Daniele Franco, Product Design Director at Reachdesk, shares how storytelling is a core skill for leaders in inspiring their teams and launching successful products.
Holly Camponez: My guest today is Daniele Franco, who has a wealth of experience managing global design teams for international tech companies and holds multiple post-graduate degrees in the humanities, philosophy, and strategic marketing. So let’s start with a philosophical question right off the bat: what is design to you?
Daniele Franco: There’s a quote that says, “Design is the art of shaping a context to make it functional for a human being.” This means that everything is an act of design, the most interesting part being that you need to know the needs of human beings to create good design. Design is broader than the act of crafting: it’s also the act of thinking.
HC: So what brought you personally to a career in product design specifically?
DF: My background is in human sciences, anthropology, art, and poetry, so I wasn’t expecting to go into product design, but when I started working at a startup toward the beginning of my career, I discovered that user experience requires an understanding of human needs and what it means to put the user at the center of your product. So while it wasn’t what I expected to do, it was a natural evolution of my studies.
HC: Like you, my background isn’t design; it’s literature and theatre. One thing I think about often in my work and that you also speak of frequently is storytelling. How does that play a role in digital design, and how does it impact companies trying to reach their audiences?
DF: Storytelling today is a must. There’s so much digital noise that if you know how to tell a good story, you have an advantage and a differentiation with your audience. For me, it’s also important as a leader to inspire my team by telling them their story, as well as to tell a compelling story to stakeholders about your team, its milestones, its purpose, etc. The art of storytelling is telling the right thing at the right moment to the right audience, and it’s actually a technique you can study and improve.
For brands, storytelling is a way to explore what your value is, which starts with the story of your problem – that’s also a value. And that’s what creates audience connection, because both the brand and the audience feel aligned and able to continue the story together.
HC: I’m going to ask you something I’ve been personally wrestling with: do you ever feel that people – whether that be users, stakeholders, or the business – are coming to a strategy session already with a story they want to tell, and that there are maybe moments we need to resist storytelling, step outside of it, and put away assumptions? Do you find that our innate urge toward narrative, which can be so impactful, can also be a liability in those moments?
DF: That’s an amazing observation because we can have a lot of narratives, but in the end, in terms of digital products, the only narrative that makes sense is the one that comes from the point of view of the user. Sometimes we build stories where the protagonist is the business or its revenue. This is important, but design needs to tell the user’s story.
I believe the best stories are those that find common ground. So you start with the stories of the business, the tech team, and the customers, and all of these dialogue to find commonalities and eventually release the product and its story.
HC: When it comes to cultural differences, language differences, and the innate things we believe about life and reality and what it means to be human, how do you navigate that in a world that’s becoming increasingly global? What do companies need to keep in mind?
DF: You do need to keep in mind the importance of the cultures, because though design is an act of shaping a context, sometimes contexts are different. Building a product in Brazil will be different than building a product in Argentina or the U.K. or the U.S., so it’s important to localize products based on their launch destinations.
You also need to be aware of different cultures when you’re leading a team. In Argentina, for example, people are very straightforward, whereas in Brazil the communication is softer, so you need to respect the cultural environment to get the best from your team. When it’s about culture, being open and learning are key.
HC: Do you have any tips for welcoming a team member in a new country or launching a product in a new country?
DF: I remember onboarding someone from Mexico when I worked in Brazil, and to avoid her feeling like the odd one out, we decided to “build a brand” together so she could bring the Mexican culture to our team. It was really about building informal moments and inviting her to share topics of cultural interest, like festivities in her city. She was opening our eyes to a new culture, and it was great for both her and us to have that diversity. We felt like we were traveling to Mexico even though we were still in Brazil.
HC: It almost sounds like you’re talking about introducing a new character into the story of your team. This storytelling framework is something you talk a lot about, and I’d love to hear how you came to think this way!
DF: My passion is storytelling, so I see the world and my work as stories. Each story has a protagonist, a climax, a challenge, collaborators, etc. Also, stories are very logical and put things in order, so it may be a bias, but it’s helpful to frame the world this way. Leadership is also about empowering by becoming aware of the differences in each person and extracting their best. So if you know one character is different from the other, so to speak, you can draw on their strengths to resolve the conflict you’re facing.
HC: In thinking about the story of your team, how do you avoid making individual people villains in that story?
DF: Let me start by saying that it’s also a bad idea to create personal heroes. You have to build a common hero, which is the design team itself. Then the villain is the problem or challenge the team is facing at any given time, which might be visibility, or how to raise the bar for a product, or something else. Removing personal roles helps you avoid ego fights. Creating a common hero keeps everyone on board.
HC: Thinking over the story of your career, was there any one moment that was a climax for you?
DF: I have something very fresh in my mind. We work remotely, but recently we had people from countries all over coming to Lisbon to meet as a company. I had the chance to present the design team in front of stakeholders, which was a milestone for me and my team. It was so powerful to share the work we’ve been doing together for six months.
HC: Congratulations! I know Reachdesk is growing rapidly – is there anything you’d like to share about the work you’re doing there?
DF: We’re a relatively new company with a lot to do in terms of improving our UX, UI, usability, and look and feel, so our challenge is to give the “characters” tools and confidence and to raise the bar of the product itself. We need to set the tone of the experience, and to do that, we need to solidify our processes and define our star metrics. Our roadmap for the end of the year is to be the team that sets the tone of the experience, meaning that we tell the stakeholders the product we want to offer in five years. It’s really about setting a vision.
HC: Outside of leading your team, you also mentor a lot of young designers. What is a common piece of advice you find yourself giving?
DF: In the beginning, new designers have a lot of fears, for example, about switching careers. At this stage, it’s about identifying the fear, working through it, and empowering the person by showing the long-term benefits.
HC: What is the best approach to fear when it comes to personal development?
DF: Fear is an amazing tool if we know how to use it. For example, before I joined Reachdesk, which is English-speaking first, I had a lot of fear because my strength – storytelling – is all about words, and I need language to inspire my team, especially since I’m not a designer by background. But eventually, this was one of the reasons I joined Reachdesk – I wanted to prove to myself I could do it. So if we can use fear as an engine for what we want and exercise vulnerability to improve, it’s a tool. We simply can’t allow our fear to block our growth, because this leads to regret.
HC: It sounds like in your case, fear also illuminated and pointed you back toward what you love: using words to inspire others. You mentioned that you’re not coming at design from a visual or UI perspective per se; what are the skills that a good designer must bring to the table, and how do they contribute to building an organization?
DF: Today, it’s about problem solving. We’re faced with complex global problems, so the common skill each specialist must have is being able to understand complexity and think strategically. This skill is also at the core of design systems.
HC: Any final thoughts you’d like to share with other leaders?
DF: At this moment in time, design often struggles to gain a position of importance within the broader company and to be part of business decision-making. My advice to design leaders is to be more business-driven without losing our core value, which is bringing human beings – the client – to the center of our decisions. We can still do that while working harder to think strategically and articulate our ideas, which will make design more central.
HC: Thanks for the great insights today, Daniele. I loved hearing your thoughts on centering the voice of the user, speaking to the business, creating the story of your team, and more!
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Holly Camponez is the Director of Design & Creative Services at Avenue Code. She is passionate about the potential of design thinking to create a positive impact both socially and economically. Holly lives in Northern California with her husband, son, and three cats.