Story, Development, and Design

Storytelling is not simply narrative. It is an opportunity to communicate values in a way that is resonant and memorable, allowing the people taking it in to position themselves in the story, see its relevance to their current situation, and then play forward a narrative about their own role in the story of now. It’s a way of uncovering the complexities of a person’s world and designing within that context.

How does this happen? It happens through stories in which a human protagonist is presented with an unknown and has to make a choice. At this moment of choice, the listener feels the tension of what might go right and wrong, projects herself into that situation and, in so doing, experiences the values with which the protagonist wrestles. So how does it relate to development and design?

Story art and craft is one of the best and oldest ways to engage an audience. We approach every project, regardless of its size or scope, from this perspective. Not just story-first, but structure first. Just like screenwriters do or authors do. There are, of course, countless books on story art and craft, typically for writers, filmmakers, game designers and artists, but they’re rarely, if ever, written for the people who build websites, software, tools, services, etc. that are not necessarily art or entertainment.

Designers, product managers, developers, content strategists, they can all benefit from taking on a storytelling approach in the process of creation. Take for example the use of experience maps. The maps try to represent an actual example of how a person (or persona) went through and did something they wanted to do. The maps are generally chronological, moving forward through the hours of the persona’s actions one stage at a time. The phrase “experience map” came about because we tend to want to create tools most relevant to the job we’re assigned, but in practice we need to be agnostic of whether the persona is using digital tools or not, or a combination to tools. The map represents the journey a person takes from the idea of accomplishing something to having accomplished that thing in the end. We want to see how it all hangs together from the persona’s perspective.

There can be as many experience/journey maps for a particular persona as there are deviations in the way they do that thing. For example, if a persona was taking a commercial flight, there might be different maps for a business-related flight than a leisure-oriented flight. There might be different maps based on whether it’s a last-minute or urgent flight. There might be different maps for long versus short flights, flights where the persona has to get work done before landing, flights where the persona is scared of flying, etc. The relevance is that the mental model represents a set of states of mind (mental spaces) that a person might pop into and out of during this journey toward accomplishing a goal. The states of mind might proceed in a nice linear fashion. Or they might represent a more cyclical approach, where the person revisits a previous state of mind again to re-evaluate something, to continue something, or to address something new that has come up. And therein lies the power of storytelling. We are designing with the notion that the goal and the steps to achieving it are front and center. Taking this approach not only allows for better design, it ensures that the things we construct are tied into the broader ecosystem in which people operate.

 

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Planning Content

“Content” is one of the most talked-about industry buzzwords, but it tends to lack clear definition. To my mind, content is information and communication directed toward an end-user. Broad, yes, it speaks to the very point that content is simply about the transfer of information. Most people associate content with social media although it also includes a larger list of tactics across owned and earned media channels – white papers, video, quizzes, surveys, etc. Conceptually, content should attract, not interrupt.

The focus of content should be to tell compelling stories that help inspire and empower prospects and customers to take additional action with a service or organization. It is (or should be) the approach of creating and distributing valuable and consistent content to a targeted audience, with the objective of driving some action.

And not all content is of equal value, nor should it be viewed as such. A powerful new case study may seem like a silver bullet, but without the supporting storyline and tools, it’s just another proud moment to celebrate. Furthermore, content must be developed across the entire brand engagement customer journey—and starts from a solid understanding of your task-based personas who give you insight into the audience and is the driving force behind a successful lead nurturing program. So, how do you develop “good” content?

In an increasingly speed-obsessed world, people want to consume as much information as they can in as little amount of time as possible (Demand Gen Report’s 2014 Content Preferences Survey). The survey went on to note that while white papers provide the most detailed information of any content type available, they involve a much greater investment than most videos, infographics, etc. But context and need obviously shape how and why people engage with content. Complexity and social capital can and do influence the way we consume.

The best content strategies start by asking a series of questions, both from an internal and external perspective. By asking questions, you can begin to frame up the way customers typically start their search for a solution. Build a checklist for evaluating a new content opportunity that includes the following questions:

  • What is the story we want to tell?
  • What pain point does it solve for a prospect or customer? How does it encourage positive action?
  • What marketing channels are best for the type of content?
  • What moment in the customer journey will the content support? What investment is required to produce the content?
  • What format should the content take?

When determining the appropriate areas to invest in content production, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the revenue potential?
  • Is this a budgeted opportunity?
  • Are we willing to invest and if so, how much?
  • What does the end user need?

In addition to questions as a means to test the viability of content development efforts, content teams should meet regularly to compile and update a comprehensive list of all submitted questions to your company. If applicable, customer support emails and customer support calls can also be fertile ground for collecting insights. Comb message boards, forums, communities and other places where your key audiences seek out advice and information.

Once you have your questions mapped out and agreed upon, start to group them by frequency. From there, have an open discussion about your company’s ability to answer the large pools of questions and how those relate to the stages of the buying cycle: Is there content that exists that can quickly and easily resolve a customer question? Is your customer able to access the information across all channels?

