Narrative Virality: Changing Course from a Simple Story

August 7, 2017

Storytelling is an essential form of human communication. You likely have a favorite story, and it’s probably something really memorable. The more that story is told and retold, the further it travels and the more influence it gains. A good story can be infectious.

Stories can also come from unexpected places. LaiYee Ho is the Head of Research at Wink and joins us for this episode. Early in Wink’s research practice one story in particular resonated with the team that was uncovered during an in-home visit, the story of Dominic and Donna. That story spread throughout the organization and fundamentally changed the way Wink approached their products.

Also on the podcast is Whitney Quesenbery, the author of Storytelling for User Experience. She shares her insights about Wink’s discovery and how storytelling can be one of the most powerful research tools.


Jared Spool: This is the UIE Podcast. I’m Jared Spool.
Humans. We’re social creatures. Even the most introverted of us thrive when we connect to other living things.
Storytelling is a reflexive part of human nature. As humans, we love to dream, spin fiction, cooperate, and create from our common experiences. These stories differentiate us from other animals. They may have carried us to the top of the food chain.
A gifted speaker or storyteller can spread ideas and feelings, like laughter, sadness, or anger through a room like a Hot Zone virus in a pandemic. We do the same online, when we share, like, and re-tweet posts.
Stories built from user research create context and meaning out of data and numbers derived from the people we study. These research stories can be as short as two sentences and still support the assumptions we’ve made about our audience and our products. They can shake us out of our collective knack for blind certainty.
LaiYee Ho: It's a trickle effect. Once people start talking about it in this user research debrief, they go back to their team and they say, "Hey, this is something that we learned today. There's this crazy story where the actual thing that mattered the most was this very simple interaction of a light being on when somebody came home. Didn't realize that." Then it catches on, and throughout the organization different people hear it and then they'll ask to see the video. Then, before you know it, it becomes one of those stories that we tell all the time, like, "Hey, are you designing for Donna or are you designing for the do-it-yourself person?"
I am LaiYee Ho. I am the Head of Research at Wink.
Jared: Some humans form deep and lasting connections to inanimate things, like our smart phones and devices, a favorite coffee mug, even a pen.
We find ourselves communicating with otherwise non-living things. Alexa, can you play some music? Siri, what is pi, without the e? Or the worst-case scenario: Open the pod bay doors please, Hal.
Wink’s products connect and automate elements of a home through an app. Music, lights, locks, heating/cooling, garage door openers—virtually anything that you connect, the service will accommodate. And, it’s a competitive market.
LaiYee: Our angle, as far as product vision, was to give people these custom features so that they can make anything that they want. The product roadmap was all about giving them things like if-then statements, custom buttons where people can set up what they want. Our user base was very creative. They like to build things.
Some of the feature requests that we were getting from do-it-yourself customers were making it more advanced, like adding "or" statements to the if-then statements, and more ability for them to customize even further.
Jared: As a young company, Wink’s startup culture emphasized building, testing, and shipping their product, without a lot of time for reflection. Those technical do-it-yourselfers were the customer base they knew—early, passionate, and loyal adopters of the product. They shared their feedback on beta forums, customer service reviews, and calls. These customers reflected the company’s own engineering-driven culture.
Whitney Quesenbery: I actually see this happen in virtually every successful project I've worked on in some degree or other.
I'm Whitney Quesenbery. I'm the author of a book called Storytelling and User Experience. I am teaching a workshop at UI22 called Storytelling as a User Experience Superpower.
Any new product idea comes from somebody saying, "The world isn't as I'd like it to be and let's change it." Sometimes that's a personal need or sometimes it's because you know somebody ... often I think especially in high-tech development, it comes from someone who really loves the stuff, right? Whatever the engineering stuff is. They want to play with it and they're fascinated by it and they want to figure out something to do with it that will work as well for millions of people as it works for them. The problem with all of those is that it starts with a very narrow angle, right? It's a sort of personal view out from either the small group or the single person who's the originator of this idea. At first all of their effort goes into kind of crystallizing, catalyzing their own idea. Then they're surprised to discover that not everybody has the same experience as they do or the same ideas that they do.
