get the point”, “you’re always doing that translation work”. Referencing Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, Churchill explained that metaphor is a fundamental part of our reasoning system. For example, say “time is money” and you introduce the idea that time is a limited resource, a valuable commodity that you can exchange. We live, experience, and shape the world though metaphor.

Churchill also looked at a study on metaphor and confirmation bias from Thibodeau and Boroditsky, Metaphors We Think With. This study used two stories to look at rising crime rates in a fictional town. One story used the analogy of a virus, the other a beast, and then asked for solutions to the crime problem. Those people who were given the virus analogy wanted to go to the root of the problem and understand how it spread, while those who were given the beast analogy consistently talked about hunting the beast down and eradicating it. The first was a societal, community response, while the second involved only a few people. Interestingly those people who understood the analogy early on in the story embarked on fact checking and problem solving and framed their strategies in terms of a confirmation bias that would prove them correct. People who understood the analogy at the end of the story were much more open to other information and potentially reframing their ideas. “The frames we have don’t just lead to potential imagined solutions,” said Churchill, “they lead to problem solving strategies that confirm the solutions we have proposed to ourselves.”

Churchill examined the metaphors used for the Internet of Things, commenting that “a ‘thing’ has a perimeter. But these perimetered ‘things’ are not bounded, they are communicating with each other. When we do a product design it’s not a thing, it’s part of service ecosystem of things that talk to each other”. There are different metaphors when users talk about smart homes, according to Churchill, and they talk about these social and technical infrastructures as though they are bit like magic. There are interesting metaphors that consumers use in order to understand products, and sometimes users’ metaphors are interesting to reflect on in terms of how transparent the products are to use.

Ethnography

Churchill also looked at ethnography and why it’s important for product managers to understand other perspectives and behaviours. She uses the term wide spectrum ethnography – observation that comes with huge amounts of data which must be interpreted at multiple levels of granularity – because we have to understand why people do something as well as what they do. We often bring stories of our users and consumers to ground our use cases and storyboards, because they are not like us, she said.

Churchill’s team at Google have been undertaking participant ethnographies, signing a broad range of people up for a few day, logging their mobile app usage, and using experience and trigger sampling. The team also has them complete diaries and conducts interviews and captures everything the people do on their personal devices – not just Google products. Google records these stories so that designers and engineers can study and understand user journeys around their products, and how their products fit in to that wider context.

Storytelling skills can be enhanced by “dogfooding”, says Churchill, or trying out your own product to see what the experience of using it might be. Dogfooding is valuable even if you’re designing for a market that you don’t represent, she says.

Design sprints

Google also tries to get others on board through design sprints. It’s a framework which comes from Google Ventures and its purpose is to generate an idea and learn from it without having to build and launch a product. It’s a five-phase framework – understanding, sketching, deciding, prototyping and validating – that can help you to try out prototypes very quickly, says Churchill. The trick to making it work, she adds, lies in bringing together the different stakeholders and roles who take part in the design sprint.

elizabeth-churchill-at-mind-the-product

Perspective

Product managers need to excel at storytelling, says Churchill: but product managers really need to think through whether the metaphor they use is the right analogy for the product they’re building, and ethnography is vital, she says, to understand and convey user perspectives in those stories.

Churchill closed her presentation with a quotation from Margaret Atwood, who said: “Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions.” Product managers, says Churchill, create dimensions through persuasion, through data, and through helping people on the team see things from another’s perspective.

Perspective is necessary.
Otherwise there are only two dimensions.
– Margaret Atwood

Martin Eriksson

About MARTIN ERIKSSON

Martin Eriksson has 20 years experience building world-class online products in both corporate and start-up environments for global brands such as Monster, Financial Times, Huddle, and Covestor. He is the Founder of ProductTank, the Co-Founder and Curator of Mind the Product and currently a Product Manager at large, advising and mentoring startups while writing Product Leadership, How Top Product Leaders Launch Great Products and Build Successful Teams (O'Reilly, 2017).

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