Kicking off the 2019 Nottingham Digital Summit on the Playhouse Stage is Distinction’s Billy Williams. Billy gave a fantastic talk explaining how approaching product design with a storytelling-led approach can provide a resilient and optimistic framework for handling the complexities of modern digital experiences.  

The future is already here

Billy starts by proclaiming that the future is already here. There are very few practices that have zero digital presence. Everything is now digital. Therefore, it is vital we craft our digital services carefully and deliberately to cater for this. 

Taking us back to 2009, many of the world’s most prominent organisations had slowly started to become tech giants. (Google, Twitter, Facebook etc). This signified the era of “Move Fast and break things”, in which delivering new products as quickly as possible was prioritised. 

Billy highlights that as a result of this technology growth, everything we do now revolves around data. However, a data-driven approach has its costs. For example, using it can result in users becoming faceless, quantitative data points. To clarify this, a quote from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is brought to our attention. 

“When the anecdotes and data disagree, then the anecdotes are usually correct and there is something wrong with how it is being measured.” 

We then move on to how digital experiences are rapidly expanding and diversifying. Ikea is a great example for demonstrating this complexity, with Billy talking about his recent experiences of using the firm’s AI features, then the website and a number of other digital features. All of these new, diverse experiences create so much data and to deal with the complexity of all of this, we cannot use a data-driven approach any longer.  

Borrow from the past

Billy states that to deal with this complexity, we must look to the past. Advertisements throughout modern history have been about storytelling, so why not relate this to our product design today? We’re finally catching up to the idea that we need to lean towards more emotive product design, and must create a mental model for digital storytelling. To do this, we should look towards television series which have told deep stories over a long period of time.

To demonstrate how television series can be related to a storytelling driven product design approach, Billy refers to the ever-popular TV series Friends. In Friends, there is a single overarching story arc which everything always comes back to. This is the question of whether Ross and Rachel get together. Throughout the entire series, everything always revolves around this question.

Relating this to product design, we can use an overarching story arc to make sure that customers know our end goal from the very beginning and throughout every aspect of our brand. 

Within the series arc is each season of a TV series, and each season has its own minor storyline and its own role in the overall series arc. In the same sense, Billy states that each platform within a customer experience should have its own role, and each role should be associated with the story arc. Additionally, if each platform is a conduit within the overall story arc, then every user-centric feature of a platform is an episode within this season and becomes vital to a product team’s success. 

We can then develop this idea even further by including scenes within each episode. In Friends, the final scene makes such a difference to the series despite being such a small part of the overall story arc. In the same way, the little touches within our platforms can make a massive difference. Storyline focused design allows product teams to prioritise humanistic elements of digital experiences

Monzo

To demonstrate this idea in action, the modern banking platform Monzo is used as an example. Monzo’s overall story arc in this sense is that it is “the bank of the future” and everything within Monzo’s culture aligns itself with this arc. Each platform or season is varied and complex; these include not only the app, but also their online platform, their Wikipedia page, their contributions to open source software and their social media activity. Despite all of these being such varied and different platforms, they all support the overall story arc that Monzo is the bank of the future. 

Expanding this idea further, each feature, or episode within Monzo’s platforms are all about the user experience and are vital to contributing to each platform within the overall environment. Finally, the small parts within the Monzo experience make a real difference, just like a scene in a television scene can have such a profound impact. Here, Billy talks about how Monzo shows a user the amount of money they spent in Greece by referring to how many mousakas they could purchase. 

Conclusion

To conclude this first talk on the Playhouse stage, Billy outlines how digital storytelling can provide a framework which resilient to change and can be an optimistic approach to product development. Using this approach, we can be clear from the very beginning about what message we want to send out to users through our experiences no matter how the complexity of our digital environment changes. 


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