Narrative-Based Innovation, Part 4: Three Compelling Uses for Narrative Based Innovation

Justin Daab Innovation

The more unfamiliar the destination, the more a strong narrative adds value.

In the previous post in this series, we talked about the value of narrative storytelling in the innovation process. In this post, we’ll cover what types of projects benefit most from this approach and why.

Evaluating when and why this approach makes sense is actually fairly simple. The greater the unknowns, the greater the value of a story. A design thinking exercise around refining an existing product category will benefit from storytelling, to be sure, but not as much as design thinking around creating an entirely new category altogether.

The narrative is the first prototype.

A great innovation narrative immerses the reader into its world and allows for the detailed exposition of the desired interactions, features and benefits using no more technology than the written word. In this, the last installment of our four-part series on Narrative Based Innovation, we cover the three most compelling uses and explain how we use storytelling to accelerate and mitigate risks within the innovation process.

One: Innovating new products and services

Innovating new products and services is the classic innovation application. And storytelling, in some sense, has always been a part of this process, usually establishing context or framing need. But in Narrative Based Innovation, storytelling takes on a more substantive role.

In Narrative Based Innovation, the story is far more detailed, documenting a journey through the user experience, documenting the functional and emotional requirements of an innovation long before any design or technology resources need be applied.  

For example, with additional depth and clarity a detailed narrative brings to a concept, an engineer can better envision the full experience and purpose of a new product or service as they focus and prioritize efforts. Management can more quickly and clearly articulate across departments or to the board, not only what the new product or service is, but how it will be experienced by customers. And sales teams can familiarize themselves with real-world use cases before they actually occur.

Two: Expanding into new markets

So, you’re considering promoting innovative new uses for your product or service. After you’ve performed all necessary quantitative evaluations of a potential market expansion (e.g.: market size, price elasticity, cost of customer acquisition, just to name a few), incorporating those details into detailed customer journey narratives, complete with exploration of intent, desire, and need can give you a better sense whether those numbers are a conservative estimate or wishful thinking. Can you draft an obviously believable story? Or, does the exposition of the user journey require dubious leaps of logic? For example, in 1995 Microsoft was looking to expand the audience for personal computers by creating a more friendly, limited-option interface called, “BOB.” On the surface, it makes sense. There was a large segment of the population who were casually interested in computers, but were intimidated, confused or uninspired by the existing Windows desktop interface. But had Microsoft taken the time to develop a detailed narrative, walking through the consumer buying process and exploring the purchase setting as well as the emotions and motivations of the process, I have to believe they would have not launched.

For context, in 1995, presenting the animated BOB interface actually required more computing and graphics horsepower than presenting the standard Windows interface. Further, BOB was sold shrink-wrapped in a box at a cost of $99. In effect, the company was betting that a casual user, heretofore unable to mentally justify the purchase price of a low-end standard computer would actually pay a premium for a more powerful machine, plus the additional price of the BOB software for an end result that offered a more limited computing experience. The leaps of logic necessary to make that journey believable are, at best, heroic.

(Caption: The main view of Microsoft: BOB)

Three: Exploring viability of entirely new behaviors

Unlike the previous use case that involves innovating new uses for existing resources, this is about exploring the viability or feasibility of new behaviors altogether. Let’s take, for example, the recent explorations in the ride-sharing space where ordinary folks, through a mobile app, offer their personal vehicle up for rental to, or rent from, total strangers.

Using Narrative Based Innovation as the innovation framework, long before prototyping an app interface or building out a business proforma, you would craft a series of detailed narratives that explore the motivations, risks, opportunities and threats involved. The act of detailing the behaviors can continue to refine and accelerate the modeling and iterating of the user experience, as well as help accelerate the building of a consensus vision for the future among stakeholders.

It’s always about perspective

If we have learned anything from science fiction and fantasy writers through the ages, it is that when we create a compelling enough vision, technology finds a way. And Narrative Based Innovation is about taking time to explore, iterate, test and refine that vision as much as possible, at the most human-centered experiential level, so when the final narrative presents a truly compelling vision, the path from concept to offering appears straight and obvious.


Check out the rest of our narrative-based innovation series


Part 1: What is narrative-based innovation?

Part 2: Why storytelling matters

Part 3: Elements of a compelling innovation story


Magnani is an experience design and strategy firm that crafts transformational digital experiences to delight users and deliver sustainable competitive market advantages for our clients.


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