Chicago Camps

Donna Lichaw at Prototypes, Process & Play 2017 (Podcast)

This podcast features Donna Lichaw, Author of ​The User’s Journey​, and her Presentation, “Leading with Story” from the design leadership conference Prototypes, Process & Play on August 10th, 2017.

Prototypes, Process & Play presentation podcasts are sponsored by Balsamiq – with Balsamiq Mockups, anyone can design great software.

Donna Lichaw – Presentation

Author of The User’s Journey

Donna Lichaw is the author of The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products That People Love. Through her writing, speaking, and much loved Storymapping Workshop, Donna guides startups, non-profits, and global brands in optimizing their digital products and services by providing them with a simplified way to drive user engagement. Utilizing her ‘story first’ approach, she helps organizations define and refine their value proposition, transform their thinking, and better engage with their core customers. Prior to her career in technology, she refined her talent for storytelling and narrative development as an award-winning documentary filmmaker.

For more, keep up with Donna at or on Twitter as @dlichaw.

Leading With Story

Getting others to listen to you is hard. Whether those people are your team members, peers across your organization, the c-suite, or a board up above, you need to inspire them and move them to action to be most effective at your job.

Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways you can get people to listen to you and to move them to action. But in a business context, the stories that you tell are only as effective as the stories that you build… and get others to build with you. We’ll look at how story drives some of the most successful product and service-driven organizations out there. Learn how story sparks systemic design thinking, collaboration, and innovation that enables you to more effectively build successful products and services that people get excited to work on… and use.

Presentation Transcript

Please note:

Podcast transcript below.​ Please note: Transcription was recorded live; there may be errors (typographical and contextual), as well as omissions or other content gaffes.

​Additionally,​ there was microphone feedback that happened in the room from time to time, and we did our best to minimize it in the podcasts. We apologize for any disruptions to your listening experience that this may cause.

Donna Lichaw:

A few years ago I was the head of product at a startup. And I was really exciting to be working at it. The company was in a health and fitness space. We were building something to do with helping people learn how to exercise. The startup was a company that was a success and the product was a disaster. And I was excited to fix this thing. It’s what I had been doing for years. And what I realized was that I had finally gotten what I wanted, which was a seat at the table. I got people to have faith in me. Someone who didn’t have an engineering background, didn’t have a business background could be the head of product somewhere. But what I didn’t realize was just having that seat at the table doesn’t actually mean that people are going to listen to you. I mean I had a track record of developing successful products and I knew how to do it. And I had these things that I wanted to do like go out and talk to users and do some research, prototype, and so on and so forth. And every time I wanted to do something, I was met with resistance essentially of reasons why we couldn’t do those things.

And I felt like I didn’t get any work done. Well, it turned out what I needed was not just that seat at the table. But what I needed was a story. A story to guide us. To inspire us. And move us forward. And in order to understand how this works, you need to understand how a story works. Essentially every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And on the sideline you have the narrative hook. It’s the structure of human behavior, essentially. And every story starts out with some kind of a hero. And there is something that they want to do or somewhere they want to go. And they are kick started. They go on the journey to try to fix that problem. They get very close. They go through a series of trials. They almost got it. And three quarters of the way through something gets in the way and makes us wonder will they or won’t they succeed? If they don’t succeed, that’s a tragedy and that’s sad. Very sad. In our world, we’re not in the business of creating tragedies for anybody. So we’re concerned with what happens next. There’s the climax. You’re heroic. And the story has to come to some kind of a close. And all is good in the world.

Now the story that scientists tell us is one of the oldest and most powerful ways that humans have to communicate with the world around us. The story is not just for adventure tales. Imagine you’re sitting around the fire and Lucy wants to go down to the river alone. And her parents say Lucy, don’t go down to the river alone. It’s dangerous, just don’t do it.

So I have a toddler at home. I can tell you that does not work.


So what they said is tell a story. My toddler is 2 years old. A few more years, they’ll get it. A story is what grabs us. You can tell the story about the time she went down to the river and fell in the river and so forth and so on, so don’t go down to the river alone.

What scientists tell us is story has developed as a way to get people to communicate and get people to listen to us. And on the flip side, if you’re Lucy hearing that story, the story high lie makes sense of what you’re hearing. We’re constantly, our brains are constantly using these thought planks and trying to seek them out so we can fully understand what’s going on. Whether we’re watching a movie or listening to a story or walking down the street or going into this conference room. That is a story.

