When you use great technology, you can feel the difference – even if you can’t quite place your finger on what makes the experience so good. That’s the art and science of digital product design.

I’ve spent the last 20 years designing and developing technology products. The secret to success? It’s probably not what you think.

At Dom & Tom, the product development agency I co-founded with my twin brother, we joke a lot that we’re building blinky lights and dopamine machines. But what makes this blinking light so useful or interesting or fun? 

I believe it’s the storytelling.

Hear me out. There’s a quote from Halt and Catch Fire that perfectly articulates this idea: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets you to the thing.”

The app or software – the blinky lights – is a conveyance mechanism for the story you’re trying to tell as a brand.

Good digital product design is built on good storytelling. It’s consistent and cohesive, it’s intuitive, it builds trust, and it creates stickiness. This story is more than a user story, though they often get conflated. It’s bigger than that. The story is the universe you’re building for your user. 

Bad design happens when you burst the reality of the story you’re telling. You take your user out of the experience, forcing them to question the nature of your story and ultimately lose trust in the product. 

This story is essential. It guides all aspects of your feature set, your product development, and yes, your user experience – and even your performance metrics.

A Lesson in Great Storytelling from the Theater

A product is a more or less immersive experience. You’re in it, experiencing it. The world created by the product needs to be consistent. And it requires at least a little suspension of disbelief. 

That’s where the theater can teach product developers and designers something about world-building.

I was a theater kid. I still love seeing plays around New York City (where I live) and the world.

Great plays and great products both rely on the user or audience’s ability to believe what’s going on. As soon as an audience or user has to ask, “what’s going on?” they lose faith in the story. Then, nothing else matters. No amount of blinky lights or star power can save a floundering story.

From the theater, I learned that there are two essential elements to good stories: engagement and entertainment.

Engagement in Digital Product Design

The engagement part could be anything that matters. There needs to be some resonance; you need to clearly answer “why.” In theater, as with products, your audience will let you know if your why is compelling enough to them by showing up – or not.

In digital product design, you have a lot of potential reasons for engagement. It could be that your product helps a company stay compliant; the engagement is driven by regulatory requirements. In other cases, the engagement happens because a user wants to improve something about their work or themselves. 

Entertainment in Digital Product Design

The entertainment part is how it’s done. That’s a style choice, a creative choice. There are many different renditions of classic plays, and many different products that solve the same problems. How you make those choices depends on the story you’re trying to tell.

One of my favorite questions to ask in digital development is, “How can we make this entertaining?” 

A great example of this is Amazon’s password reset. How many times have you lost your password? Probably a zillion and one. Instead of forcing you to enter your email address, submit a password reset request, wait for an email, and try to create a password that you’ll remember (or remember to save in your password manager), Amazon did something different. If you forget your password, just tap a button and they’ll send you a code. You can use that code to log in. That way, you’re able to stay logged in across devices, reducing friction, and speeding up your ability to interact with the product when you need it. 

Amazon’s story is “Get what you need, quickly and easily.” And love them or hate them, they tell this story consistently with every single interaction.

Good digital product design is built on good storytelling. It’s consistent and cohesive, it’s intuitive, it builds trust, and it creates stickiness…Bad design happens when you burst the reality of the story you’re telling.

Dom Tancredi
Co-Founder, Dom & Tom

A Lesson from the Theater

There’s a play I love called “An Enemy of the People” about a man who identifies a problem with the water in his town in Scandinavia. It’s currently on Broadway, starring Succession’s Jeremy Strong. I’m familiar with the play – I performed in a rendition of this play in Chicago while I was a student – but this recent version blew me away.

This version of the play is performed “in the round,” with the audience almost all the way around the stage.

This play has no intermission, but it does have a small break.

At this point in the story, the actors are attending a town hall meeting about water quality. From the ceiling, they bring down a bar. Audience members can go up on stage, and order a drink. They only serve two things: water, which is three dollars, and a shot of akvavit (also aquavit), a Scandinavian liquor. You can sit on the stage, relaxing while the house lights are up and the actors are on stage.

After a few minutes, the lead actor clears his throat and begins to start his speech at this “town hall” meeting. And you’re there, because you are part of the town, thinking about the water quality and the situation this town is facing.

It’s an incredible moment that brings together engagement and entertainment into this truly memorable, delightful experience. And in this moment, there’s a powerful lesson for technology design and development.

In digital product design and development, your goal is to create a similarly immersive and compelling story. 

Imagine your go-to app, website, or software. It’s more than just tapping and swiping on a gadget — you’re stepping into a universe that’s built from the ground up. By creating a universe for the user, product developers cultivate a sense of belonging and empowerment, where users feel understood and valued, and where they want to stick around.

What is the Risk of Bad Storytelling?

Consider a formerly great technology product: Twitter. It used to be an easy place to share quick thoughts, and engage with other people’s quips. It was funny, fast, and designed to be insightful or informative. The story was something like, “this is a smart place for smart people to connect informally.” 

The initial experience was all about getting you to share your thoughts quickly, and engage in these fast, direct ways with other people’s ideas. Fast forward, and now the message length on X is massive, threads are endless, and the experience encourages outrage versus interest. 

When Twitter stopped validating the story that bright ideas stand out and are shared, they lost the plot. 

While they currently report more active users, they’re no longer profitable – a data point that tells you a lot more about the health of the business.

When your storytelling is inconsistent, your users won’t feel safe, they won’t feel taken care of, they won’t feel like they can believe that your product can solve their problems or meet their needs. Ultimately, this leads to customer churn, fallout, user loss, and reduced engagement. 

3 Steps to Create a Compelling Story for Your Product

Step One: Articulate Your Vision

Building your product narrative starts with a clear vision. As an entrepreneur, you need to have a vision for the solution you’re trying to create, why, and how. If you don’t have that vision, go out into the desert and find one.

Entrepreneurs at the highest order of magnitude have this vision – the Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musks of the world. Their vision is so compelling that it outweighs the non-belief that creates friction as they work to bring it into being.

Write down your vision, and begin sharing it with others. See how it evolves, and what stays the same. Get better at communicating it. Get clearer about what matters. And when you’re ready, get building.

Step Two: Define Your Values

Your values define your worldview, which define the story you’re trying to tell and how you’ll tell it. 

If you don’t know what your values are, spend some quality time with yourself reflecting. Or, get in a few scrapes and see how you respond to them. 

Step Three: Find a Team That Can Take You There

With your vision and values clearly defined, you’ve got the foundation of your story. Now, you’re looking for a product team that can help you bring it to reality. They need to be the right people, to help you go further than you have gone.

It’s one thing to see the stars, and another thing to be able to build the rocket ship to get you there. You need a team who can help you plan the trip up there, who have built a rocket ship before and know the different trajectories you can take. You’re looking for a team who can command the ship and keep you moving toward the star you’ve set.

Look for a skilled, expert team that can do more than just execute, but can also strategize your product development journey.

Ideally, you’ll also find a team that’s done something similar before. They don’t have to be experts in your field, but ideally they’ve built and learned from a product with a similar mandate to yours. That experience can help you avoid pitfalls and leverage learnings.

That’s what we’re delivering at Dom & Tom: a digital product design agency with a stellar team that can take you from vision to reality.

We’ll work with you to build a cohesive, integrated story every step of the way. 

If that sounds right for you, book a time to talk

Want to connect personally? Send me an email at dom@domandtom.com to get the conversation started.

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