Donna Lichaw on Telling Stories about Users and Teams

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] People love stories. We’re hardwired to tell them and to listen to them. So, it’s no surprise that my guest today believes that stories are essential to both an effective successful product and effective successful teams.

[Donna Lichaw] My name is Donna Lichaw, I’m a leadership coach and I empower “superheroes” to be amazing and do incredible things at work.

[Weber] Lichaw’s book, The User’s journey: Storymapping Products that People Love, shows how the classic story structure can apply to the way that people use products. In our interview we’ll also talk about how that story structure relates to the way that teams work together to design and develop products. This is Ryan Weber from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and I hope you enjoy this interview.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Welcome to the podcast Donna. I’m excited to have you on the show to talk about your user journey’s book and kind of how we can understand user stories and how they can help companies improve products. So, I guess to get started, can you just describe what you mean by user stories?

[Lichaw] Sure, so what I mean by user stories, so a lot of people in tech are familiar with the idea of agile user stories, when you work on an agile team, you break down what you’re building into little units of work, called user stories, and that’s another way of coming up with technical requirements but in a way that puts the user at the center of whatever it is that you’re building. So, it could be like you know as a user, I can log in so that “x”. The way I’ve traditionally used user stories is I-I have a background in filmmaking and I’ve-working in tech for over 20 years at this point and when I would hear the term story used in work context, it was often in a either a technical form, like for user stories or maybe working with a marketing team. They would talk about the story, the brand story, and I heard it kind of thrown around so much and I kept thinking, “Well everything that everyone’s talking about, none of these are actually stories,” because as a filmmaker you’re, you’re taught how to tell a story and a story is something with a clear structure, beginning, middle, and end and some plot points. And so, what I started doing with the teams that I was leading several years ago was really coming back to the basics of, “Okay we’re building something. What is the story?” And we would start mapping it out with plot points, kind oflike a screenwriter would do, so when I talk about user’s stories, I’m not talking about an agile thing or a marketing thing. I’m literally talking about what does your customer or user need to do with your product at any given point and what are the pieces of that that make the journey that they’re going to take, whether it’s big or small, that are going to make that journey as engaging as it can be. So, they’ll not just want to use your product but they’ll love using it and recommend it to others.

[Weber] Great and you mentioned, you know stories have particular plot points and sort of markers and I recognize some of what was in your book form you know years ago, I took a screenwriting class, and it’s got those distinct pieces of a story, that-isn’t that right? There’s sort of structure, a very specific structure that these user stories in your terms should follow?

[Lichaw] Yeah, there’s a really simple structure and you know there’s-there’s tension, there’s beginning, middle, and end, and there are plot points, and stories traditionally over time have been engineered in a way to grab people’s attention and to kind of get your brain to listen. And so, there is a really simple way to tell a story and as long as you adhere to the you know the simple structure it’ll be more engaging than just blabbing or you know talking about stuff, which is traditionally I think what people think of when they think of storytelling.

[Weber] Well and-what you’re looking at is a way to kind of make sense of what the user does to give it an arc, to make it satisfying, to give it a clear conclusion. So, what kinds of stories should we tell about our users?

[Lichaw] Because I come from a product development, product management background and user experience design as well, the types of stories that I think teams need to focus on, traditionally I’ve thought that it was the story of your customer and how they’re going to use your product and it’s not just a creative endeavor but this story arc is what’s going to help you plan for and build the most engaging, successful product you can build. You can call it a use case, like any use case, where a user has to do something with your app or software, or website. That has an arc to it and you can design for it and build it into the system or the software so that there’s a higher likelihood, and this is something that you can test also in usability testing. That there’s a higher likelihood that people will engage and go through these plot points and get value out of using your product. Now over the last few years, I’ve amended my perspective a little bit because I always came from a background where the stories that I cared about were one the user story, two the business story, and each of those had goals that had to be met at the end of each story arc. But what, you know I’ll tell you that I didn’t notice, until my years of working in this way is that the people that I was working with who were building products, especially people in leadership positions, that they had their own stories that were being untold in a sense. That their own stories were if you’re managing a large software project, for example like you have to be the hero too, not just your customers and not just your business. So, the way I see it now, the movie, there are four stories that matter: one the users or customers, whatever you call them, two the business, three the story of any individuals on a team building something, and four the story of the team, and if you can get that all right, people are engaged, products are successful, and it all comes together.

[Weber] Awesome, awesome, and you know one of the things that I like about this user story approach, is that it really it focuses on people, right? Which is one of the things that user experience wants to do. It tells us the story of this person as opposed to the story of this technology. But what kinds of things do user stories tell us specifically about, say to—-to focus on those user stories for a moment, what do they tell us about user experience and how can we use them to improve the user experience of a product?

[Lichaw] When you think about the story your customer has with the product what it tells you, because if you’re going to make it a good story you have to cover all your points. It’s going to tell you what the user’s goal is, because without a goal you can’t have a story. It’s going to tell you what their motivation is, because again similarly you need to understand why people need to do things. For a good story it’s going to tell you what tension could come up and what could get in their way of completing their goals and it uncovers their problems and why they can’t meet their goals without your product or your business in their life. And it then illuminates the journey that they’ll go to, to either find your product or use your product to accomplish their goals. And so, using stories as a framework to figure out why your users need to do the things they need to do and how they’re going to do it is really effective just because stories need all those pieces in order to be a good story. Without them the story breaks and as I’ve found without all those pieces products break as well.