What this has to do with the things that we build is when you consider a phone, for example, thinking about a phone and ultimately using a phone can be a story. So think about the Palm Trio. I loved it. It could do so many cool things. You had access to a calendar, you could play games. It was the coolest thing ever. But what we now have is a standard device that looks like this. It’s an iPhone. About 10 years old. It looks very similar to the Trio. But what the two devices have is not just different features and functionalities that differentiate them. If anything, the Trio had way more features and functionality than the iPhone. They should have won if that’s what it gave us. But what it gave us was the story, a concept. And what the iPhone had was a compelling story. A compelling story that would grab us and make us want to try using the phone. It may have taken a couple years before we tried it. And eventually buy an iPhone or something similarly modeled after an iPhone.

The story of the Way Apple built the iPhone was a story of communication and a story that was about magic. That climax was about magic. This is what the company stood behind was the best way to communicate. And it would work like magic.

This is not just a marketing tactic. But this is something that people had to experience each and every time they used that first iPhone or else it would have fallen flat and not moved on that promise.

What I learned at the startup was to build something like this. What I needed, I started to realize, was that story. And so I did what I thought made sense to me at the time, which is I went out to my CEO, the founder of the company, and I just straight up asked him what was the story. And what I learned was this. This is Walt Disney, presenting an image of what would become Disney Land. And he presented a story of about what it should be. It was about his two daughters. In this photograph they’re riding a merry‑go‑round in Los Angeles. And I’m going to let him explain in his own words what the story of Disney Land was.

Let’s get some volume going on here. All right. He’s explaining it.


When my daughters were young, I decided – We started out. There was a merry‑go‑round. And I would sit there and watch the girls do all these things. Sitting on a bench. I thought there could be some kind of amusement that the parents could enjoy with their family together. That’s how Disney Land developed. It took a period of maybe 15 years to develop. Started with an idea, threw it away, started all over again. Eventually it developed into what you see today as Disney Land. But it all started as a daddy with two daughters who thought he could take them somewhere where he could have some fun, too.

Donna Lichaw:

This is a very clear story. This is what I wanted from my company and CEO. That’s not what I got. What I got was more like this. This is the former producer of This American Life, the radio show. A narrative wizard. He could tell a story like nobody’s business. And a few years ago he created a startup, a pod casting company. And he needed to get funding. He went out to Silicon Valley. He thought it was some kind of a tech company. He wanted tech funding. And he tries to pitch the idea of this business to an investor. He’s talking to a Silicon Valley investor person. There’s Silicon Valley language, by the way, disclaimer.


Chris. I believe there is a huge opportunity to specifically do the developing –

Donna Lichaw:

What’s going on? Hold on a sec. Whoops. I’m going to show you my wallpaper for a second while we play this.


I believe there is a huge opportunity in August specifically to really do the – making this work. I got more confused. I realized despite the enthusiasm, I’m still somehow – the opposite. All right.


How are you going to make money doing this?


So you make money in combination. So the three major streams of revenue. – Successful kickstarter project.


The outline of your story. If I were calling Uber right now and it says it’s going to be here in 2 minutes, and that’s all the time you had, what are you doing?


So I am making a network of digital pod casts that will –

Donna Lichaw:

And it goes on for a while after this, by the way. So someone who knows the mechanics of a story. He asks him did you outline this? He said yes I did. He knows how this works and he still can’t do it. That’s what I was getting at the startup. Not only that, but this is what I was getting from other people. Hit/miss. Revenue model. That turned into me after time. So imagine turning into that manager who is trying to get people excited to work on something. We’re revolutionizing this and that. And it gets messy.

So what we eventually decided to do was take an idea from the Disney playbook and go back to the drawing board. I got my master’s at Northwestern on lakeshore Drive, very excited to be back in Chicago. And what I learned in school over and over again is you have to think big when doing your story. Get out of the weeds and go to the wall. This is Disney in his studio department that he founded at Walt Disney studios. Early on in the days the shorts didn’t have stories. They were 3‑minute shorts and people loved them. They were silly. But Disney realized if you want to engage people you have to have a story. He started building narrative into the cartoons and it worked. It really grabbed people’s attention. Animation got so complex that it went from 3 minute shorts to 2‑hour films and he had to create a story department. What this helped them do was get out of the weeds, think big picture and think about the impact that they were going to have on people, on the event.

Now sometimes people come up with a story about inspiration about Disney Land. And sometimes he would work with his team in workshops. So this is what I set out to do with my team. What I ended up doing at the startup is I created a separate story team. Key players. Management. Our COO was involved. And we tried to think like film makers and map out a story of what our product was. And if this makes no sense, that’s okay, because it was a disaster. We could not figure out what this was.

