Signpost that reads "Story"

Customer as superhero: An interview with Donna Lichaw

Gerry Gaffney Interaction design, Product design Leave a Comment

Download (mp3: 14.8MB, 30:53) How to understand your customers and design effectively for them

Share this episode



Photo: David Bleasdale

Transcript

Gerry Gaffney:

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience podcast. My guest today is a former documentary filmmaker.
Nowadays she lives in Brooklyn, New York and her focus is on helping organisations drive user engagement through storytelling. She’s also on the Adjunct Faculty at the Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

She’s recently published a book called The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products That People Love through Rosenfeld Media.

Donna Lichaw, thanks for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.

Donna Lichaw

Thanks for having me Gerry. I’m excited to be here.

Gerry:

I’d like to jump to the end of the book if I may. You write: “Stories are not something that you make up.” Coincidentally I was on Twitter just before I called you and somebody, Geoff Wilson, had posted a Dilbert cartoon and one character is saying “I’d like each of you to write fictional biographies that describe the daily lives of our typical customers.” So it seemed kind of timely.

So do you want to tell us about stories not being something that you make up?

Donna:

[Laughs.] Absolutely. You bring up something that I see in companies all the time which is this idea of having personas, whether you’re a design team or product team or a marketing team, a lot of different types of organisations have gotten into this idea of let’s have user profiles so we better understand how to talk about them in our organisation, how to build things that attract more of them, and what I often see is that I’ll go in and work with these teams where they have just that, this profile. It’s always, you know, she’s always named “Suzie” and Suzie loves to, you know, take her dog to the park [laughter] and it kind of, it just goes on and on about this fictional person that really doesn’t and I don’t think could have an impact on the organisation meeting any kind of business goals.

It’s just something that ends up being a creative endeavour that people think that they’re supposed to do. And then the teams don’t see value in using it and then they think it’s silly and, you know, it collects dust in the corner.

But when I work with companies, I make sure, and you know it’s not just me, a lot of my colleagues do this too, whether we’re in design or more on the product side of things, or strategy side of things, which I’m more on the side of, is that we make sure that if you are going to work with personas in your organisation then they are data-driven and that they are based on qualitative data, so in-person interviews with real actual customers or potential customers, and quantitative data. So if you’re a digital company you’ll have web analytics or mobile analytics. If you’re more of an analogue service you’re going to have another kind of business analytics to rely on. And once you’ve got that data then you can extrapolate stories from the data you have and that’s what I help teams do.

So when we map out stories it’s not… we might be doing best guesses if I’m working on an innovation project or helping a team workshop a future state or a blue-skies product for five years in the future, we’re going to make those stories up perhaps. But for the most part the stories have to be based on real life things not Suzie who loves moonlight walks with her dog on the beach.

Gerry:

That’s right, it goes to credibility really doesn’t it? And I guess applicability as well.

Donna:

Yeah, I mean because without the credibility you’re not going to get buy-in across your organisation because people laugh at Suzie, they don’t understand what’s the point. And in terms of applicability when you’re basing these… so when I use them and help teams map out stories, I often just call them they’re the main characters of the story. But it’s, you know, they’re actionable when the characters are based on real data because we’re talking about what people actually do and the stories that we map out are perfect, or typical examples of how people are either moved to action in the real word or how we think we can move them to action based on how we know they behave.

So they have a lot more power and the results are a lot better when they’re based on real data because that’s when we can measure the results and then, you know, everyone can pat themselves on the back for doing a good job a couple of months later.

Gerry:

Indeed. Now throughout the book you talk about different types of stories but they all have the same structure. Can you describe that structure for us please?

Donna:

Yeah, so the structure that I talk about in the book and when I work with teams is the traditional narrative arc that goes back essentially to Aristotle many, many years ago and the idea is that there’s a beginning, a middle and an end and there are certain plot points on that arc that get an audience engaged in what’s happening in the world of the story, introduces us to the character in the story and sets up a series of causes and events that move that character towards solving a problem or meeting some kind of goal that they have.

