This Chainsaw Cannot Fly

The power of storytelling to shape and drive product roadmaps

by Chad Fisher • Matt Franks • Jon Kolko


Do you feel good about your company’s products and the way you create them? Do you swell with pride when you demonstrate them at conferences, or show them to potential customers? If you do, that’s awesome. But if you’re like many product executives, you probably wish your products could be better. You want to have a clear north star, a roadmap to success, and a well-oiled machine that ships the right things at the right time. You’d love for your products to work beautifully, to deliver exactly what your customers want, and—above all else—to sell in higher numbers.

Yet it’s not so simple, is it? It would be great if you could dump what you have and create something new in its place. You’d have a product that’s innovative, customer-focused, and way better than anyone else’s in terms of features and style. Finally your customers could have their wishes fulfilled, and so could you. But you have legacy systems to contend with, lots of stakeholders cooking in the kitchen, and no super-persuasive story to tell which convinces your business to unlock the funds for such a transformation. And are you sure that you know what your customers really want in any case? You’ve done market research over the years, but you’re not satisfied because it doesn’t give you a clear picture of what to build.

It isn’t your fault, of course. You’ve probably tried hard to discover your customers’ needs through research tools such as quantitative surveys and focus groups. The problem with these is that they don’t work very well, and here’s why.

survey clipboard

Let’s start with quantitative surveys.

Companies often see these as risk mitigation tools, and at first glance this can make sense. Ask a large number of people what they want to see in your new, improved product (it is said) and you can estimate how many would buy it when it’s produced. In reality, though, there are three major concerns with quant-based research.

The first is that you’re trying to prove adoption for an innovation that doesn’tyet exist. That’s kind of crazy, because if it’s a genuinely innovative product that no-one has seen or experienced, there’s no way for you to know if people will buy it. You’re asking them to make a decision with hypothetical money. All sorts of factors—peer pressure, time pressure, money limitations—mean that their best guess won’t necessarily be representative of their actual behavior. The uncomfortable truth is that disruptive, blank-slate innovation is inherently risky, and that while there are ways of reducing the risk, quantitative research isn’t one of them.

The second issue with quantitative surveys is that, in order to make data analysis simple, they’re typically based on closed questions. These don’t allow for deeper exploration. An example is, “Which of the following features would you like the most?.” For a start, this has the same inherent weakness as asking people if they would buy a product or not—it’s hypothetical. Also, the question presupposes that people want more features, and that features are the best way to solve their problems. However, people rarely buy or use a product because it has a feature. They buy it because it provides them with value. An experiential way of seeing a product takes into account all of its capabilities; any individual feature can be valuable, but it’s when it’s combined with others that it creates the experience. And the features have to be done right. If a product has features but your customers can’t find them, or if the product as a whole looks terrible, it will fail. It’s not features on their own that will make it a success.

The final issue is that if you offer people a menu of options for your product, such as, “If it had features x, y, and z, which would be most important to you?” They’ll only pick from the ones you’ve given them. You won’t discover anything new or different. It’s almost as if you’ve outsourced the responsibility for innovating to your customers, rather than taking this role for yourself. Successful product managers look at what their customers truly want and need—even if the customers don’t know it themselves; combine it with what’s right for their business and market; and create a plan for the future based on all this information together. They don’t ask their customers to come up with the specifications.

no focus groups

Let’s look at focus groups.

Surely they’re better than quantitative surveys for discovering what people want? They are, because they allow you to dive more deeply into the participants’ opinions, but there are a couple of serious issues with them as well. One is similar to quant-based research, in that you’re asking people to talk about hypothetical products as if they’re real.

And the second is that the opinions you hear don’t always come from the heart. When you have a number of people in a room there’s always an element of group-think, and participants tend to give the answer that sounds the best rather than the one that they’d say if they were being completely honest.

There’s another thing that you might have done to bring new or improved products into your company, which is to acquire a separate business or license an OEM set of capabilities. This is a rational choice on the surface: why create something from scratch when someone else has already done the hard work and you can see that it’s working? The problems with this arise when you try to integrate the two brands. The parent company doesn’t always understand how the newcomer works, nor are they familiar with its users. There’s different technology to integrate, and the teams who manage the respective products find it hard to shift their loyalties around. Even if you keep the new product under its own brand, you’re not familiar with the end-to-end user experience of it, and your customers won’t have a seamless experience across the two. And finally, bringing a new product into your business is all about features, features, features. Products become bloated by them, which makes the product cumbersome to use. Customers start to drift away, preferring the simplicity of those that meet their needs without over-complicating the experience.

There is a better way. You can see that the problem with standard ways of developing new products is that they don’t get to the root of who your customers are, and what they want or need. To understand that, you have to immerse yourself in their lives. This results in stories, and when you know your customers’ stories you can empathize with them as people. It’s these stories which are the springboard to knowing what kind of products you should create.

Stories also have another purpose. It’s long been acknowledged that storytelling is one of the most effective ways to communicate a vision and win people over to it. When you find effective ways to tell your customers’ stories to your colleagues, you bring the customers into the room. Their stories show how their lives would be better, fuller, easier, and richer, if only your new product was in their lives. It’s as if they have their own seats at your meeting table.

This is what we do at our studio. We gather customer stories, we think hard about them, we re-tell them to our clients together with the insights we’ve gained, and we create a strategy for new and improved products that can solve the problems the stories highlighted. To do this, we uncover customers’ needs through immersive research in which we visit people in their homes or work environments. We then use this research to tell our own stories of the future to our clients; this is a future in which, if a new product existed, the lives of the research participants would be better. In this way, stories are the bookends for the innovation leap—they tell a narrative of the problem, and a vision of the future.

That’s our business, but who are we as people? We’re three designers that started both Modernist Studio and Narrative. There’s Chad Fisher, our Chief Creative Officer and a fantastic visual designer. We joke that he makes things look pretty, which he hates: “I don’t make things look pretty, I make them look right.” Then there’s Matt Franks, our VP of Design and a genius with clients; we can always trust him to be the adult in the room. And finally there’s Jon Kolko, the Head of Studio, who runs operations. He’s often found sticking thousands of quotes and images from our research all over our walls, rearranging them, and then imagining insightful ways of interpreting the data.

We wrote this book to help you, the product executive whose mission it is to create amazing products and who’s ready to try a new way to do it. You’ll learn why stories are a fundamental part of this process, and how we gather and tell them to transformational effect. Along the way, you can expect lots of entertaining stories. Read on.