In thinking about the process of product design, it’s all too easy to get lost in the minutiae of implementation details. What something should look like. What features it has. How it helps solve a user’s problem. What it costs.

However, it’s important to remember that people don’t always buy things because that thing is going to do X, Y, or Z, but rather because of the narrative they get to enter into. They may not consciously realize it, but when they chose to purchase or use a particular product, their brain may really be saying one or more of these lines:

  • “The way this product was created is so amazing.”
  • “The people who created this product are amazing.”
  • “The people who also use this product are so cool, and I want to feel included too.”
  • “The kind of people who use/make this product are way better than the loosers who use/make those competing products.”
  • “This product isn’t for everyone. I’m so glad I’m one of the select few who get to experience this!”

You’ll no doubt recognize that none of these statements have anything to do with the actual objective attributes of the product and far more to do with the story of the product: how it was made, who made it, what tribe of customers love it, perhaps the “exclusivity” factor of the product, and so on.

We engineer types may balk at the notion of basing purchase or usage decisions on such goofy rationale as this, but people do so all the time (and, yes, so do we!). For example, if you’re fanatical about using open source software, you may be using Linux as your desktop OS — not because it’s inherently better on a sheer technical level than, say, Mac OS X, but because the philosophy behind the product meshes with your worldview (or maybe you really dislike Apple as a company).

So what’s the story of your product/service/app/organization/etc.? Do you understand the rousing sweep of narrative drama that is your origin story — the early struggles, the rise to success against all odds, and the dent you’re now putting in the universe? Or maybe you go the artisan route, and talk about the hand-crafted care you put into every single widget you make (or pixel you push). Or maybe it’s all about the lifestyle angle, how the fine dining and outsized hospitality of [insert romantic, exotic land here] inspired you to [make/design/launch] the amazing new [product/service].

Whatever the story is, whether genuinely exciting or downright dull, you need to find ways to convey the heart and soul of your endeavor that capture people’s attention and make them glad they’re part of your community. And, in all likelihood, you will find that thinking in terms of narrative and not just XYZ feature bullet points actually contributes to creating better products.

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