And I like using the simple narrative arc structure because there are a million different kinds of narrative diagrams out there and they’re all wonderful. Sometimes they’re circles, sometimes they’re arcs. They’re all absolutely wonderful but this is the simplest one that I’ve found that I can remember on a day-to-day basis. So for me it ends up being really important because it’s super easy to map out events on to the sort of narrative arc and it’s also really easy for the teams in the companies that I work with to map stories out this way. It doesn’t get complex and we don’t get lost in the weeds and that’s really important.

Gerry:

And you talk about three specific types of story for use in design. Can you briefly describe each of those three please?

Donna:

Sure so there are three types of stories that I’ve seen basically applied to any kind of context, work context that I’ve encountered. I’ve been working in tech for about, I used to say fifteen years but I’ve realised the other day I’ve been saying that for five years, so I’ve been working in tech for…

Gerry:

I know the feeling. [Laughter.]

Donna:

I know it’s kind of insane but almost twenty years now and what I find is the three types of stories that come up the most, are the most valuable for teams that are trying to find, solve engagement-related challenges. One is the “concept story” which is, this is the most abstract. It’s the highest level story of what your product or service is at the conceptual level. So this is how people think about your product, this is why they might get excited about it when their friend tells them about it or if they see a commercial or if they see someone using it and they’re kind of intrigued by it.

The next kind of story is what I call an “origin story” and it kind of flips what we normally think of as an origin story on its side a little bit. A lot of times for a company an origin story might be something like: “Oh, you know it’s Silicon Valley decades ago in a garage two men hung out and they built the future,” you know, so it’s often about companies but the way I see it is that in origin story it’s more like in comic books where it’s, if your customer is a hero and that is my goal with helping companies drive user engagement, it’s really to transform your customers into heroes so that they feel heroic having done something and they’ve used your product to do it.

So this is the story of how they become a customer for the very first time, kind of like a superhero in a comic book. They hear about something, the call to action and then they go do certain things and they in the end feel like they value your brand, value your product and are intrigued enough to want to use it again.

And the third type of story it’s really the most matter-of-fact. It’s the, I just call it them “usage stories” because it kind of is that boring in a way but it’s really that straightforward. It’s just this is the story of how people are going to use your product for service. It could be the first time they use it, the second time, the third time. It could be a year in the life of… sometimes I’ve worked with companies where we’ll do a 7-year long journey or we’re trying to figure out why around year 5 are people dropping off and how do we get them to stay active? So yeah, all these stories pretty much can solve any engagement related problem.

I used to not say that because I thought wait this can’t be right, but pretty much any problem you can solve using this.

Gerry:

Yeah I must admit as I was reading the book, I was kind of you know as I tend to do, looking out for places where I could say, “Oh that’s not right, that’s not right, that won’t work,” but it does, you do apply them both to the sort of micro-interaction level and to the macro as well.

I guess one of the things that you did highlight yourself in the book was that the origin stories and usage stories can potentially be confusing. You use the example of a Twitter [interaction], I think you called it a usage story but you said other people would describe it as an origin story.

Does it matter if we cross those boundaries, if we’re not clear where they are?

Donna:

Not at all. That’s the thing with these stories the way that I use them with clients, the way that I present them in the book is that they’re helpful ways to frame what type of challenge your solving which is any story. This is you know something that I think Stephen King said but I’ve never quite been able to find this quote but it was something to the effect of, I think there is a quote similar to it in the book, I’m trying to remember, but it was something like a story is a question answered and so what Stephen King says, this part I know is in the book, is that there’s this idea of like you posit a question of what if a bunch of vampires invaded a New England town and then that’s how he’ll kick-start the story writing session.

And so for using stories in this way to build engagement into products or help products get a little bit of traction, ones that aren’t working as well as you want them to or if you’re defining a new product completely from scratch the trick is to always be asking yourself one big question and it could be “what is this product?” “why would anyone use it?” It could be “how are we going to acquire customers?” That would be an origin story. It could be “how does this work?” and that’s a usage story. And so what matters is not what type of story it is but it’s really what is your big question that you need to answer and how will you use this structure to plug-and-play the pieces to answer the question?