[Weber] Interesting. Yeah so we need to understand this story to know this is why the user is doing this thing at all. Here’s their goal. Sort of that acting cliche, you know “What’s my motivation?” And we need to figure out where sort of the tension will arise and how we can resolve or alleviate that tension, is that right?

[Lichaw] Yeah. If you can’t help people solve their problems by using your product, then there’s really no point in your product being in their life. And when I say problems it doesn’t have to be you know, world peace is a problem, but like boredom could be a problem. So, what does it-how does Netflix make my life better? When I’m bored I can use Netflix to not be bored and when you build tension into it right? “Well I could use Amazon but Netflix has this one new show that I really want to watch. I’m going to go to Netflix tonight.” And that’s how the brain works and that’s also how successful businesses work, is there’s a story that everything you put out there in the world and you’re probably designing it by accident or you could do it with care and intent, like a screenwriter would do.

[Weber] You’ve got these ideas and these stories, and again it makes the user, right, the focus, their-they get to be the hero, right? Netflix isn’t the hero, ifI understand your stories correctly, it’s the user, it’s the development team, it’s these people are the heroes accomplishing their goals. Is that right?

[Lichaw] Yeah, the way that I see it is, to use Netflix as an example, Netflix is not the hero, the customer’s the hero, but Netflix is like the sword that the customer uses to slay their dragons or-.

[Weber] (chuckle) Their dragon of boredom, yeah.

[Lichaw] Yeah, the dragon of boredom, exactly. And so, it’s important, the business is not the hero but where the business comes in, is one, so it’s the sword. It’s a very important part, it helps the story move forward. The story cannot move forward in this way without the business. The business goals at the end of the story have to be the same as the user goal. So, if it’s Netflix, whatever their goals are at any given point, it could be we want to increase engagement or we want to increase revenue. It has to match the user goals in the sense that, “I want to not be bored. So, I want to be engaged. Okay I’m going to watch Netflix. You know I want to be so engaged that I will pay to keep Netflix on over time.” Yeah, the business is a key part of the story arc, but the customer really is the hero. That said, like I mentioned earlier, you know after working with teams for so many years. When I’m onsite I’d be teaching workshops, I’d be working on consulting projects, and that idea that the people building products need to be their own heroes kept coming up where I’d be working with these teams, where you know morale might be low. Like they might have a really successful product but like there might be other issues that came up or they might be working on products where you know like one company I worked with, a couple there-it’s oneof the most successful companies in the world but the products that this team was working on didn’t have the best story arcs. And people were kind of down about it and you know that happens too and so what I learned over time is that like we as individuals working on things, there’s a whole separate story basically that you know, my story and my team’s story and in that I, when I build things, I am the hero. I figure out my own swords and it’s like its own separate thing, but yeah for products, the business is the sword, very important.

[Weber] Yeah and so you’ve got all these different people who all need to feel motivated and engaged and feel like they’re pursuing their goals, whether they’re users or leaders or teams. As far as developing these stories, it seems like there’s got to be some kind of research or information gathering of some kind that goes into figuring out what the story is. How do we find the story? What kind of research or work do we need to do to figure out what the story is?

[Lichaw] I mean that’s a really good point. Research is really important to find the story, whether you’re finding your customer story, your business story, or your own story at work, without data you don’t-you just have best guesses. And so if you’re trying to find customer stories, what I found to be the best way is you know if you’re able to do user research, go out, talk to customers, you can take all the data that you get and construct stories out of it; that’s just a type of research synthesis. So, when you’re doing interviews or doing observational studies, you’re look for plot points, kind of like a documentary filmmaker would and then when you synthesize everything you’ve heard, you put it into a story arc and doing so helps people at your business better comprehend all the data that you found. So, it’ll be easier to give presentations, ultimately, it’ll be easier to design your product, to build prototypes and demos that match the story that you found out in the field, and same thing if you’re working on your own story at work. Let’s say you’re managing a team and you’re trying to figure out how to get people really excited about this new initiative and you know stories are everywhere, and so you could be a top down kind of leader and say, “Well I’m going to just assume that all my team wants this and this is the story I’m going to tell them,” or you could go out and you know talk to your team members and find out what makes them tick and how to increase morale or you know whatever it is you’re facing. So, it’s still, everything, every good story is data driven, whether it’s your own life and your own story that you’re trying to architect or whether it’s your customer’s stories or business stories. It has to be data driven. That’s why these stories you come up with are also ones that you can then go test in the wild. You do that by testing your products with users and customers and with your business and if it’s your own story that you’re building at work about how you’re going to be more effective at meetings, for example, that’s something that you can test right away as well. The next time you’re in a meeting you can prototype different ways that you’re going to you know modify your behavior or see how things feel. So yeah, every story is data driven, data in and then data to test.

