Being a listener in a world of storytellers

Storytelling has been one of the most adopted and accepted theories for a while in the sector. And we all know what happens with some of these concepts when they are fully embraced, overused and manipulated, first for some ‘hot’ (whatever that means) companies/designers, followed by the vast majority of the Design community: What used to be an interesting and valid theory became a fast-flowing river of bullshit.

What’s wrong with storytelling?

Nothing, really, it is not about the concept, it is about how we use it these days in the design sector. Since the first story was told somewhere in Africa around 40.000 years ago (based on the first parietal art discovered), we haven’t stop telling stories, it is part of our history and our success as a species. Without stories to tell and to believe, human cooperation wouldn’t exist, neither would our civilization. Storytelling has been an excellent technique used for multiple purposes, always by people with extraordinary skills to tell stories.
The success or not of the story, would be determined by 2 main factors; the talent of the storyteller and how interesting is the story to tell.
Demosthenes used to practice his speeches in front of the sea with his mouth full of pebbles, his goal was to hear his voice louder and clearer than the sound of the waves crashing on the shore. Aesop created wonderful fables where animals are the main characters and have multiple personalities accordingly to their nature, he created interesting tales to tell. These are good examples of what I mentioned before, Skills and topics.

Demosthenes exercising to speak at the edge of the sea, draft table by Leon Cogniet, vintage engraved illustration. Magasin Pittoresque (1882).

Storytelling is such an important and wide concept for me, that to be honest, seeing how many designers out there call themselves storytellers, assuming that every product has a story to tell, and what is worse, putting users as secondary characters in their stories, makes my ‘bullshit alarm’ go wild. With this, I am not saying that we, designers can’t be storytellers, I am saying that it requires time, training and most importantly, being willing to listen first. Thinking that just because we hear/read many good stories, we are able to tell them in the same way, and assuming that people will be interested in a story around any product, is both, naive and arrogant in excess.

How is Storytelling used these days?

Designers bedtime stories ❌

We went from showing ‘pretty’ designs with no meaning or purpose in our portfolios to create long stories about the whole process and life-cycle of the product. It is great to learn and know how to explain every aspect and step of building a product, but at the end of the day, all of the stories we built about how a product was designed, are stories made for other designers, an excellent way to show off your knowledge and get you some interviews. The amount of time you spend thinking of creating a good story out of the Design process should be nothing compared to the time you should spend building the real product. If you are designing a product thinking more of your portfolio than about your users, you are not doing anything different or better than those who just show ‘pretty’ interfaces with no meaning. They are all Designers bedtime stories, some are comics and some are books.


The Story of Products/brands ⚠️

I love to know the origins, curiosities and facts about every single product out there; airlines, Swiss watches, Spotify or Fitbit, even vacuum cleaners, but that’s me, I don’t expect other people to be necessarily interested in these aspects of a product. Of course, if we are talking about classics or giants like Harley Davidson, Coca Cola or Facebook, probably the number of people interested in these stories will be larger, but when we talk about products, users want to know about features, performance and how this product can solve their problem. Telling a story about the brand or the product should be seen as an added value, not as the product itself, otherwise, you are not building a product, but a Marketing campaign.

The Story of Users ✅

So this is the part where you shut up and listen to your users, their needs and problems to solve. They don’t want to hear your “I made this” crap, or tales about the glorious origins of the product, they want solutions, and they will be the storytellers this time, so get comfortable and start listening. If you are too busy creating stories about yourself and your product but not about the people who are using it, oh boy, you have a problem.

Take personas, for example, when you create a persona, if you are doing it right, you should create a representation of a significant portion of your target, in order to identify pain points, define goals, build empathy or measure effectiveness. But, how do you create a persona? Well, this could be another post, but for the sake of the argument, we can sum it up in two words: Listening and observing.

“If you make listening and observation your occupation, you will gain much more than you can by talk.” — Robert Baden-Powell


I don’t think that we have the only right to tell a story, I believe that the stories have to be told by users, and we, as designers/researches should be the tool to amplify, refine and improve them, not with a selfish intention of making it ours, but with a purpose of helping the real storytellers, our users, to tell better stories about our product. To put it in another way, we should be the pebbles in Demosthenes mouth.

Thank you for reading 😃