Once you get the hang of it you often end up mixing and matching all the time. But it’s easier to sort of start from one or the other first before getting them all jumbled together.

Gerry:

It just occurred to me, Donna, we should probably backtrack just a little bit because even though you spoke about the story arc and the structure, we didn’t actually call out the individual elements in that arc, I think, did we?

Donna:

No, no, I’m happy to call out the elements.

Gerry:

Do you think you should? Go for it.

Donna:

Yeah. Let’s do it. So, at the very beginning of the story you’re introduced to the main character and they are going to have some kind of problem that arises very early that gets the audience interested in thinking “Hmmm, how are they going to solve this problem?” And they go on a journey and somewhere around three quarters of the way through this journey something additional and big gets in their way and this is what we call the “crisis moment.” This is the moment where you think “Oh my god will they or won’t they, how are they going to solve this problem?” And they overcome that crisis at the climax. And this is quite literally the high point of the narrative arc. This is the point that there might be a big fight scene or fireworks, like crazy things happening, explosions and this is where the main character solves that initial problem that was introduced early on in the story. It’s where they overcome that crisis that got in their way that might have thwarted them from solving the problem and it’s again, like, the coolest part of the story, the part where when you’re an audience member your pulse quickens, your palms get sweaty and then the story could end there but it would feel really, really weird to not have closure.

So the next part we have is what’s called “falling action” or denouement, which is the fancy French word, and it literally means unravelling and the idea is that the tension, the tension basically calms down and the story is wrapped up in some way and so often this is the hero probably returning home or to some kind of state that’s like home but it has to be a little bit better than where they started. And so the idea is that this is an archetypical story structure, something that Aristotle recognised in Greek plays many, many years ago and it’s something that anyone from theatre, playwrights to filmmakers to TV writers to fiction writers have in the years since applied to their work, more recently game designers use this. It’s part of the fabric of developing engaging games.

It’s something that when you’re watching a movie the idea is that in the audience you are experiencing the movie through that main character and the reason why it’s so effective, this is something that neuroscientists talk about a lot and cognitive psychologists, is that the human brain is wired to experience life using this type of narrative structure. So if I’m walking down the street or if I’m going to tell someone about my day, which I’m going to do in about a half hour, I’m going to probably use that same structure to talk about, to experience and live through my day and then to talk about it later.

So it’s going to be something like “and then this happened, and then that happened” and so the idea is you can apply this kind of thinking and structure to not only creating movies and TV shows but to actually structuring products and services that people interact with. So just like a game designer would do, we can use the story structure to come up with an idea of what is this product or service, why would anyone care about it? How are we going to get people excited about this thing? And that might turn into something like an elevator pitch or an advertisement. But it also would go into actually defining the product itself and go into everything from how do people find the product to how do they use it? And like you mentioned, something I talk about in the book, is that even the tiniest little interaction can have a narrative arc to it and if it’s a key interaction to your product, service, or even business, the stronger the narrative arc, the more likely users are to feel value, to remember the interaction, to want to do it again and to tell others about it.

Gerry:

Yeah, that’s one thing I very much liked about the way you expose the story structure. For the pedestrian things like somebody completing a form and they get to the crisis point which is whether or not to provide some particular type of personal detail and how you deal with that and then take them into the next step of the falling action so it’s nice to see that universal applicability.

Donna, one thing that’s occurred to me over the last few years I guess in regards to stories is firstly that it’s kind of surprising that they have become so well accepted in the corporate world but secondly that it’s taken so long for them to become accepted. What do you think?

