Building narrative arcs into products
Reminder: product onboarding is just storytelling
We’re all familiar with the term “plot” from elementary-school English class. In between writing cursive (which I was impressively bad at), we learned that the plot is the series of events that happen throughout a story. Pretty simple, yea? A term that is less talked about, and much more interesting, is “narrative arc”. This is the sequence of those individual events. It is what makes the plot come alive to the reader, the viewer, or in technology products, the user.
I’ve always been fascinated with early onboarding experiences. How long does it take a user to find value? How much friction does the user need to wade through? At Lyft, the driver onboarding process was tedious and time-consuming: it required an upfront investment in sharing personal information and vehicle information, going through inspections and background checks, and then waiting a handful of days to be approved. As you can imagine, most prospective drivers that showed interest from an advertisement or referral did not end up becoming drivers. They got lost in the build-up of the story.
Your product’s narrative arc can be broken into the same components as any story:
exposition: set up, background information, character introduction (submitting all the driver and vehicle information mentioned above)
rising action: the introduction of incredible value for the user (realizing how much money you can make as a Lyft driver)
climax: the magical product moment that brings your user joy (your first payout!)
falling action: finding comfort in your product (integrating driving into their weekly schedule and retaining)
The less exposition and rising action your product needs, the sooner you can hook the user. Onboarding drivers at Lyft is long and tedious. It required a large team of PMs, designers, marketers, local operations managers, and engineers to really optimize this flow and get users to the magical product moment. On the other hand, AI tools like ChatGPT, Midjourney, DALLE, and have little exposition and rising action (just write a prompt!) and can bring the magical moment to the user in seconds. This is what enables their insane user growth. Their focus will need to be on the falling action where users build expertise and comfort in the product and retain.
Interested in optimizing these narrative arcs in your product? Look no further than Ben William’s newsletter, PLGeek.
Raman at Rhetoric