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Chris Ashby
August 23, 2021

How to validate the impact of product & growth ideas through storytelling

The power of story invalidating the impact of product ideas without the need for extensive data & insight

Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Unsplash

Validating product ideas in a small business or startup can be incredibly difficult. Chances are you have a relatively low amount of traffic (at least low enough to not be able to reach statistical significance with traditional optimisation testing), and a varied assortment of qualitative data that isn’t organised into themes or by the problem to solve.

This makes it hard to justify spending money on larger features or ideas where the impact is difficult to judge through traditional methods.

We can run surveys, user testing exercises (card sorting, interviews, etc), prototype tests, and more to give us a sense of whether our assumptions are correct, but this only gives us information in isolation. It doesn’t take into account the full user journey, or often is being judged in hindsight, or by those who will never go through that experience.

So how can we validate our ideas in the context of our full user’s journey, in the context of the full experience, both physical and emotional, of our users?

Using story as a validation technique

If you are new to storytelling, I would highly recommend reading the books ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ by Joseph Campbell, ‘Invisible Ink’ by Brian McDonald, and ‘Wired for Story’ by Lisa Cron.

The basic principles we are going to follow here though, are based on the hero’s journey — a story structure that very closely matches our decision making process as we travel through experiences as human beings, and the idea of want vs. need in character conflict.

I talk about this more in my User Narrative technique, but stories using the hero’s journey framework go through a narrative that almost directly reflects the way we make decisions, and overcome conflict in our own lives.

The structure is designed in such a way that it mirrors this, so that we can see the experiences of characters through our own eyes, thereby learning ourselves how we should act if that situation was ever to happen to us.

So how can we use this framework, and the idea of want vs. need, to validate our product ideas and understand their potential impact?

Understanding the decision-making points in the hero’s journey

When you begin to map your user’s experience using the points of the hero’s journey, you’ll begin to see a pattern emerge through these plot points.

As the story unfolds, there are key points in their story that require the hero to take action, sometimes unwillingly.

The key to validating ideas through story, is to hone in on those points of action, and to understand the problems your user is trying to overcome at those points.

We want to design our product so that it delivers the correct value at the points the user is taking action, in order to successfully enable them to overcome that conflict.

To this point, we can ask ourselves these questions for any given idea, in order to gauge its potential impact:

  • What point of action does this idea address in the user’s journey?
  • What value does this idea provide them in order to help them overcome the conflict that incites that action?
  • What could the impact of us delivering that value to those users at that point be?
  • How can we change this idea in order to deliver more value or more impact?

These questions take the idea out of the solution space, and put them back into the problem space, where we can better explore exactly what we are solving for the user and why, and whether taking a different approach or changing the details of the solution might actually deliver more impact.

It also aligns the idea, the solution, with a specific point that we know our users are taking action, thereby increasing the chances of it’s success.

Understanding want vs. need

The second part of validating ideas through the story is in understanding our users wants vs. their needs.

We can better understanding by viewing want and need as two separate motivations that drive our users:

  • Want: the external desire that our users believe will offer a solution. This is something tangible that your users think will solve their immediate problem.
  • Need: the internal struggle that our users are actually searching for — this often comes after a revelation or awakening through new information or an experience. Users often aren’t aware of this.

The want, is often physical or functional, whereas the need is most commonly emotional.

For example, when exploring health care options for an elderly relative, the want might be ‘to put in place care for a specific amount of time per week,’ whereas the need could be ‘reassurance and peace of mind that their elderly relative is getting what they need from their carer.’

The key to using want and need in order to gauge the impact of any given solution, is to answer these two questions:

  • What want is this idea addressing, and how could we address it more directly?
  • How does the experience of this idea or solution help our users uncover their deeper, emotional need, and show it to them?

The idea here is to use the want to sell the need. The want addresses the immediate problem to be solved, and the need is what differentiates you from your competition. The need is how you stand out to your user, and how you go above and beyond to address something they perhaps weren’t even aware of.

Successfully addressing the need is where you can deliver true impact for your users. The need is where the magic happens.

Another tool in the validation tool belt

I hope you can see how using story to validate and improve your confidence in the impact of your product ideas, features, and solutions can be incredibly powerful.

Using story to validate is just another tool in your validation tool belt though. This is not the one and only way to increase confidence in the impact of an idea, but combined with other methods, can be very useful in determining whether to proceed with investing in a big new feature, or whether your focus needs to shift to something else.

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