Donna:

Well it’s a really interesting that it’s, like, storytelling has become so in vogue in the corporate world over the last few years and I’m not sure why it is. But what I’m starting to see is that this idea of not just telling stories but actually weaving them through your actual product or service is something that it takes a minute for people to wrap their heads around because when I tell people what I do, you know they often have the same question which is “Oh, so you help people tell stories, right?” And it’s like, my answer’s always “Well, kind of, yes” but it’s like we’re creating stories for customers which is a very different thing and it’s actually a lot more like what a filmmaker or a TV writer does. They are meticulous, I mean if you go into TV writer’s room you’ll just see cards everywhere and it’s different. I think corporate storytelling or you know an executive telling stories to engage their employees or weaving a story into a PowerPoint presentation, all of that is really, really valuable and everything that I help companies do often informs all those things but this is, it’s something, again it’s a little bit more like game designers building worlds for their game players using narrative structure and so I think that’s, yeah it’s just, it takes a minute to wrap your head around but I’m glad that corporates, I was going to say corporate America, but corporate everywhere is getting more interested in storytelling because it’s definitely striking a nerve which is exciting.

Gerry:

And in government of course as well storytelling is becoming very common.

Donna:

Yeah, you know government is one place, I hate to say I never expected to see that happen [laughs] but my partner, she works for governments and they’ve been just loving storytelling, storytelling training and everyone over there is reading my book right now because even though what they do you would think is not as exciting as building fancy digital products and apps and software, they deal with a lot of contracts and contract negotiations, you know I think other people are just realising storytelling and more what I’m talking about, story making, is something that makes everyone’s job better so it actually is really exciting that even government is getting into it.

Gerry:

Yeah well I’ve been saying to people recently that government is where it’s at because I always thought that’s where you go to die. But I’ve been working in government for the last few years and some really exciting stuff is happening there.

Anyway, we digress. I did really enjoy the book but I also wondered whether the story structure you describe is very much a Western construct? For example, several years ago now I spoke to Apala Lahiri Chavan on the podcast and she spoke about the Indian rasas, and about how any drama is incomplete unless it’s got a balance of nine different emotions. Do you think the story as it’s conceived in the West, if you like, is universal or does it need to be refined or even discarded to be truly international?

Donna:

I mean it’s a really good question and I think that…

Gerry:

I try to have one in each interview. [Laughter.]

Donna:

It is great. So I was teaching my workshop in Switzerland last year and I had the same question. Someone asked, it was someone from France and he stood up and he was like, “Oh we don’t do this whole story structure in France, you know we play with our structures, we don’t adhere to this” and so his question was the same thing which is, this is just an American construct, isn’t it? And so what I did, you know actually it was really fun, I think there were about fifty of us and with the whole room we worked through a couple seemingly avant-garde French films and just to see okay is this really a Western construct and the thing is, it applies.

There was an article, the New York Times or New York Magazine or somewhere recently, where they were asking the same question which is “is it just Hollywood or does this apply?” So I’ll give you an example, one of my favourite avant-garde films it’s called Jeanne Dielman and it’s by Chantal Akerman, a Belgian filmmaker. It’s a four-hour movie about a woman kind of peeling potatoes, like not much happens but even that four-our movie that can be kind of painful and kind of mesmerising to sit through adheres to this structure. It can be avant-garde but those plot points, the inciting incident still happens early and it gets us intrigued. There are still moments that happen. There’s a climax in the movie where she drops a potato, you know and it still applies. You can work through many, many films and you know chances are if we worked through some Bollywood movies, for example, I think they would still adhere to the structure. The only thing I’ve seen that doesn’t really adhere to this kind of structure is some fiction, and fiction writers I think have a lot more liberty that they can take with narrative structure. It’s loosely there but if you’re reading a novel sometimes it might take, it might be a 500-page novel and it takes a hundred pages to really understand what’s going on. And with a move and a TV show you don’t have that liberty. You have to have, you need a really, really tight structure. So yeah I think it seems like it’s just Western but it’s really more human than anything else.

Gerry:

One of the things you mention in the book… a lot of people listening to this or reading this would be working in Agile development environments and of course Agile uses these user stories as well. But you call out one particular story, I don’t have it right to hand, an Agile story and you describe it as being terrible. Are stories, as you describe them, compatible with Agile and I guess what are the implications for people working in Agile environments?

