Once upon a time …. Effective storytelling in innovation projects

22 januari 2013

How disappointing: staff members worked hard in their lab on an innovation but when introducing it on the market, the product does not appear to match (latent) market needs. In this case an active search for feedback from potential customers before the development process started, had have been wise. Such market learning can be done in very early stages, even when no prototypes are available. Through for example storytelling, customers are enabled to give feedback on the planned innovation. Many innovators question whether market learning is adequate for radical innovations: customers are less likely to describe requirements for complete new products than requirements for improvements of existing products. Innovation researchers developed a storytelling method that also can be used for radical innovations. And they proved that storytelling works!

About storytelling

Storytelling can be defined as the conveyance of events in words, images and sounds. The teller aims with his story to convey a message, truth, information and/or knowledge. Besides an entertainment function – that everyone knows – storytelling can provide inspiration for idea generation and is a mean for idea screening and design optimization in the innovation process.

Inspiration for idea generation

Firstly the needs of customers or users have to be identified. Explicit needs can be derived through direct observation of users’ behavior in the use context and the associated interactions and objects used. The identification of implicit or latent needs – which are generally addressed by radical innovations  – requires the users to explain why they are doing what they do. Unfortunately most people will not be able to explain their behavior. By putting together interesting pieces of information, deviant behavior or shared patterns in behavior and missing elements the information from the observations can be structured and described in mini-stories (the so-called framing). Those stories can be used to trace contradictions, norms, successes or failures, and workarounds that are indicators of unmet needs and can be used to inspire the design team.

HI – a Dutch mobile service provider targeting youngsters – did a remarkable discovery of unmet needs of its users. HI invited teenagers in its lab to watch TV, shop online, eat pizzas etc. Staff observed the behavior of these youngsters and discussed the role of their mobile phones in their behavior. They saw that teenage girls transcribed their text messages. Those girls were afraid to lose the messages from their best friends or boyfriend – encompassing emotional value – and therefore they wrote the messages on paper. This story inspired the design team to develop a SMS backup service plus a service to bundle selected text messages in a paper booklet.

Mean for idea screening

Although an important step was taken by linking new product ideas to actual needs, still the detailed design has to be tested: will the final product meet the expectations of the users? It is not necessary to wait for – often very expensive – prototypes. Through stories on the value propositions reviews by customers are enabled. The stories should clearly describe the tangible benefits that customers derive from using the solution. They should highlight how a user’s life might be improved in the future. Please note the emphasis on customer value, which should not be confused with (technical) features of a product or service!

The new story can be used to test the appreciation of the potential customers and optimize the design process: do customers value the new product or are adjustments required. In addition, the stories can create an emotional bond with the potential customers. HI worked along these lines and re-invite youngsters to discuss the new services and to optimize their designs.

Stories as good as the real thing

One should initially assume that customers can better evaluate a product when having a prototype available. Researchers proved that a short story of somebody using the product in combination with drawn images does not provide different feedback compared to the demonstration of the prototype. Storytelling therefore provides valuable and earlier customer input resulting in a better match with market needs. In addition, integration of this feedback reduces the time to market.



Suggested readings:

Beckman, S., Barry, M. 2009. Design and innovation through story telling. International Journal of Innovation Science. 1 (4), 151 – 160.

Van den Hende, E., Schoormans, J. 2012. The story is as good as the real thing: early customer input on product applications of radically new technologies. Journal of Product Innovation Management. 29 (4), 655 – 666.

Leonard, D., Rayport, J. (1997). Spark innovation through empathic design. Harvard Business Review.  75 (6), 102 – 113.

Over de Auteur

Irma is meer dan 20 jaar actief als management consultant in de ICT sector en oprichter van SMARTconsulting.nu. Zij heeft een bedrijfskundige en financiële achtergrond en specifieke ervaring met innovatiemanagement, business modellering, financiële assessments, risico analyse, scenario ontwikkeling en benefit realisation management. Naast deze expertise heeft Irma onderzoekskennis en ervaring opgebouwd door in (internationale) researchprojecten te participeren.