Signals > Stories > Options
Have new ideas for ways to take action by telling new stories about what's going on.
Happy New Year!
My 2023 starts with … job hunting. Yes, the wave of tech sector layoffs caught up with me and 40% of my colleagues at Relive just before the festive break. If you happen to know of an opening for a product design leader who does the sort of thing I talk about, please hit reply, I’d love to hear about it.
Now onto today’s article. This is an expanded version of one of my favourite cards from Innovation Tactics, which should be launching later this month. Watch out for a few more ideas from the deck here over the coming weeks.
“Insights can be described as unexpected shifts to a better story ... they transform how we see and feel about the world. Once gained, we cannot go back” – Gary Klein
The Signals > Stories > Options framework I’m about to share has been one of the simplest and most powerful unlocks I’ve used with teams over the past few years.
Let’s start with a real example: a team with a big idea
This team came to the meeting with a big idea, inspired by a competitor. They also shared a breakdown of metrics for the user flow they were tackling. To them, it was obvious that their idea fit the situation.
We pulled the idea and metrics onto a whiteboard canvas so we could piece things together.
The first thing I asked them to do was add their story – the narrative through which they interpreted the metrics and the way their idea fit that picture.
As soon as the story was written down, we could all see that their idea felt right to them because they were telling just one possible story about what was going on in the world. The story was based on just one possible interpretation of the metrics, spiced up with some hidden assumptions.
Until they shared it, this story had been hidden. From us, but also from themselves. A hidden story secretly limits the ideas you can have. More perniciously, a hidden story secretly limits what you can even perceive in the world.
As they told their story, it became clear that they had also been paying attention to signals other than the metrics they shared: moments from usability testing sessions and results of past experiments. So we added those alongside the metrics to flesh out the Signals section, and labeled their big idea as one Option, giving us a map of their Signals, Stories and Options:
Now the real fun could begin.
I asked the team to think up some alternative stories. How else could they interpret the signals? What else might be going on at each step of the way? They started to add more stories to the whiteboard, which also led them to notice more signals. (Stay tuned for an example to make this all a little less abstract.)
As they added alternative stories, they spotted new options for ideas to try. Some were brand new. Some were ways of decomposing their first idea. They captured all these other ideas on the board too, fleshing out the range of options available.
After 30 minutes, the team had unstuck their thinking and emerged with a range of coherent new ideas to try.
Every time I’ve used this framework with a team, they’ve had new ideas that they couldn’t have had before. This isn’t magic, it’s just the way perception works.
Focus is always a trade-off. The more you focus on one thing, the more everything else is blurry or invisible. When you expand the range of stories you tell, you expand what you can perceive and the actions you can take.
When to use Signals > Stories > Options?
“…to have one choice is no choice; to have two choices is a dilemma; and to have three choices offers new possibilities.” – Virginia Satir
Here are some clues to look for:
2-ideas (stuck in debate and dilemmas): when you’re at loggerheads over option A vs option B, or arguing about what the data means. You have two hidden stories battling it out. What are they? What other stories might you be missing?
1-idea (silver bullets or forced alignment): when you’re pushing for that one “perfect” idea, seeking that one “perfect” metric (or experiment, test, method, ...), or trying to align on one “perfect” story about what’s happening. Look for at least 3 different signals, stories and options.
0-idea (confusion about where to even begin): when you have analysis paralysis, or you feel bewildered about what’s happening on your team or in the world. Don’t panic! Grab a whiteboard and work through the steps below …
How to use Signals > Stories > Options?
I’ve listed the steps below in a sequence, but you can change the order, like the team did above. You’ll often start with either metrics (Signals), or an idea (Option), or both. It’s rare to start with a story because that’s usually hidden at first.
1) Write Down Signals
Signals include metrics, but also observations of users and even your own feelings about an experience. You gather signals from observing and probing the world.
0.1% of website visitors clicked on the buy button for our product.
Remember: signals describe what you actually saw or heard, whereas stories are your interpretations for what a signal means. Your brain will leap to constructing a story. Observe it trying to explain away the signals: e.g. “Obviously the button isn’t clear enough!” or “I knew it! The designer messed up that web page!”
2 For each Signal, come up with at least three Stories
Don’t get trapped by telling just one story. Open yourself to other possibilities.
“Maybe the button isn’t clear or visible enough.”
“Or perhaps the way we explain our offering isn’t clear enough.”
“Or maybe our product concept just isn’t going to work.”
“Or perhaps our adverts are attracting the wrong audience.”
3 Add Options that you're able to try next
Some options you can tie directly to one story, others will just occur to you based on the range of stories you’re considering. As well as ideas for change, experiments and totally new concepts, you can also include options for actions that help you clarify your stories, like usability testing or gathering more metrics.
Usability test the page to check the clarity of the copy and the button visibility.
Ah! I think I might have a better way of describing the product.
Kill this product completely and move onto the next one.
Let’s test some different advert messaging.
4 Having reviewed all your Signals, Stories and Options, how do you feel?
Now you’ve considered more possibilities, you’ll probably find that there’s growing alignment around a few of the stories and options.
If one option sticks out, great – go with that. But I’d generally recommend trying a few options. By doing that, you’ll be able to gather more signals, which will help you hone in on the ideas that are really going to work.
Every time you go through this exercise, you can better trust your instincts because you’ve explored the situation more fully. Will you definitely be right? No. But you continually increase your ability to perceive the real world and the range of options available for you to try – and therefore your chance of success.
Thanks tofor help making this better. This piece is an update to an earlier article: Are you trying to leap directly from data to action? it’s not that simple. In the process of creating the Innovation Tactics deck, I expanded and simplified things and wanted to share it again.