Once the questions are answered, it’s time to build a model. Content experts are great at making content, while subject matter experts within the organization are critically important to ensuring content accuracy (concerning facts, but also the application to the marketplace). There needs to be a partnership between the groups to ensure the content being developed satisfies all parties, with particular attention focused on solving customer issues.

Combining current sales profiles, personas, and other customer models the company has become the tools you can use to profile customer segments to improve the relevance and effectiveness of your content marketing efforts. The key to building the right segments is to identify customer needs and pain points, group the needs and pains points by roles or audiences (task-based is our preferred model), and then use that data to profile top customer segments. It is important to evaluate task flows on a frequent basis to ensure accuracy, response to industry change, and data feedback loops.

Once the buying journey is fully defined and key customer profiles are highlighted, the editorial team can create content that will successfully resonate.

 

From Personas to Stories: Creating Better Tools for Design and Marketing

Design ethnography takes the position than human behavior and the ways in which people construct meaning of their lives are contextually mitigated, highly variable and culturally specific. on the central premise of ethnography is that it assumes that we must first discover what people actually do and why they do it before we can assign to their actions and behaviors to design changes or innovation. The ultimate goal is to uncover pertinent insights about a population’s experience and translate their actions, goals, worldview and perspectives as they directly relate to a brand, object or activity, and the role that these pieces play with regards to interactions with their environment. Often, the information results in a large-scale, broad document, but it also often results in the development of personas.

The idea is that personas bring customer research to life and make it actionable, ensuring the right decisions are made by a design or marketing team based on the right information. The approach to persona development typically draws from both quantitative and qualitative tools and methodologies, but because of the very personal nature of ethnography, the methodology often leads the charge. The use of ethnographic research helps the creation of a number of archetype (fictions, in the most positive sense) that can be used to develop products that deliver positive user experiences. They personalize the information and allow designers and marketers to think about creating around specific individuals.

But there are problems with personas. Don’t get me wrong, I believe personas can be useful and help design teams. But I also believe they can reduce the human condition to a series of attributes and lose the spirit of what personas are designed to do. First, in terms of scientific logic, because personas are fictional, they have no clear relationship to real customers and therefore cannot be considered scientific. So much for the science.

For practical implementation, personas often distance a team from engagement with real users and their needs by reducing them to a series of parts. The personas, then, do the opposite of what they are intended to, forcing design teams down a path that gives the illusion of user-centricity while actually reflecting the interpretations or the individual designers. Creating hypothetical users with real names, stories and personalities may seem unserious and whimsical to some teams within an organization and be, consequently, dismissed as so much fluff. But by far, the biggest problem, at least to my way of seeing things, is that while we want to use personas to humanize potential customers and users, we in fact reduce them to objects and a laundry list of actions, personality quirks and minimalist descriptions.

I’m not advocating the dismissal of personas, but I am suggesting that perhaps there are alternatives. One place to start is to admit we are writing fiction when we construct these tools and expand upon that notion. We should be adding to the mix humanistic narratives. Customer novellas, so to speak. It requires more time and effort, both on the part of the person/people creating them as well as those using them, but it also gives greater depth and insight into the needs, beliefs and practices of the people for whom we design and to whom we market. Rather than relying exclusively on a dry report or a poster with a list of attributes.  In this model, the idea is to create a short story in which actors (the eventual personas) engage with each other, a wider range of people, and a range of contexts. Doing so allows us to see interactions and situations that lead to greater insights. It allows us to look at symbolic and functional relationships and tease out elements that get at the heart of the fictional characters we create.

Why is that important? Because it does precisely what personas are meant to do but typically fail at – provide depth and characterization, establish a sense of personal connection between designers and users and provide breakthrough insight and inspiration. Anyone who has read history vs. historical novels is familiar with the idea. It is easy to reduce Julius Caesar to a series of exploits and personality traits, but in doing so we lose the feel for who the man was. A historical novel, in contrast, adds flavor by injecting conversation, feelings, motivations and interactions. We walk away with a feeling for who he was and what affect he had on others, good and bad.

Imagine developing a persona for Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. We could say the following and attribute it to all Hobbits: Frodo is enamored by adventure but frightened by it. He loves mushrooms, has no wife, is extremely loyal to his friends and will work at any task he is given until it is done, regardless of the difficulty or potential for personal harm. He disdains shoes and has a love of waist coats.

There’s nothing wrong with this description, but for anyone who had read the trilogy or even seen the movies, the shortcomings are obvious. We miss the bulk of Frodo’s personality. In exploring the novel, we come to develop a rich understanding of Frodo, a deep understanding of his motivations and personality and his relationship with other members of the party, including the Ring.

For the literalists out there, I am not suggesting we create anything as vast as a novel, particularly one as expansive as The Lord of the Rings, but I am suggesting that we move beyond attributes and create stories that more fully develop the people behind the personas. Several pages of engaging writing is sufficient. Not only does it provide deeper insights, but it engages the reader more fully, inspiring them to go beyond the “data” and explore a wider array of design, brand and marketing options. Again, it isn’t meant to replace personas (or the research report), but to add to it. It requires more effort and time on the part of the person creating it as well as the person consuming it, something people are often disinclined to do, but the end result is better design, greater innovation and a more complete vision of what could be.