LaiYee: There was a pivot point, where we decided internally that we had to make a shift. Continuing down this path wasn't really going to work. For me at the time, I was actually a product designer, I kept questioning, "After we ship these products, what are people actually doing with them? Is it actually solving any of the problems that they wanted, and what problems were we solving to begin with?" We were moving so fast that we didn't have that time to reflect.
Jared: LaiYee couldn’t shake her curiosity over what customers did with Wink’s products, and why the product wasn’t taking off. Because Wink didn’t have a research team, LaiYee drew together a small, cross-disciplinary team, including Wink’s engineers.
They began conducting in-home studies. In one session, the plan was to interview Dominic, someone from their core base of users, but on that visit, they met someone they didn’t expect.
LaiYee: It was really interesting, because we always start off talking with the primary Wink user, and the primary Wink user here was also do-it-yourself, really into advanced customization features. There was a shift in this interview where we were able to speak to his spouse, Donna. Donna was a stay-at-home mom, and she actually wasn't totally aware of all the automations that were set up around her house. In fact, when she talked about Wink, she talked about it as if it were just a technology. They were silly automations that her husband set up.
But when we dug into it, there was one automation that really made her face light up. What it was was she said, "I love the fact that I don't ever walk into a dark house. I can be carrying the groceries and the kid, and not have anything to worry about." That blew our minds, because what she was talking about was a very, very seemingly simple interaction. We were spending all of our time on these crazy features like blinds, locks. How can you combine them? How can you automate them, use machine learning to learn about behaviors? But what she was talking about was something very, very simple.
Jared: And that was the rub--a feature that simple made a difference in Donna’s life. It was so simple that LaiYee and the team at Wink had never considered designing for behaviors like it, had never considered what the stories of the Donnas of the world could tell.
Whitney: I think that's actually how you know it's a good story. Because a story that's too complicated takes too long to tell. There's too much setup.
What makes a good juicy story is you can tell it fast. The other thing is just because you have a simple story and an anecdote doesn't mean that it's going to be a good story to catalyze change. Right? It has to be a story that people can look at and go kind of dope slap: "Oh yeah, right. I know someone like that." And they can begin to immediately connect that into that adjacent possible of "I know someone like that, what can we learn from them" and begin to expand that out.
LaiYee: The story took off when the engineering team saw the video. The person that went with me was able to also speak firsthand. I think what really made the impact was this visceral reaction from Donna about something so simple. I think the reason why it had such a reaction is because, from an engineering standpoint there's a thought like, "Just that? Something that simple is what's making this huge difference?" All these other things that the people at Wink poured so much of their energy into weren't getting the same level of feedback or reaction.
And, Donna's voice is also one that we just haven't heard before. Like I mentioned, a lot of the feedback that we hear firsthand are from people that are asking for more detailed features, advanced features. Donna, she wasn't asking for any of that. All she wanted was to come home, not have to worry about the light so that she can think about everything else on her mind, like taking care of her kids, putting the groceries down. There are a million things on her mind, and technology was not one of them. I think that was something that made a huge shift.
Jared: Stories can be the catalyst that takes us from self design, or thinking about what would make us happy as designers, to experienced-focused design, when we think about the bigger picture. We go out and observe people and identify their interactions with the product, how they move from one activity to the next, and then we optimize for it.
Whitney: I think that they encapsulate the moment when you suddenly see or understand that there's something else in your precious idea, and I don't mean precious with air quotes around it. I mean they are precious, new ideas. That your idea might work for you, but it has a bigger application if you can just expand the arc of your view of it. That's a nicer way of saying it then: "Well, you've got to get out there and understand other people because you're not the whole world." I mean, everybody is the hero of their own story, right? We're all the center of our world. We want our tools and our life to work for us, and to say "Go make it work for someone else" is actually not a very compelling argument. But to say "If you just look a little bit more broadly then other people will love the stuff you love too" is actually a much more compelling argument to people who are trying to make things.
Jared: We can place barriers on our products when we don’t connect to that broader customer experience. What are those barriers? In LaiYee’s Dominic and Donna story, it was the complexity of the product.
Donna only needed something simple to make her happy, to add value to her life—that simplicity was something Wink’s engineers hadn’t considered, because they were focused on all of the technical possibilities their product could offer. And they were only listening to the Dominics in their audience.
