Crafting Products That Engage by Donna Lichaw

BY MARTIN ERIKSSON ON DECEMBER 9, 2016

Donna Lichaw is a film school graduate turned product specialist, and she has used her experience in film to develop and advocate a “story first” approach that she now writes about, speaks about and teaches to products managers all over the world.

At this year’s London #mtpcon she spoke about the importance of engaging an audience – a fundamental tenet of film-making is that you tell a story – and how this can be applied to product. “Whether it’s software, a website, apps or services – digital or analogue – I’ll call them products for short, they have a lot in common with films. If you want to engage your audience you have to have a story at your foundation. You can do this by accident or with meticulous care and intent by mapping the story out.”

Make things go boom

Mapping stories

Mapping a story for your users and customers is about making “things go boom”, says Lichaw. Every story has a narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and an end. There are plot points along the arc. The narrative arc can be plotted on a chart, says Lichaw, and if the x access is time then the y axis is intrigue and tension. Tension is also a tool which can also be used to develop engaging products, she adds.

She uses the plot from Back To The Future to explain how a story ideally should work. During the exposition you are introduced to the hero or main character who typically has a big goal he or she wants to achieve. In Back To The Future Marty McFly wants a truck and a girlfriend and to be different from his family. He has Doc who is a friend with a time machine. The inciting incident or problem is when everything changes – in Back To The Future Libyans shoot Doc because he stole their Plutonium so Marty jumps in the time machine to try to right the situation.

This leads to rising action, where every scene has to be more interesting than the one that has gone before, until eventually you reach the moment of crisis: the point of no return when the hero is very close to solving the problem, and we all identify with the hero. The crisis is overcome by the climax or resolution. After the climax comes the denouement, and the narrative should be wrapped up as quickly as possible. It’s important that the story doesn’t end on a high point. “It’s important for us as humans that we get closure, we need to know what happens next and we need things wrapped up and we feel calm and content that the episode came to an end,” says Lichaw.

Life is a story

Cognitive psychologists say that the narrative parsing that we use to understand a two-hour movie is the same we use to compute meaning when we think about and use products. The central idea here, says Lichaw, is that life is a story and that you are the hero.

So how do you create products that embody your customers as heroes and how do you allow them to use the products successfully? You can use the same narrative arc that would be used for story-telling. At the outset, says Lichaw, ask yourself:

  1. Who is your hero and what is their goal?
  2. What is their problem, why can’t they meet their goal?
  3. What is your product and market category, what problem will customers use your product to solve?
  4. What is the competition? This is where tension comes into play, says Lichaw, and it’s important to remember that competition always exists. There will always be a reason for people not to use your product.
  5. Remember that competition serves value and competitive advantage.
  6. What is the takeaway? What do you want people to experience and feel about your product?
  7. Finally, there must be the promise that the customer’s goal can be met.

Take the iPhone for example

Lichaw illustrates this by applying the narrative to a popular product, the iPhone. “In 2007 when the iPhone launched you might have been someone who listened to music and made phone calls,” she says. “The problem was that it sucked to carry two devices. Not a huge earth-shattering problem… certainly supernerds wanted an iPod that made phone calls, a two in one device, a smartphone. There’s tension here – is it something that you want? There’s competition, there are reasons why people are not going to want to adopt this, they might already own an iPod or think it’s difficult to use or too expensive. But it does allow you to listen to music and make phone calls.”

Lichaw says that if you map the iPhone out like a story then it is anticlimactic, it’s a just simple solution to a simple problem. She says that if you take it up a level and look at the iPhone not as building a product that people wanted at the time, but as building a product that people would need to communicate in the modern world, then the story arc is more compelling.

This is what Apple did when it introduced the iPhone. The problem then is that “smartphones suck”, which introduces tension because the iPhone is a smartphone. “We overcome this because Apple promises it’s the best way to communicate, and it works like magic. It’s not a two in one device, it’s a three in one device with an ‘internet communicator’,” she says. When Apple promised this to the world, they were creating this idea of what communication would look like in the future, and we ended up with a product that people wanted.

This story should weave through everything from unboxing the product to the user interface, and every key flow built needs to deliver on its promise in order to achieve long-term engagement. “If you build something where you need to engage people, storytelling is an essential tool to engineer engagement because, like it or not, we have storytelling brains,” she says.

Donna Lichaw at #mtpcon

Why story?

Lichaw posits that there is no such thing as an actual experience, there are just moments in time and time is fleeting. Because of this our brains have evolved to use story to understand what happened in the past, what is happening now, and what is about happen. Story gives time structure, because there is no other way for us to understand it.

When we consume stories our brain activates, and we are more likely to see the utility in something, and more likely to see something as usable. Says Lichaw: “If your product story is intact and you prioritise features and requirements based on supporting the story, then you get people who will love your brand. It also affects desirability – it’s more likely to make us want to do something, more likely to value and remember the experience and choose it again.”

Her concluding advice? “Ask what’s the story. Who’s the hero, what’s their big goal, and how am I going help them use my product to meet their goal? More importantly how are we going to make things go boom, and make the story never ending?”

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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