What we did come out with at these meetings, however, was a few things. One, we had goals at the end of the story. We realized we had business goals that were tangible. Increase revenue, increase brand awareness. And we didn’t know how to meet those goals. What we also realized is what we didn’t have at the end of this story arc was clear user goals. We had no idea what our users needed to do. What we did have were questions, however. We had all these questions that we needed to answer so that we could complete the story.

So what we left with were topics. How could we answer these questions? Let’s go out and do put out interviews, put out surveys, do field research. Get better quantitative data collection going. All things that I had once been asking for, trying to do on my own, and get pushback on were so many things that the storyteam – they wanted to do it.

So what starting to think like storytellers did for us was turn us from product development to developers, essentially stories. We suddenly had a mission. We had something that we wanted to focus on and something we wanted to figure out. What was the story of our product going to be?

Now eventually we figured out what it was. Originally it was something about teaching you how to exercise. But eventually we figured out it was more like it was going to help you get fit and stay fit. Which it might found very similar, but it’s two very different stories and two very different ways you’re going to execute strategies to build those stories.

And once we had figured this out, what we needed to do next was go build the story. So when you’re a company like Apple, and I mention this a lot, not because I’m part of the cult of Apple or the cult of Steve Jobs, but so you can see how the story runs through the DNA of a story‑driven company. When you’re a company like Apple where there is a clear vision of what the story is, it flows through everything like TV advertisements. The Super Bowl came out, the ad, when the iPhone came out, and it only had one word “Hello.”

Unboxing. You have Johnny pontificating a lot. The entire lab studying at how people react to how people unbox things. There is an art to everything. It’s seamingly significant. I want you to see how Steve Jobs a little key task in the keynote presentation when he introduced the iPhone to the world. This is part of the climax in the sequence. And if you read through this, it’s really, really short. But watch what he does.


And there’s an application here. And it’s coming up. And it shows – and I’m going to go to where we are right now. And here we are. Boom!

Donna Lichaw:

That’s it. I hope you didn’t blink. This is Google Maps. It’s the flagship product. It’s something Apple developed using Google data. And what he is saying is how a story, communication, thinking, the world around you, working like magic, if you access the world at your fingertips and how it would work. He emphasizes it as he is talking in first person. He’s putting himself in the user’s shoes and doing this. And there’s a little pin drop with a little bit of elasticity and balance.

If you come from film, you know that elasticity and balance is something labor over. You spend hours and hours making that perfect. It has to move a story forward. If it doesn’t, then you take it out.

So what we here is a story flowing through even in tiny little microseconds of how a product works.

Now going back to Disney, this is something that is especially apparent in a lot of what they do today. Think, for example, – it’s something that you might have used if you’ve been to Disney park. You may have heard about it. It came about with people saying wearables, really cool. Let’s go get a wearable! Go, go, go, wearables. It started with the park. It was Disney World in Florida. What happened several years ago is they were having trouble moving people through the park, which meant not only was the customer experience was impacted. People weren’t spending as much money in the park or spending as much money before going to the park where you can buy all the fancy packages. So it was something that Disney World wanted to figure out because they needed to fix this revenue problem.

So she did was she put together a team that they called The Fab Five. And they were meant to figure out what was wrong with Disney World. What are the pain points? Why is this not working? And how could it be better? And what they ended upcoming up with a device with that you could skip the lines and unlock your hotel room door. And you get it on the website and there’s an unboxing photo, like Apple, and you come home and get your photos. It was a full end to end piece with what was going to be an ultimate journey with Disney World.

Now it’s not just what the team came up with, but it’s how they came up with it, which goes back to what Disney said not just with the movies and the stories being created for Disney Studios. He took his favorite story people from Disney Studios and he created a little startup on the lot of Disney Studios and he created a story team for Disney Land. They mapped out each and every key story and scenario that mattered for the park. And often it was him improvising. I’m a dad and I’m going to get peanuts. I’m doing this and now I’m doing this. This is a tradition that he enabled others to do. And this is a tradition that Disney still does today. That Fab Five what they did is they took over a sound stage and they recreated Disney World like on a sound stage. And every key flow. Now I’m going to do this and now I’m going to do this. And pinpointed all of the problems that were blocking people’s engagement and enjoyment with the park.

