Untold Stories | Narratives in Product Design

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Storytelling has been around since time immemorial. More than simply entertainment, the tradition serves as a multipurpose tool to preserve, explain and educate, passing down ideas, histories and cultures from one generation to the next. Its power lies in its ability to connect the narrative with the larger audience, to the point where it becomes their own.[1]

In this day and age, storytelling has been demoted to a far less-noble purpose: to sell. Particularly in advertising, the narrative has focused mainly on a product’s commercialization, force-feeding a sentimental bond with the consumer through dazzling manipulation. In effect, marketing campaigns have exploited storytelling as a creative medium to the point of saturation. Customers are now very much aware of the tricks of the trade, demanding authenticity and added value – all of which lie with the product itself.

At the 3rd edition of Creative Mornings Utrecht (1 June 2012), interaction designer Jeroen van Geel called for the renewal of storytelling, no longer in the guise of advertising, but through the fundamental influence of product design. Entitled The Product Narrative: Storytelling for User Experience, his lecture centered on the significance of storytelling in both design and interaction. As founder and chief kahuna of Johnny Holland and interaction director of Fabrique [brands, design & interaction], Van Geel believes that it is important to design things we can relate to instead of mere commodities, that experiences can never be designed, only facilitated. Indeed, this is where storytelling comes into play.

Since the provision of creative solutions is the design raison d’être, product design must go beyond the immediate goal of user satisfaction and focus primarily on interaction. In order to achieve this, says Van Geel, designers must first imagine that the product has a soul, a reason to connect with its user. In doing so, the product becomes a character we can interact with. The type of interaction that exists depends on the context in which the relationship is established: working towards the achievement of a common goal. As a result, both product and user complement each other, transcending the traditional subject-object juxtaposition.

Complex at it may seem, Van Geel insists that this process is a boon to creativity if we only use our imagination. The characters –Product and User– are the heroes of the story (obviously, a villainous Product is counter-productive, dastardly plotting User’s demise) on a valiant quest for victory. Be it safeguarding personal information from the malevolent shadow hackers of the internet or navigating a way through the unpredictable, hi-speed routes of the Dutch railway system via mobile phone, the plot thickens as our heroes interact with one another in the given situation. All these elements make not just for any old story but a good one – one that we as users are fully engaged in, one that we make our own.

In terms of design, product-user connectivity comes down to what the story and interaction will be. To illustrate this point, Van Geel uses the bland, often intimidating and forever complicated realtor website as a storytelling example:

Undoubtedly, buying a house is never easy. Not only is it a life-changing, financial decision, it is an emotional one as well. It does not help that the market is unstable and that every future homeowner is confronted with interest rates, by-laws and fine print. Given these circumstances, the last thing a customer needs is an information-heavy, jargon-laden website with a numb, business-like feel. The alternative, Van Geel suggests, is a helping hand – a reassuring, step-by-step guide that leads you to the best possible outcome.[2] No fuss, no fancy footwork, only transparency, integrity and trust.

The user, therefore, is transported to a real estate world far removed from the usual complications. The product is no longer a website but a friend, eager to hold the user’s hand and slowly walk her through the entire process, at her own pace, one question at a time. In the end, both achieve a common goal, triumphantly overcoming financial, legal and emotional adversity. The product’s creative design facilitates a positive interaction, establishing a trusting relationship that makes for a great narrative.

For far too long, storytelling has been the go-to tool for ad campaigns and with good reason. The power to connect consumers with a particular brand or lifestyle translates successfully into sales. Be that as it may, consumers are growing conscious of what exactly they are buying into, demanding more than a mere sales pitch or comic anecdote. Ultimately, the value-added and authenticity that consumers expect, stem from the product itself, from the personal relationship that is made. With a narrative thoughtfully designed, the story becomes reality, the adventure well lived. ✌


[1] Jeroen van Geel illustrates this point clearly with a passage from The Hobbit.

[2] Van Geel refers to eyeOpen, an online financial “dating service” in the Netherlands that matches clients with the best possible financial solutions. The interactive website was designed by Farbique [brands, design & interaction].✍

☞ For more information on Jeroen van Geel, CreativeMornings Utrecht and CreativeMornings™, visit the websites listed below:

Jeroen van Geel | Johnny HollandFarbique [brands, design & interaction]

CreativeMornings | Utrecht and CreativeMornings™

Follow CreativeMornings Utrecht, CreativeMornings™ and phillipqgangan on Twitter:  @Utrecht_CM (CM Utrecht), @Creativemorning (CM Main) and @phillipqgangan

Creative Mornings Utrecht x phillipqgangan

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