Storytelling Beneath the Surface

Joel Olympio
4 min readFeb 23, 2021

I think as humans we understand things better when they’re told as stories. For whatever reason our minds prefer comprehending ideas as a beginning, middle and end. We are all natural storytellers but then there are of course people who are more gifted at communicating a story. They could be authors, directors, journalists, salespeople and interestingly, product designers. Why is it important for product designers to know how to tell a story? Well, I think when people purchase something, they are often buying an idea, a feeling, a desire or a future they imagine with that object or service. The physical essence of a product is only part of the purchasing decision. What is arguably the greater factor into the purchasing decision is the story a consumer imagines before deciding whether or not to buy the product. Obviously the aesthetics of the product can spur this story which is why they’re important. For instance before you buy a new sofa, first you see it and then you try to imagine it in the space you would like to put it and that’s where the story begins. Product designers can control this story. Like the product itself, the story can be designed. And as a designer, they’re not always so much telling it but rather influencing the story; they’re story designers.

Photo by Woodendot on Unsplash

Storytelling as a Communication Device

Product designers use a variety of skills and software to communicate their ideas. SolidWorks, Photoshop, sketches and prototypes are all common ways to bring ideas into reality. However, sometimes bringing something into reality isn’t enough to convince the end user of its potential. An area I often see this happening in is technology, new device form factors in particular. A design team that I’ve observed throughout the years attempt, and often succeed, in communicating new device form factors to consumers through storytelling is the Microsoft Surface Team.

Microsoft Surface Family

A tablet? Not exactly. A laptop? Kind of. A phone? Not really.

From the very first Surface RT, Microsoft has been aiming to blur the lines between our devices. It’s what has driven the Surface team and all consecutive products released in the past 8 years. However, this hasn’t always been an easy task. People often struggle to see why one device that does it all is better than the multiple devices that they use. Or they can’t understand that the device is neither this or that but its own unique form factor. They say, “Oh it’s like an iPad with Windows”, “So it’s a phone with two screens?”, “It’s just a big TV that runs Windows”. And they’re not entirely wrong for seeing the products that way. In fact, I think humans naturally find a way to make the unfamiliar familiar by describing the unfamiliar with familiar terms. However, this can sometimes hinder the idea of the product because now the consumer has a pre-existing idea of what the product could do for them and also what it can’t do for them. Let’s look at the Microsoft Surface Book as an example.

“They want to check every box, nail every category…and then shock you with something you never saw coming. Something distinct to Microsoft, distinct to Surface. It couldn’t just be a great laptop — it needed one more thing.”

- David Pierce, WIRED

Surface Book

The Surface Book is often a troublesome device when it comes to making a decision on whether to buy it or not. It’s not a gaming laptop, but it can play a bunch of demanding games. It’s not a workstation but it can breeze through graphically intense programs. It’s not a drawing tablet but it can get you through art school and beyond. And finally, it’s not an ultrabook but it’s just as slim and portable as one. You can’t just describe it as a laptop because then you’re isolating more than 50% of what it can do. You can’t say it’s a tablet because then you’re forgetting about the rest of its functionality. So as you can see, the struggle is real for communicating the full scope of the Surface Book. You shouldn’t buy the Surface Book for any one of its features but rather for ALL of its features, otherwise you’re not going to make use of its full potential which is something you’d want to do with it’s heavy price tag. But how do you communicate this to consumers? How do you tell this to tech reviewers who just compare it to traditional laptops and tablets? By storytelling.

Microsoft often produces videos of people’s experiences with their devices, more specifically the people who they are targeting with the device. They also make high-production “sizzle” videos with dramatic visuals of the product’s capabilities. By doing this the device becomes an experience you can relate to rather than a list of specifications that you might buy.

The Surface Book is just one of many Surface family members that require the use of storytelling to fully communicate their potential. When a product delivers a new experience to users it’s important to show and tell. By doing so, I think you bring the product back to a human level, a level we can understand through the use of storytelling, because we’ve been telling stories for millenniums.