Design requires a product narrative

Illustration by Bonnie Kate Wolf for this article.

To effectively navigate product complexity as a designer, think of the narrative around the product.

The story we tell ourselves, our peers, and our customers about the product and how it works is ultimately the resulting work we put out into the world.

To design effective experiences it’s not enough to think of our work in terms of features, patterns, or libraries, but rather experiences that play out in a narrative arc, wherein the user is the star. This narrative is always one that encompasses much more than what we can control and yet is the space within which we must play, experiment, and create.

This is unfortunately not how many designers are taught to think about the work they do.

Designers will often think of only features or feature areas as they work: "This is the profile part of the product" or "This is the billing or settings part, this is a list of controls for this particular thing." Understandably, it can be both challenging and/or exhausting to think more holistically.

Having a micro perspective of a design task is important for focused ideation and execution, but each of these things—features and feature areas—are always part of a larger whole, and if we forget that fact we often end up designing something that doesn’t really do it’s job; what the late Clayton Christensen defined as "Job to be done."

Jim Kalbach, in his book The Jobs to Be Done Playbook, breaks down the five elements of any job to be done:

  1. Job performer: The executor of the main job, the ultimate end user
  2. Jobs: The aim of the performer, what they want to accomplish
  3. Process: The procedure of how the job will get done
  4. Needs: Why the performer acts in a certain way while executing the job, or their requirements or intended outcomes during the job process
  5. Circumstances: The contextual factors that frame job execution

When considering a design experience we tend to emphasize our attention on job performer and their jobs, only occasionally pulling in the process of how a job will get done via interaction design patterns we create.

But, as with any good story, we also need to understand motivations and context—the circumstances and needs around the job performer and their job—to develop a complete picture of what it is we’re solving through our designs. This is the product narrative designers need to understand and develop in order to do their best work and grapple with the complexities of large-scale product design.

Even if the scope of work a designer is responsible for is feature-level, understanding the larger product narrative helps ensure the feature work aligns with the bigger "job to be done" of the end user. No user comes into a designed experience with a completely fresh and empty mind, ready to partake in whatever experience has been designed for them. No! Everyone comes into an experience with a lot more than we can intuit: are they having a stressful day, do they want to race through the experience or take their time, are they casually browsing or actively seeking solutions?

If you want to create more cohesive experiences across a large system or platform, think not only in terms of feature areas, but of the narrative behind the system itself. That story is what ensures the work will… well, work.

A product narrative will come as a result of many diverse forms of conceptualization: a static user experience map, a low-fidelity prototype of a complete product experience, a series of recorded phone or video calls of customers describing their day-to-day process, or a set of storyboards highlighting the core experience of the product.

These artifacts are not necessarily "the product narrative" but rather elements that inform the narrative. Teams need these artifacts in order to start the dialog around what the narrative will be. The product narrative itself is how the team and users talk about the product.

If the team you work with isn’t telling the same story, you’re going to create features that don’t align with one another or you’ll run into differences of opinion or principles as you work that create unnecessary roadblocks. Your team needs to make story telling a team initiative.

If you have product managers, this is often a fundamental part of their job: creating and disseminating an initial version of the product narrative. Designers and product managers should work closely together (with customer success leaders, sales members, executives, and others) to ensure there’s a narrative about the product that is internally shared and agreed-upon.

A simple narrative written out can have lasting effects, particularly when considering the additional "chapters" to the story that influence new features or areas of work. Asking "How does this new area of work play a role in the existing product narrative" is one of the most effective ways at ensuring work the team does is aligned to a larger initiative that pairs well with company trajectory.

To learn more about creating a strong product narrative as a team, listen to this episode of the Inside Intercom podcast with James Buckhouse who says:

"You start with personas, and you map out the personas. Those personas are the character in your movie….Each one of those characters is important, and each one of those characters is going through an arc… At the very beginning of a design project, I would find the engineering lead, and the product lead, and the design lead – or if I was the design lead I would be there. We’d have a sheet of paper and we’d talk about the problem in the world. I would take out a pencil and I would make the smallest mark I could on the page, like a circle, and I’d say, ‘This is the user.’ I’d hand the pencil to the engineer, and ask, "‘What are we trying to do?’ As soon as you can get the engineer to draw on the paper with you, and you can literally draw together to make a solution, everyone’s invested in co-creating this thing."

There’s much more to creating a product narrative than what I’ve teased here, but that’s a story for another day. For now, know that if you’re designing anything it’s part of a much, much larger story, and if you want your work to be effective it’s important to be in-tune with that narrative.

So much of design work comes down to the story we tell ourselves about the experience we want *others* to have. If we don’t know the full story, it’s hard to know what small piece our work can play in it.

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