Donna:

I’ve worked in a lot of Agile environments and what I’ve found is that user stories, Agile user stories I’ve always found to be a helpful development tool because it helps developers and engineers get into the mindset of a user and why they would use things and why they would do things and what I also found is that when I started mapping stories out with teams using narrative structure it all applied because the idea of a “call to action,” an action being taken, something maybe getting in someone’s way and a result is something that a good Agile user story can use as well. So if you work at a company where people are in the habit of writing requirements in the way of not we need a login button and it should do this but you write it as you know “user can login so that they can save their account information for the future.” That can have a structure and that’s something that you can map out and explore in depth. So I think the way that I approach mapping stories from a narrative perspective, from a user engagement perspective, you know I often work with digital teams, more so with marketing teams lately which has been really fun, design teams, product teams and the questions we’re trying to answer really are, how do we engage our customers and get them to use this thing or stick with it. But you can easily take what we’ve done and the strategy that we’ve built and then translate it into technical user stories that a development team can work off of.

Gerry:

I really liked how you finished the book with I think it was eight rules of thumb. We don’t have time to cover them all of course. But I like that prescriptive element in a book so that you can give this to someone and say “look here, follow these general rules and you’ll be going in the right direction.” But the one I really like is “Make things go boom.” Do you want to tell us about that?

Donna:

[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah so that’s my, I mean it’s my favourite rule of thumb but it also can answer your question earlier which is how does this and does it not work with something like Agile development if you’re on the more technical side of things? And the biggest thing with why to use story on any product or project is that if, again if you want to engage users on the other end, if you want to ensure that they’re going to be excited about, want to use your product, remember using it, want to recommend it to others. The important thing, and this is what neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists talk about, is that there has to be that high point, there has to be that climax, that moment of “boom” and it has to happen as close to the end of an experience as possible and it needs to be something that, again it is climactic in the sense that if you’re just going step one, step two, step three, step four and you’re done, it’s not going to be as effective as something that has a narrative structure and goes a little “boom” near the end.

So it could be as simple as a micro-interaction where you might notice on something like Facebook, there are a lot of audio cues in the app where when you tap on certain things there might be a little animation and an audio cue that happens and it’s such a tiny little interaction but there are teams who their entire job is to figure out how to make something animate in the right way and those little animations happen at exactly the right point so that they can be like a climax of a little mini story. So the idea is if liking something is a core interaction to their business, which it is, it has to go “boom” otherwise if it’s just flat, you know, you’re going to have a harder time getting people excited about doing it over and over and over again. So a lot of it, you can think of it like little mini habits, habits have very much the same structure but I like thinking of it as just like a TV writer and like you know Breaking Bad, just make things go “boom.”

Gerry:

Do you have any advice, besides reading your book of course, for people who want to begin using stories as their design and evaluate products but who are not currently doing so?

Donna:

t a story based on what you know exists already. So if the question is “Well, how do we get more people to sign up for this service?” You could go look at your analytics, map out stories and you could start giving a gap analysis where you see oh, okay so people tend to you know drop off at this point but what if it could work like this? Or you might go out to talk to your customers, say you’re working on a project where you want to know, okay it’s an e-commerce site that you’re working with and they have customers who buy things all the time and they have ones who buy things a couple of times a year. And you want to know how to get more people to buy things many times a year.

And so you go out to those customers, the ones who buy things frequently, talk to them, find out what their story is and once you’ve got that you can map that out onto simple narrative arcs. So once you’ve done so you clearly see, ah, yeah, this is something that we can totally replicate and get more people to do. Or you could see, alright these are just the five people that are ever going to do this and we’ll never get people to do it again. The real thing is to just always have questions that you want to answer and the answer I often find is a little squiggle and a couple of words jotted down and that’s your story.

Gerry:

I really enjoyed the book and I would recommend it. I’ll just remind people the name of the book is The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products That People Love by Donna Lichaw. And listeners can get a 20% discount by quoting UXPOD on the Rosenfeld media website.

Donna Lichaw, thanks so much for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.

Donna:

Thank you so much Gerry, it was a pleasure.

Gerry GaffneyCustomer as superhero: An interview with Donna Lichaw

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *