Driving digital strategy through stories

One challenge faced when creating creating digital services is the comprehension divide, spread over many different departments. As the digital world is still in it’s infancy and growing so fast, what was a good level of knowledge five years ago falls into the category “dangerous” now. This absence of digital leadership can incapacitate even the smallest projects as the HiPPOs try to take over the party with their own agendas which rarely fit with the needs of the customer or other, competing, departments.

The ideal solution is to have a “Head of Digital Services” who manages the digital strategy and ensures everyone stays on beam. Sadly, not every organisation can afford such a character, never mind find and hire them; rare as the proverbial rocking horse and twice the cost of unicorn tears. But, there is an alternative, and it’s one that need not cost the earth to do or use some terribly new-fangled, whizzycloud-service thingy app.

User Stories

…a user story is one or more sentences in the everyday or business language of the end user or user of a system that captures what a user does or needs to do as part of his or her job function… It captures the ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ of a requirement in a simple, concise way, often limited in detail by what can be hand-written on a small paper notecard… – from Wikipedia

The beautiful simplicity is that they can be written in different tenses to explain what happens now and what, ideally, should happen – all in the language of the user (or customer in our parlance). Each element of the story can be debated without resorting to internal language and geek-speak; creating a clearly defined list of “needs” for the digital services.

Right, I’m going to call them Customer Stories for now on as that, in my view, better fits the analogy that digital services are created with customers in mind; even if that “customer” happens to be an internal contact operative or a consumer.

An example set of short stories we recently used:

  • I’m Joanne, I logon to the in-store Wi-Fi, it shows me an advert for a new XXX and I make a note to remember to ask about it
  • I access my very own page, I do this to refresh my memory as I sometimes forget the medical terms and it’s nice to see my very own “service history”.
  • Fred’s nice, he’s got a tablet too and reads and takes notes directly with me. He even asks me to check what he’s putting down. It’s nicer doing it that way and saves that awful queuing and having to explain stuff again when I get back to the reception desk
  • He’s got a really good picture-thingy on his tablet which shows me exactly what I need to understand
  • Fred did suggest something and he’s usefully added a few into my own wishlist. “What about getting Mary to buy them for your birthday” he suggests. I know he’s only reading from his notes and that tells him my birthday is in 4 weeks and he probably made a note of my daughter’s name a while back back … but, it’s a good idea and I can easily share my wishlist with Mary and she can buy them for me.
  • Time to go, these appointments do seem to be getting shorter these days. Still, thats the price of progress and and I can see everything he’s done, when I’m due to come back and what I should be buying … maybe I’ll just treat myself on the way out. Yes, I’ll do that.
  • Back at the reception desk and Joanne has a copy of my wish list, nice. It’s only £45 so I’ll just buy them now, the nice people also ship them directly to my house so I don’t have to carry them home – I really like that.

The story is entirely personal and 100% from the customer’s viewpoint and quite clearly defines a number of functions; in this case it’s a patient management application, running on a tablet with a shopping kart integrated. Each story could, if required, be tested in the field with focus groups, mystery shopping and empirical testing. Building up the final functional specification may require further clarification but this comes in the form of simple questions … “does Fred need to keep anything hidden from Joanne?”.

Not only do Customer Stories focus stakeholders on the customer, they also filter out irrelevant content and functionality and distill the needs to the irreducible core, a core design mantra. If the stakeholder can’t write a story for the content or functionality they require, then it probably shouldn’t exist in the digital space. Despite taking more time to produce overall, the user story forces the stakeholders into a think-first, demand-later mode which better suits the definition and delivery of digital services.

Once the stories are written, they are handed over to web professionals who understand the elements of digital delivery and can work out the best way to meet the customers’ needs. This empowering of web folks has the unexpected benefit of value-adding the solution. In the traditional model the core needs get handed down on tablets of stone and the best a web professional can do is replicate them, in most cases things slip between the cracks and the final solution ends up watered down. Using Customer Stories, the end result can be spectacularly better than the stakeholder’s wildest dreams.

A wider application

We’ve recently started using Customer Stories as a communication tool in proposals to new clients, its been met with a good reaction. It’s been a long while since I’ve seen a potential client reply “I really enjoyed reading…”. As seems to be happening a lot these days, the learning and methodology of Agile Frameworks is bleeding over into operational delivery and, now, into sales and marketing.