[Weber] Well the value of the story is that it makes sense to the data, right? Is that it helps us sort of understand what the data means and whether we’re improving, or is that fair to say?

[Lichaw] Yeah, and it’s important to use story to make sense of data, any kind of data really because it’s, it’s what your brain is already doing. Your brain is pre-programmed to always be looking for the story. So, if you’re taking a walk in the park, walking on the street, or whatever your brain is looking for story pieces to put together to make sense of your experience. And so usually you know in everyday life, most things are uneventful, so you’re not going to remember them necessarily there’s not much of a story there, but for the things that impact you that move you to action, those all have plot points that you’re already parsing out. And so the trick with finding stories in products and your work life is to just be actually vigilant about looking for the stories and then using stories as a way to make sense of data and then to repurpose it and to make it actionable, whether it’s for yourself or people you’re working with.

[Weber] Great. So, if we have done our research, we’ve gotten our story, we’ve tested our story, how do we tell these stories? That was something, you know I taught your book last semester and that was something that students really wrestled with was, right, “How do I tell this story in a concise and clear way?” What do you recommend? You know, I’ve got my story, I want to tell it to investors or my team or whatever, what’s a good way to present the story?

[Lichaw] So, if you’re presenting a story, the trick is to put your audience member in the heroes seat and so at the end of their sitting through whatever presentation you’re giving, they need to feel like a hero. And you are the sword, in that sense, enabling them to feel heroic, whether they’re giving you money or whatever it is they’re doing, and so framework I like for that is Nancy Duarte has a book, I think it’s called Resonate, in where she dissects the way she sees story arcs play out through presentations and it’s a, it’s a variation on the arc that I use in my book. Hers is more specific for presentation design but it’s a really fun and helpful breakdown where you know she just walks you through how an arc could work for a presentation. It could be for a short or long presentation. So, for presenting work I think that’s a really effective framework. You know for tiny little presentations, something that I, I love as an exercise, is imagine, so if you’re telling a story for the purpose of moving someone to action. Here, like here’s a one way to practice doing it. Imagine you want to teach someone to peel an orange and you know the right way to peel an orange and you really want them to do it in this way. So, take a story arc and piece together how you would tell someone how to do this using the plot points. In doing so you practice how to be persuasive in a story driven way, where you’re putting your audience member into the hero’s shoes. You know it takes practice but once you do it enough it does become second nature.

[Weber] That’s awesome, so you’ve got this idea of kind of your presentation say would be, would follow a narrative arc of its own that allows the user to engage or the audience to engage like they’re the user or the team or whatever, if I wanted to visualize these stories, if I wanted to tell this story on paper, how could I do that?

[Lichaw] It depends. If you’re telling a story for a, like a product you’re building, I’ve found the best way is to turn it into some kind of demo or prototype when your- you illustrate the arc using screens and then walk through it in one way or another for an audience. So, if it’s something with a large audience you might need to like broadcast the screen and walk through the demo that way. If it’s a smaller audience you can just, you know, all huddle around the laptop. I find that to be the best way to visualize, yeah in things like software, in apps. I’ve worked with some teams who can do things like comics to visualize stories, big or small, and I, I find that you know you need to know who your audience is. Some people will respond to comics. Some will not. Sometimes comics are a great way, I find, to use as a work artifact or maybe communicate something quickly to an engineer, but like I once worked with a group of animators and they had some down time, this was at a tech startup. I asked them if they would illustrate a comic for me. I needed to communicate something to the CEO and they did it and this comic was amazing and I showed it to the CEO and he got so pissed off because, like, “What did you use my animators for? (chuckle) Why­ they could’ve been working on something real. Oh my God, I can’t believe you wasted their time.” And so, you know where as a you know company like Google, they hire very expensive world-renowned comic artists to illustrate comics sometimes. So, you know you kind of have to know what your context is.

[Weber] The right storytelling medium for the right audience.

[Lichaw] Yes, exactly.

[Weber] Awesome. Well you know you mention the parts of the story, if users want to or if our listeners want to find out more about that, where could they go? It’s hard to convey some of this stuff in an audio format.

[Lichaw] Yeah and this is a very visual, visual thing. I sometimes joke that my book was, it’s an entire book about a squiggly diagram. What I recommend (chuckle) is two things. So one, if you go to my website, I’ve got a couple of blogposts on how to craft a simple story and the second thing is if you want to learn more, my book, The User’s journey, is available on Amazon. It’s short, it’s got a lot of pictures, people love it and I recommend it for that reason. It’s very, very digestible. You could read it on a plane, read it on a train.

[Weber] Awesome. Yeah, it’s got a Back to the Future, Breaking Bad references in it, all kinds of fun narrative references in there.

[Lichaw] Lots of TV. I love TV.

[Weber] That’s good. Well I liked teaching your book because I got to do all kinds oflike stories, you know Lord of the Rings and The Avengers and all kinds of fun you know story references. Cool, well hey thank you so much. I really appreciate you sharing this with us. I’ll put a link to your website in the show description so people can find it easily.

[Lichaw] Great, thank you so much Ryan. This was a-this was fun.

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Episode 51