Post COVID-19: Progressing from situation to strategy

Justin Daab Corporate Innovation, Design Thinking, Innovation, Market Research, Product & Service Ideation, Prototyping & Development, Strategy

Competing in the new normal

In the three blog posts prior to this one, we explored the macro trends emerging from our collective experiences with COVID-19. It appears they might affect the way we all conduct business for the foreseeable future, if not permanently. 

But understanding trends is only the first step. Every company needs to consider the impact those trends might have on the business and, more importantly, develop a strategy for addressing that impact and a vision of how best to think past survival mode and compete.

Using Narrative-Based Innovation to plan your next move

Magnani has developed a variation of design thinking called Narrative-Based Innovation. The process uses detailed storytelling to create a deeper understanding and empathy around how customers are engaging with their environments; explore how to solve their challenges; and, ultimately, outline and evaluate the functional, technical and emotional requirements for delivering a more engaging customer experience. We’ve found the process to simply be the fastest way to explore, prototype, test and evaluate new product and service ideas. 

As you work through the design-thinking steps, you will continually enhance, build and evaluate basic story elements that will form the foundations for ongoing project documentation and evaluation. Let’s walk through what that might look like.

Empathize: Introduce the world to your hero 


In design thinking, everything begins with empathy. At this stage, you gather any and all information and understanding you can about the people for whom you’ll design your product or service. And in this period in history, however well you think you understood your customer before the pandemic, it’s likely worth your time and effort to either confirm you still know what drives them or, more to the point, that their attitudes and needs have been altered.

So, first, you’ll want to define your hero, gain a thorough understanding of who they are, how they interact or behave and what challenges they face. Different types of understanding lend themselves to different types of research.

Ethnographic research is best for understanding real-world behaviors and uncovering the reality of how customers actually engage with products and services in their natural habitat, so to speak.

Focus groups are great for gathering sentiment around a topic and, more explicitly, how customers speak about a subject and what specific language they use.

While ethnographies and focus groups can give a sense of what some customers think, surveys can help you get a better understanding of how many customers think in certain ways and how intense those feelings might be.

And, of course, you should (re)examine any proprietary or secondary customer or market existing research.

Next, because we are in a state of environmental and social flux, you’ll want to begin to project trends to better understand the world that is emerging and document how the changes we are already seeing might evolve.

From these steps, you’ll begin the actual narrative exploration of your future innovation. You’ll take the findings from your customer research and your understanding of the emerging world and craft the opening chapter of our hero’s journey. Ultimately, you’ll want to bring your hero to life. We frequently begin our persona narratives by waking our hero up in the morning, following them through their day (informed by our ethnography, obviously), introducing the supporting cast (friends, family members, co-workers) and laying bare the emotional drivers in their life that will eventually lead to engagement with the product or service we’ll be imagining/ideating later. The goal is to develop a dimensional character with explicit emotional needs and motivations that we can place into a variety of scenarios later in the process.

Define: Create a map of the new world and the challenges it presents


In Define, you will add two additional aspects to the narrative you’re building. First, you’ll begin exploring and describing the future world, as predicted by your trend projections. For a few ideas on trends we’re watching around the current COVID-19 pandemic, see these previous three blog posts, here, here and here.

You’ll want to explore in your narrative how those emerging social, generational or technological changes might impact or cause the challenges facing your hero.

At this stage of narrative development, we use a narrative building technique we’ve named Reverse Ethnography. The objective is to move the hero through their day, their world, and describe in detail the most relevant challenges they might face in this new world. The act of considering these scenarios and playing them out for your hero is extremely valuable in helping you to properly frame and define the problem around which you’ll ultimately ideate and create solutions.

For defining the challenge, we generally adhere to the traditional design-thinking “How might we?” question structure. And, it’s generally best to pose a question in this format that is focused on solving a basic emotional need for your hero. For example: “How might we reduce our hero’s fears of infection when traveling?” Or, “How might we change our service design to be fully contactless?”

Out of this phase of the process, you’ll collect your two narrative chapters, along with relevant research analysis and the definition of the problem you’re going to solve, and put them into a creative brief or design brief you’ll need for the next phase of the process: Ideate.

