This Chainsaw Cannot Fly

The power of storytelling to shape and drive product roadmaps

by Chad Fisher • Matt Franks • Jon Kolko


“I’m a mechanical engineer. I create massive, physical telecommunications infrastructure to defend our troops abroad. I need a metal ruler to do my job. But nobody will pay for one! If I want a ruler, I have to buy it myself. But check out the office up the road—they’ve got friggin’ pool tables and free lunches. And I can’t get a ruler! Is that too much to ask?”

This declaration came from a woman at the end of our week at a large defense contractor, where we’d been spending time talking with employees. We were brought in because the business was desperate to recruit more cybersecurity experts but was having trouble tempting them away from the likes of Google, Facebook, and Apple due to its poor reputation. “What is it about our culture that’s not attracting these people?” it wanted to know. We went inside to find out.

The first building we were ushered into was a brand new, glittering box of glass and steel. It would have looked right at home in Silicon Valley. There was free food, a suite of pool tables, and a courtesy bus—the whole nine yards. This was the office that had been created for the software developers whom the business was wanting to attract, a move which made sense given the brands it was competing with. Then down the road was another branch of the same company, this time a drab industrial unit staffed by engineers who designed physical products such as radio antennae for troops in battle—vital safety equipment for saving lives.

There we discovered a huge animosity towards the shimmering office up the road. After poking around this for some time, we finally received the feedback above. It was clear that there was a crazy financial mismatch between the resources allocated to each division, and that the engineers were angry not so much about the state of their offices as about the fact that they didn’t have the basic tools to do their jobs. Our recommendations to the executives were therefore based on how the business could change its policies and ethics so that employees felt as if they were being treated fairly, and were equipped to deliver the innovation that was necessary.

This was a somewhat unusual project for us, in that it resulted not in a new product but in new ways of managing people. However, it still points to the value of telling stories about people’s experiences—an activity which is being increasingly acknowledged in all business sectors. Two decades ago, when we started our careers in design strategy, we’d regularly have our proposed research budget rejected in favor of spending in other areas of product development. So if the allocated spend for a program was $100,000 and $30,000 was for field research, it was a hard “no” to the latter. But today we regularly run $500,000 programs that are purely for research. There’s been a sea change in attitude, as executives realize that real-life stories matter—both as a way of getting to great design and as a way of creating it.

You may have heard of a product design framework called “Jobs to be Done.” It says that the purpose of any product is to support a job to be done, so “we hire a stove” in order to complete the job of cooking and eating, or we “hire a car” to complete the job of going somewhere. However, we think that this way of seeing products is wrong, because life isn’t a series of jobs, it’s a set of experiences—ones that we create for ourselves by using the products that companies make.

Instead of thinking about the world as a series of jobs to be done, we think about it as a set of opportunities to find emotional value. Of course, not all products have to take emotions into account—we don’t want to burst into tears every time we brush our teeth. But many products do excite emotions, and many people do care about them, and the notion of a job to be done doesn’t allow for that.

Emotions are human, and good designers bring humanity to products. Think of the fundamental difference between a Tesla and any other electric car: the Tesla feels as if it’s made to be a digital experience in a way that no electric car made before it does. In a Tesla, everything is inter-connected. If you want to open the sunroof, you can drag down on a screen and your sunroof retracts along with your finger. That’s a whole different experience to pushing a button. There’s a human aesthetic that’s created when a great designer gets their hands on something, and it isn’t just about how the thing looks. It’s about how it’s experienced, and the value the experience brings to the person using it.

This becomes evident when you think about how many products and services aren’t people centered. If you look at your TV remote, you’ll see what I mean. It probably has a bunch of buttons and labels which mean little to you, and most of which you don’t use. It lacks a basic consideration of humanity—the understanding of what people experience when they use it. Products should be designed from the perspective of their users, not of manufacturers who cram in as many features as possible. No-one should have to adapt to a product—it should be the other way around. Stories help to create better products because they embrace the humanity that should be at the core of any product design. Design has evolved from being about colors, materials, and finishes and is now about journeys and stories—the emotional or transcendent or banal things that we do on a daily basis.

We’re optimistic about the world embracing stories as being integral to design, just as we are about how we can create better products. Many designers have trained themselves to see the world as broken, with design being the key to fixing it. However, a good designer is always able to see the sunnier, optimistic side; they spot problems and work to solve them beautifully, instead of focusing their energies on simply moving away from the problem. It’s a subtle but important difference.

When we create a design strategy, we help companies see the future and then get there. That’s the story we tell. Evangelizing for this is our mission—and we invite you to join us on the journey.