The hidden story behind revolutionary products

Or how successful startups told an appealing Product Story without actually saying anything

***The goal of this article is to help product managers and product designers to gain a better understanding of their mission and goals through a new prism — Product Story***

For many years I was puzzled trying to understand what stood behind the initial success of some of the most iconic tech products. As someone who was originally trained as a communication strategist, I had a hard time believing that you can succeed without verbally communicating something to people. Yet many successful products were made by startups and had zero budget for marketing communication. So why did they succeed?

I didn’t have an answer, so I assumed that there was some amorphic magic to it. There was something about the way those iconic products looked, felt, or — as Steve Jobs described it — worked[1], that was clearly outstanding. But good UX/UI wasn’t enough of an answer for a guy like me, who seeks to find formulas everywhere in life. And I dare to say I found one.

The journey to this understanding started about five years ago when I learned how stories “speak” to the basic wiring of our brains. About their basic connection to engagement, empathy, and action. I see the fact that our brain needs stories in order to act as one of the most amazing neuroscience discoveries of the 21st century. [This TED talk by Paul Zak is a great intro to understanding the power of stories]

When I first learned about it, I only implemented this understanding into crafting strategic stories and into branding processes I led. But one day, while mentoring startups on product/market fit, this nagging question about products returned: If a brain needs stories to act, how do you tell a story without actually telling one?

At the core of the story–product connection lies the notion that a story is not something you tell, but something the brain makes. Basically, our brain attempts to store all external information as stories, with the bad, the good, the morals, etc., and it does it completely unconsciously.

[I will explain product-related story parameters more in-depth in my next post. Follow if interested.]

With this understanding, I attempted to look at products as something that evoked the right stories in our mind. This formulation allowed me to see how good products “tell” us stories, and helped me understand the magic behind some of the most puzzling success stories:

Twitter

Twitter was launched 10 years after the first major social media player ICQ, three years after MySpace, two years after Facebook, and a year after Reddit. Yet it gained quick traction with zero marketing. Was it all due to SMS compatibility? What story has its product evoked?

– I see it as a story about people, similar to myself in this article, who just go on and on without getting to the point. And about the secret weapon with which Twitter is going to tackle them: 140 characters. Just get to the point! [I will get to my point after two more examples.]

Google

Google delivered superior search results pretty much from the start, but most researchers attribute its initial success to the straight-forwardness of the search experience it provided. What is the story Google evoked in the mind of its users and the world at the time of its launch?

When we want to find something, directories and search engines like AltaVista and Yahoo make us follow complicated routes to find what we want. Google gives us one simple highway to get exactly where we want to be.

Dropbox

Dropbox was launched and gained parse and prominence after posting a simple demo video. What was the story there?

When we want to save and transfer our files, we can choose many different paths, all of them full of uncertainty and the possibility of losing precious info. Dropbox is a magical box that seamlessly keeps track of all your progress and your info is never lost or erased. A clear journey: red — your file has no backup; blue — it’s on its way; green — it’s safe!

Here is my promised takeaway:

Crafting your product as a story allows people to understand it and its value almost intuitively. More than this, it allows you to clearly manage your product roadmap because any features that don’t fit the story won’t be used, and those supporting the story will. This is, of course, if you structure the story correctly.

I will elaborate on how to properly structure product stories in my next post. If this sounds relevant to you, stay tuned by clicking the “Follow” button next to my pic down below.

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[1] “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” — STEVE JOBS

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