And what they were doing in working this way was not just assessing an experience and how to improve it and coming up with cool ideas, but they echoed the story every step of the way so that key players would start echoing the story themselves. And say things like you get to be a hero. A meet and greet up front and then you can experience the park more broadly and take advantage of more rides. We see it echoed that story of what the team was building.

So create something like this. Let’s map the story out, figure everything out. And bring everyone along on the journey. And what we did is we had a sound stage. We had conference rooms and white boards. So we did improv, as well. Sometimes we would bring customers in and improv that way. And we sketched every possible key scenario that you would ever use the app for or engage the service. And we would assess things like gaps, strengths, weaknesses, things like serial narratives and soap opera, how this could go on and on over time. And what we ended up realizing after a while was that in order to fully realize the story that we saw the app could be, we had to redesign the app from scratch. And it was that kind of thing, redesign the entire business model, reconfiguring how the entire business worked. And it would also affect when you start to work on an enterprise product. For H.R. people eventually training their staff. And this is one of my goals of product development, which is redesign. I’ve been through redesign. And let’s do small incremental refinement. We couldn’t do that. We didn’t have that story of failing. And now we had a story. We had to go drastic.

In order to do that, we had to get buy‑in, not just from the story team, but from the CEO and from our board. And so at this point we had had enough of an idea of what the story was that they were curious. They were scared. But they just wanted to see more. What we ended up creating for them was a simple prototype. This isn’t the project, but it was similar to this. A simple prototype. It would illustrate the project. Suddenly they saw what a fitness training could look like and they understood how it could work. And they started turning it into their journey. Oh, I could see so and so using this. I want to see more. And they would start asking for more prototypes over time. We started testing it with real users of course. Because ultimately the story has to be in fact for them. And what we found is we would start getting comments like this. For a fitness app it’s the story that we have envisioned. We started getting more comments like that, as we started observing people using the app, we realized we were on the right track. So that by the time we actually redesign everything, rebuilt everything, and relaunched those goals that we had outlined early on in the project, we realized hey we want to increase revenue. We want to increase engagement and a few other things. We ended up meeting those goals and exceeding those goals. Because the story was something that engaged our customers and it was a journey they were more likely to complete. It evolved over time. And this was a relaunch. And we saw that we have measurable, tangible business effects on the business with this story.

Now this is a startup where, you know, it’s like all right let’s risk the entire business. It’s a big deal for people involved. But it’s not huge. It’s like several millions of dollars people would be out if it didn’t work out. But imagine being with Disney and realizing that this magic thing that you wanted to build, the structure at Disney was so huge and complex, that if they build the structure around this Magic Band thing, they were going to need an investment of a billion dollars. They had a story and they needed a billion dollars.

So what they ended up doing is that sound stage where they had workshopped and we had created all these scenarios and figured out how this would work, they flew the board out and they brought them along on a journey of what Disney World could be. It was a two‑hour long scripted walk‑through play essentially where each of the board members got to understand and experience what it would be like to experience a different kind of Disney World.

Ask what they ended up doing by presenting the story in this way was getting buy‑in from people who could not be part of the development process. So those people who were part of the core team, when they’re involved in building a story, they own it, they champion it, they’re really into it, people up above, they can’t be a part of that.

So presenting a story sometimes, and sometimes Disney did it. You can actually get buy‑in and you can get people like Cheryl Sandburg who is on the board of Disney saying things like apparently when she went through this walk‑through, she got so excited. She said can I use this when I my kids get lost? I need this magic band when my kids get lost. This is something that excites people.

And Steve Jobs got reports of what it was like and he was really excited about the possibilities of what you could do here.

The board did okay. The $1 billion investment to build this thing. But what you see is they not only approved but they moved to own. Cheryl Sandburg, there’s rumors now that she’s next in line to be the CEO of Disney. It’s not only buy‑in, but you take people on that journey with you. And they get excited and see themselves as a user going on adventure. They want to go on the journey with you.

It does come back to the users and the customers. You get people with the magic band saying things like it works like magic. How cool is that? That’s an actual quote. I don’t know if someone actually said that, but that’s an actual quote.

You can order dinner with the magic band and you don’t have to take out your wallet to pay. This buy‑in that happens, it ends up being systemic when you have that story guiding people. The thing with that story, it also has the tendency to ostracize. When you look at the original Disney Studios, the original Disney story people, there were revolts. Early on people were not included in the story or in the story developments. So eventually what happened with Disney Land is that story was something everyone had to be a part of it. Even if they weren’t creating it, they at least had to understand the story. Now if you work at Disney, it’s part of your onboarding package. You get early on the Disney story. It’s literally spelled out.