Whitney: If we go back to the Donna and Dominic story, it's important probably in that early adopter phase to have a Dominic. Right? Donna would probably not think, "I'm going to go out and buy a piece of technology and probably pay a fee every month so I can turn on the lights in my house." Once the Dominic has gotten that device into the house, then Donna can start to see the things she can do with it.
Maybe there's something around how you use your early adopters to open doors but then you have to understand who else is going to walk through that door and what they might need. Then you could start to say, "Well, let's make an easy recipe for lights come on as I walk into the room, and all you have to do is plug in your rooms and your lights and it works, and so now we can think about how to make it easy."
LaiYee: I think what we really realized was that if we continued to focus on do-it-yourself, you're not only containing it to just that market but you're also excluding some of the people they live with. By expanding that to make sure that we're being more inclusive with the types of people that we are catering towards and making sure that anybody can use it no matter how savvy they are with technology, we think the impact will be a lot greater. The experience is even better even for the do-it-yourself users, for their families, and then for people where they don't have a do-it-yourself person in the household.
Whitney: I want to go back to another piece of the story and what made LaiYee's story work, and that is context. Right? The reason why it's worth all of the really rather extraordinary amount of effort it is to find someone who will let you come to their house to invade their life, to see what they're doing, to talk to them in context, is because they will tell you or you will see them do or you will see around them the things that they would not think to tell you. If Dominic and Donna lived in a studio, her story would not have happened there, because it's a different story. Now they live in a house with halls in multiple rooms. I think a lot of what happens in story gathering is that we begin to learn what other people's lives look like as well as what they think about them.
LaiYee: There's so much rich information that you get when you go in home that you just can't get if you're at your computer looking at the data and analytics. Then, on top of that, there are the emotions of the other people in the home that you get exposed to, so a lot of empathy, not just for the primary Wink user, but also for the kids that they live with or their grandmother who doesn't understand how to use the light switch after it's been connected to something smart and it no longer works. And, there's so many different layers of emotions and context and people that you just don't have exposure to unless you go there.
I placed a lot of value in bringing everybody on the team onto research: data scientists, engineers, designers. That cross-disciplinary expertise that everybody comes with, once they're all grounded in the same user insights, the types of conversations they had when they got back to the office, dramatically different.
They're not talking about their function anymore. They're just talking about, "How can I get this user from where they are to what they want?" They're working together and there's just this fire and energy in that room, where there's so much creativity but it's bounded by this constraint of, "What is the real user need?" Then, the products that we came out with after that were a lot more useful, a lot more grounded, a lot simpler, honestly. We don't go off on these tangents of products that don't relate to what users want to do.
Jared: Despite the popularity of the Dominic and Donna story and the nascent user research practice that was developing at Wink, it still took time to win over stakeholders to the importance of building a research practice. And what won them over was...the story.
LaiYee: Tough stakeholders are a lot of times the ones that think that the research is going to take too long, or they don't understand what kind of value you can get from them when they think that they understand the user. Or, it could be somebody that already has a very clear idea of what they think the product should be and they're not sure how going into the home is going to really help them. In fact, doing the research will directly challenge somebody that has a very strong vision and isn't willing to let go of it.
I think a lot of trying to convince stakeholders like that is through being patient and showing them tidbits. It wouldn't work for me to go off in a silo, find insights, and just throw a report and say, "This is what the insights are. We must follow that." I think the way that we ended up convincing them internally was through a ground-up thing.
We actually ended up convincing those stakeholders by bringing engineers and designers on the ground with us, and then having these stories trickle up to the top, as opposed to starting from the top from the beginning.
Then, I think once you get people to tell these stories, it's really hard for those stakeholders to ignore them. At that point, we had this user insight movement happening, and all of the decisions that were happening on the ground were based off of that. Then the stakeholders start to listen, because it's not just the user research saying that we must do research. At that point, it is an engineer or a designer making a product decision and specifically referencing Donna in their decision-making process that makes them think, "Wait, I keep hearing about this person named Donna who wants to solve this particular problem," and it starts to marinate in their mind for a little bit. Then, before you know it, over time they're also embedded into this culture.
Whitney: A lot of the companies I've worked with, the knowledge is in their heads. They just don't know what to do with it. Especially if you're in the kind of business where you really are embedded with your users like people in education or people who build things where they send staff out to live in the hospital to actually run this stuff, they know what's out there. They just haven't figured out how it applies to what they're building.