Ideate: Solve your hero’s challenges


The Ideate phase is not simply about generating ideas. It’s about systematically upending and exploring the mental models surrounding those ideas, assessing recurring themes and evaluating ideas through a variety of lenses. In the end, it’s about converging and consolidating various branches of thought into manageable future areas of innovation.

In a typical ideation session, you’d want to bring together internal stakeholders, such as Innovation, Research & Development, Marketing or Customer Insights teams, usually paired with external subject matter experts. The kind of outside experts we’ve brought into our sessions have been psychologists, futurists, trend analysts and or external consultants with specific subject matter expertise. While not a requirement, we’ve found outside experts can help to broaden the perspective of everyone involved and lead to a greater number of higher-quality ideas.

As you move through your session, you should progress from generating the widest variety of possible solutions to analyzing and prioritizing which of the ideas generated are at once desirable (people would want to engage with the solution), feasible (the solution is technically possible) and viable (the resources required to deploy the solution don’t outweigh its value to the company).

At the end of ideation, you should have documented all of the base ideas generated, analyzed what key themes continually recurred and pared down to a small list of final candidates to move into the Prototype phase.

Prototype: Walk your hero through the experience


In Narrative-Based Innovation, the first prototype is always a story. You take the heroes, worlds and concepts we’ve created in the first three design-thinking phases and merge them into a linear narrative. 

A well-crafted story can convey all required or desired points of interaction, highlight how you expect people to engage with an experience physically, mentally and emotionally and reveal what points in the user journey should elicit joy or delight. Further, it should highlight what points require thoughtful decision-making and which offer relief.

Using a story as your first prototype gives you the ability to quickly explore a radically disruptive user experience that may be beyond currently available technologies or resources but still provides a road map for the final experience design. More than just about any other medium, stories can be crafted quickly and iterated cheaply. 

Ultimately, if the story you craft cannot engage, inspire and motivate your customers and employees, the end product probably won’t either. To that point, to make sure our concerts meet all of those requirements, we Test.

Test: Share your hero’s story


The great thing about stories is that human beings have been hardwired through centuries of culture to be exceptional at evaluating them for, as what Stephen Colbert humorously calls “truthiness”—hat gut feeling telling you if what you just heard rings true. That’s why it’s critical to get your story in front of real people—especially when dealing with issues related to people’s real concerns surrounding COVID-19. What’s different in this work today is that the product and service design changes we’re talking about today will, at least in some sense, be evaluated by customers as life-or-death decisions. If you don’t get it right, and they don’t feel truthiness in your narrative, they may write you off as “not getting it,” irrelevant or, worse, indifferent to their safety.

As mentioned above, using a story as your prototype allows for rapid iteration and refinement throughout the testing process. So test, refine and retest until you end up with a story that connects, rings true and offers a solid foundation for R&D planning, physical or digital product development or final service design.

You don’t need to be Ernest Hemingway; you just need to be earnest

One of the questions we receive most often from clients when first discussing this approach is “who writes the story?” Is it one person or something completed by the group? And the answer is usually a mix of both. Story elements are listed, debated, discussed, cataloged and prioritized by the broad group of team members and stakeholders. But, ultimately, we believe the written story should have a single writer/editor responsible for translating those inputs and outcomes into a coherent narrative. Why? Because, as much as humans are collectively trained to be sensitive to the veracity of a story, we are also sensitive to changes in voice or tone. 

It’s not about picking the person who is the best writer (although that never hurts). It’s about choosing someone who truly understands the big picture well enough to walk anyone as yet uninitiated through the relevant points—the customer, their challenges, motivations and emotions and how they might engage with the proposed innovation/solution.

Ultimately, if you can’t explain it to a 6-year-old, how will you explain it to your boss or the board?

Using a narrative-based approach to innovating will leave you with a product or service concept that customers can easily understand. But perhaps more importantly, you should end up with a well-thought-out, vetted story that makes presenting and selling your ideas up the corporate food chain much easier. PowerPoint can’t sell your idea. A great story will.


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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