There are way to include people in your story when they can’t actually build a product with you that still creates buy‑in which is important for leadership, which is what we did at the startup.

I had this story team and we realized what do we do. And what started happening around the company is people heard about the meetings we were having. They could see us. Conference rooms had glass walls. And they were really not happy with the secret meetings.

And they were starting to get ancy with what’s going on. Sometimes we would have to present the story to people and have presentations and explain things to people. But I had to give people a chance in being a part in creating this story.

The sales team, once they realized what the story was, they realized oh my God, I could create scripts for our phone calls and marketing. They didn’t know what they were selling before.

And in this case, the prototype that I showed you, I didn’t design it or invent it or anything. Just like Steve Jobs didn’t invent the iPhone. It was something with the story that the engineers who worked on the original iPhone got was that Steve wanted a device so he could read e‑mail on his phone. That’s the spec that they got. But they understood the story. Because that story of communication and magic is one that Steve told earlier in other contexts. They got it. They knew what they were building.

And the prototype, I grabbed the lead engineer, the lead designer, and I told him what the story was. They went and built this. And that’s what got buy‑in. Because now people up above loved the idea and so many people below were championing the story and quite frankly championing me because they wanted them to start succeeding. They wanted them to.

It was turning people into heroes of their own story. The lead engineer, he ended up going to work at Apple after this. And our lead designer who created this prototype e‑mailed me yesterday and said hi and he said he read my book and was giving my book to someone else. This is how a story works. You can think of leadership as top down. Other people listen to me. But more likely it’s, you know, managing back up, which happens a lot. It’s managing out. It’s managing down. And when you have a story flowing through the system like this, it enables the system to function more clearly. The story suddenly, it gets the most joints working and it gets stuff to happen. It engages the brain. But all of those scientists tell us that the human brain, it does for humans in the organization, as well. Because when you have a story to focus on, whether you’re finding a story or building a story, it gives so many people in the organization an idea of the journey that they can go on so that they are suddenly building the story with you, which is why the key to using story in a story‑driven organization is not just to build the story or find the story, but ultimately it’s to enable others to build the story with you. Which is how I eventually figured out that that seat at the table that I was excited to get that I didn’t think I could keep, it was once I had a story it made sense that I was at the table. I was just enabling other people to find our story, to build our story, ultimately to measure our story, and then to teach others to do the same. And that’s how not just I became an effective leader, but we became a story‑driven organization.

So next time you work on anything, I want you to ask yourself not questions like, you know, what kind of process are we using, are we going to do this first, are we agile, questions that we’re hearing all the time. Those are important questions. But I want you to ask first and foremost “What is the story” and to do so, you need to ask “Who is your hero, what is their goal, and how do we make the story happen?” For anyone involved. For users, your customers, for you, and ultimately for everyone you work with in the entire organization.

If you would like to learn more about how to effectively build story‑driven organizations my new book is out new. We have a discount code that you can use for Rosenfeld media. It’s on the little schedule sheets out front on the table. And I think we’ve got some time for questions.



Questions for Donna? Anybody want to just see me throw the box? Come on, it could be a free year of conferences. If there are no questions – Hold on. I’m going to give this to you.


We’re trying to create we call it standard operating manual. I’m trying to create a how‑to of what we do on a daily basis. And what to do with it. So how do I transition that to this narrative?

Donna Lichaw:

Yes. That’s a great question. The question is how you find a narrative of your product. We’re trying to teach people how to enter –


Things like data entries.

Donna Lichaw:

Okay, data entries.


It’s not really a story.

Donna Lichaw:

She said it’s not really a story. But financing is a story. At the time I was working on this I was also teaching a class. It was a night class. And I had a lot of contact hours with my students. It was after work. I really wanted to fall asleep in my class. And what I started doing was preparing all of my lessons with story arcs. I was pretending each class was a film. And teaching is a story. So what we’re doing is a student, you put them in the hero’s shoes and you have to figure out what is their goal and what they want to accomplish, and how do I take them on a journey to accomplish it. So what you do is very similar to any story in the beginning. Something that they have to do. And they don’t tell you what the problem is. You need to check the data in the system. First you do this and then you do that. And it’s more interesting over time. And it’s something you can test with people, as well. So even if it’s just an instruction manual, you can make sure the story is in fact. Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s absolutely a story.

And this is great. He had a story. So anything. Anything that you want to take people through is a story.


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