Jared: How do we intentionally harvest and cultivate actionable stories from our research to inform the way our team will approach our products?
Whitney: I think the way you make it intentional is to be doing collection all the time. Right? To make sure that having input channels, whether that's usability testing or field studies or getting people on the phone or whatever it is you're doing, is to have that be something you're doing all the time.
LaiYee: We're constantly doing research. One thing that we do with these stories is that, once we have the story, we draw out a storyboard of how we believe our product would work. Then, once we have that, it's a visual of what the product vision is for Wink, and the research that we do is then trying to see whether or not what's actually happening out there in the field is reflective of the storyboard, of what we imagined the story would be. That's a little bit more validation. But then, through that a lot of times we also discover that we might have been wrong, and still wrong in some of our assumptions, and we still have to remap the story and figure out exactly how we need to make tweaks and shifts to make sure we are solving those problems.
The way we started was that we would conduct foundational research, which typically is an in-home study, where we would really understand the needs of the users. This was usually driven by some sort of business objective, like we might need a certain percentage of users to adopt a type of feature. That's how broad the prompt might be.
Then, when we go in-home and study these users, we have this process, which is pretty fun, where we try and think of the user as a character. We put together something that we call a user profile/character. It's a prompt where we would learn about the users and then create this character where, kind of like how writers would think of a character for their story, a user wants something, but they can't get it. There's something that's blocking them, whether it's a technical thing, environmental, or social. Then, now you have a user, which we would call a character, and we'd give them a name. They want something that they can't get.
These studies, we would bring the designers and the engineers with us. Data scientists, QA people, everybody would come and really understand this character. We would run a two-day workshop where the product is actually one where everybody on this team will take that character and map out a story about how we can take this user, apply what Wink has in terms of technical capabilities to get them all the way around to achieving what they want. That's what we create as a product vision. Usually, we think of it as: What can Wink do in the next two years to help this user achieve that problem?
Jared: The Dominic and Donna story showed the team at Wink the power that storytelling has to shift the conversation around a product, and a company. Research isn’t a one and done exercise. Wink realized they needed a team devoted to research to maintain an understanding of their audiences’ needs, and their stories.
Whitney: You can't just go out and do one interview or one home visit and wow, you get this fantastic story, because the first time you see that story you don't know if it's just one strange person. The second time you see that story you start to go, "Hmm," and the third time, fourth time you hear that story and then suddenly you're somewhere and maybe you don't even know you're hearing it, right? It's percolating in the back of your mind because you're the person organizing all of this if you're the UX researcher, and you're bringing different people along with you because of course you're bringing people along to see this firsthand. Suddenly someone says it in just the right way, and then you've got your story.
Jared: Stories are a powerful tool for the designer. They help us bring our users’ experience out in ways we can’t accomplish otherwise. The stories don’t have to be long. They don’t have to be intricate. They only need to connect.
We build worlds around stories. We make far-fetched ideas a reality. And we find an even greater license to create when we use research to illuminate our understanding of others, their habits and their interests. What brings them joy? Some people just like to have the lights on when they get home.
This UIE podcast is brought to you by the UI22 conference that’s happening November 13-15 in Boston, MA.
Whitney Quesenbery will be joining us there to teach her full day workshop, Storytelling as a User Experience Superpower. She’ll show us how to create journey arcs and storyboards that identify and solve real user problems. To learn more about Whitney’s workshop, visit
Also, if you’re in an organization that is looking to hire more UX designers anytime soon, I want to point you to our new school in Chattanooga, TN called Center Centre. Our students are learning what it takes to become an industry-ready UX designers and they need your help.
To help them learn the craft, they need great projects to work on. Companies supply the projects and, while they’re at it, they get to see what our students are capable of. It’s a great way to help grow our field while you’re doing preliminary recruiting. If you have a project that you think might work, please get in touch. You can learn more at Center Centre’s website. That’s C E N T E R C E N T R E dot com.
This UIE podcast was written Kathleen Barrett and produced by Sean Carmichael.
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This podcast is part of the UIE Podcast Network. Thanks so much for listening and, as always, thanks for encouraging our behavior.