The Stories Apps Tell

Why are there no tales told of your user interface?

Two people sitting by a campfire · Photo by Lê Tân on Unsplash

In novels, in movies, in anthologies, in film festivals, in all the stories we tell: Where are all the apps? 

There is technology, of course. People talk about fixing it, using it, destroying it. They build ships and watch holograms. Technology is described as a means to an end.

The way we tell stories is representative of how we view the world. The details we share are the details that matter to us. A well-told story includes only the details that move the story forward. There are descriptions of the environment: the sterile clean room, the dark forest, the starry sky within our reach. There are descriptions of people, with as much or as little detail — gritty or handsome — as needed to bring them to life. Every detail contributes to the narrative, to enrich it, to drive it towards an end or a sense of a new beginning.

The apps we create as product designers, developers, or managers, the apps that we sweat and cry and toil over, aren't worth a mention. Our apps don't play a role. At best, they're props. Props without a name. They're present and may be used. But they're not part of the way the story is told.

Teams at technology companies dream of changing the world. Founders inspire individuals to join them in a chase of ideas. They write mission statements that describe a better, brighter future. But they don't change the world — not directly.

People change the world.

The stories we tell are about people, events, people affecting events. We tell stories of people who had ideas and chased them, and what came of the world when ideas became reality and reality as we knew it was changed. We describe the people and their ideas and the environments that made up their world.

We don't recount the phone model* or app version or screen or button. We paint a picture of the person who pressed the button, why, and what happened next. The button is a means to an end, a tool.

You create that tool. A tool that supports us while we're chasing after ideas. A tool that can be used, for good or for bad, that can help people to change the world, for better or for worse. And this is the tool that you're helping to bring into the world.

One hundred years from now, when people tell stories about the way the world changed, they won't talk about the product tour, the clean code, or the beautiful user interface. They will describe people, events, outcomes that lead to other outcomes. They will only remember and recall and tell stories about how the world changed.

Look forward. To the coming year and beyond. What stories are you helping to create? How are you helping to change the world?

* Some exceptions exist, of course, due to truly paradigm-changing new products that shape the future of an industry, but that's neither here nor there.