Unleash your story to build a prototype

Unleash your story to build a prototype

April 2016

“The anxiety was building. She tentatively removed it from the fridge and set it down. Lucy opened the box and allowed a fresh injector pen to slide out. Severe asthma had knocked her confidence for 2 years and she was fed up.

She plunged the needle into a pinch of fat on her abdomen. The sharp pain was over in a matter of seconds. After the audible click, Lucy cautiously removed the product she loved yet hated, and placed it carefully inside the sharps bin. It was over. Until tomorrow, she sighed.

What was that?

It’s a story about a woman who relies on using an injector pen to treat her severe asthma. In reality, this story was used as a prototype and was shared with many patients. It served as a powerful tool for making design decisions.

Why make a prototype?

Simple. Prototypes communicate ideas, allow new learning and better decision-making. Physical prototypes tend to lack emotion, focus on functionality and are confined to the location they inhabit. Frequently you will require a physical prototype to answer “What?” and “How?” but rarely will it answer “Why?”

Stories can be prototypes too

Whether you’re designing a medical device, an app, a complex mechanism, a piece of consumer packaging or an industrial system, a story is one of the most critical product design tools. However, only a small number of designers take advantage of its potential.

Story-centred design

For years, designers have preached human-centred design, and quite rightly so, but the world has moved on. People now expect delightful experiences that exceed their expectations. Achieving this whilst integrating innovative technology demands a new skill set. Human-centred designers must become story-centred designers.

Why bother?

Embracing stories as part of your prototyping toolkit will identify user goals, engage users on an emotional level and reach the far corners of the earth. Here’s why…


In order to identify value for a user, a story-centred designer must identify the goals of a user. What are they trying to achieve? By generating a prototype in the form of a story; let’s call this a story prototype; any given goal can be validated as real or perceived.

The inclusion of a time element allows interrogation throughout the fictional experience. Users are able to provide real-time feedback on what they can relate to and what they deem superficial. This process delivers clarity for identifying the user’s underlying goals.

Lucy’s story: The team received feedback related to human factors. Users disputed the injector pen “sliding” out. They preferred to use their forefinger and thumb. This facilitated a quick design decision regarding the packaging lid. The story was subsequently adapted where Lucy “picks out” the injector pen. This was tested with more users for further feedback.


When we are exposed to facts, there are two parts of our brain responsible for turning words into meaning. But when we are exposed to a fiction, our brain engages on a deeper level.

If a story describes smell, the brain’s olfactory cortex is engaged. If a story contains movement, the motor cortex is activated. This is why when we are reading a book; it feels like we’re really in it. This is the impact of our brain responding to the emotive language used in fictional stories.

This deeper level of engagement allows users to respond to story prototypes by expressing visceral reactions. These reactions provide much richer learning. Story-centred designers must generate the conditions for these reactions to occur and then capture them in order to make insightful decisions.

Lucy’s story: Many of the users responded with flamboyant empathy for Lucy. They identified with her “knocked confidence” and feeling “fed up”. Their reactions gave the design team confidence that they profoundly understood the underlying user emotions, enabling an effective marketing campaign.


A story prototype could also be a talk, a video, an animation, a storyboard or even role play. But crucially, a story prototype is geographically and culturally unbound. With the rise of digital media and email, a story-centred designer could, for example, expose 10 users in 10 countries to 10 stories in 10 minutes. Broader, faster and more diverse learning is enabled.

Lucy’s story: It was critical to meet a diverse range of user needs. Multiple iterations of this story were shared with users all around the world. Story prototypes were sent out as digital storyboards and feedback was collected through Skype. There was no need to invest in expensive physical prototypes in order to uncover these far-reaching needs.

What’s your story?

What prototype have you got lying around the office? Can you honestly say that it identifies user goals, engages users on an emotional level and reaches the far corners of the earth?

Why not try transforming it in to a story. You’ll be amazed at the creativity that results!

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