Friday, December 04, 2020

Context, Purpose, and Anatomy of an Effective Concept Story

One of the most useful artifacts in a design-led innovation and product development process is the concept story. While there are many good formats for this story, I developed my own version about 10 years back and fine tuned it with multiple teams, projects and companies. It worked very well for me and my colleagues who adopted it. It has played an important role in most successful products I designed and delivered in the past decade.

The context where a concept story fits

To understand why and when a concept story makes sense, we can start by looking  at the design-led innovation framework.  The design led innovation or design thinking process always starts with a user and a mystery around the user. 

For example, the business or product leadership team in a brokerage company might wonder why they are not able to attract young people to their investment platform. After some initial interviews they may arrive at the heuristic stage where they conclude that, it may be because young people usually have less money to invest, which is a hurdle for investing in companies they want to invest in. So they may hypothesize that providing the ability to buy fractional shares might attract  young people to their investing platform. The third stage in the framework is the algorithm phase where a detailed way of accomplishing the goal is defined. The fourth stage is where the algorithm or process is turned into software code where it is made reliable and repeatable.  A concept story is very effective in the heuristic stage of the design led innovation process. To explain the stage where the story fits in, please have a look at the diagram and the example scenario below.

Figure 1: A concept story’s place in the design-led innovation framework. 

Purpose of a concept story

A concept story has three main purposes. First, to identify the user and empathize with her. Second, to articulate the value the solution will create for her. Third, to visualize how a use may interact with the software and other supporting personas.

The result of a concept story creation process is clarity of thought in the mind of the product manager, the designer, the engineering architect and a common understanding of the mental model among all team members.

Most of the value of a concept story will be achieved, even if the product managers and designer do not show the concept story to anyone else. Another advantage of a concept story is to serve as a communication artifact, particularly when a product manager is working across countries, time zones, cultures and organizations. Since pictures and storytelling were invented long before language was invented, they are several times more effective in communicating an idea compared to words. Even if a product manager is confident about her command over the written word, the recipients of the written word may not have the skill to understand the written word, particularly if they are from another country, culture or region. I have noticed that a good concept story takes about 3 hours to put together but eliminates up to 20 person hours in work sessions. 

The Anatomy of an effective concept story

There are five  main attributes in an effective concept story.   First, the concept story should have a name that mentions the user and what she accomplishes using the product or feature.  Second, the concept story should describe the user persona, her pain points, and the supporting personas. Third, the concept story should mention a trigger for the user journey. Fourth, the concept story should show how a user interacts with the software or other personas to accomplish her task. This usually is accompanied by hand drawn low fidelity mockups. Finally, the concept story should state what the user accomplished.

Figure: The Anatomy of an effective concept story

Writing a concept story is like cooking a dish. The best way to master the craft of a concept story is to build one and use it as an artifact to refine your thinking and to share your thoughts. Although, having appropriate illustrations and a good layout will significantly enhance the thinking and discussions, getting the attributes right is far more important than getting the illustrations or the layout right. 

What is the level of detail we should go to in a concept story?

If you are familiar with Robinhood, the brokerage company, you will realize that the concept story above describes their entire business. The story deliberately leaves out many details, without losing the essence of their business model. Once the main story is agreed upon, you can create more stories for other main use cases. For use cases where the concept is already well understood, you could skip the story and go to the medium fidelity prototype directly.

Is a concept story always required?

To answer this question, it is best to look at the design-led innovation framework and check the stage in which you are at for a particular product or a feature. For example, if based on conversations with existing customers, a new feature is very well understood and can be articulated in the form of a prototype without further internal discussion, then you can skip the concept story and go straight to a medium fidelity prototype. In my experience 95% of product managers do not write a concept story and start with other artifacts and stumble through the process through elaborate in-person work sessions and conversations. Many of them succeed in building the feature. But they are less effective, and less successful compared to those who choose to create a concept story.

Who should create the concept story?

The mental model of the concept story is clearly the responsibility of the product manager. However, all ideas may not always come from the product manager. A senior designer with domain knowledge will have a lot to contribute. An engineering architect may have clear ideas as well. The responsibility of creating a concept story is the job of the product manager. In my experience, I have seen product managers creating the artifact without hands on help from a designer. I have also seen product managers working with a designer to create the low fidelity mockups.  I have seen scenarios where the product manager created the first draft of the concept story and the designers with more formal visual design education and skill, refining the content without altering the product manager’s mental model.

What happens to those who do not write a concept story or follow design led-innovation?

Majority of product teams do not follow design-led innovation. Many of them do succeed in building useful products for their users. However, in such organizations the role of a product manager is that of a business analyst who listens to an existing process or a proposed process and write down the algorithm, in the form of a user story, so that engineers can code it. Such projects may or may not succeed. The solutions will most certainly be inferior to a solution created by a team that follows the design led innovation process. If you want to be an effective product manager, you will be much better off working for an organization that believes in and invests in design-led innovation. Many companies do. Seek them out. Stay away from those who do not invest in this. Because they are less likely to succeed.

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