Illustrated user scenario development techniques

Darren Menachemson gave a presentation at the UX Australia conference a few weeks ago about storytelling in user (product/service interaction) scenario design and production.

It was a great presentation with some nicely illustrated comic strip-like examples of visually-represented user stories that had the flexibility to vary in time, context, detail and descriptive text as necessary without having to stick to a proforma. This allows designers to highlight key aspects of the interaction or go into more detail about a specific point or sequence while still maintaining the overall flow of the story.

Darren mentioned there are no rules to producing these sorts of artefacts, and I agree. But given that we’re talking about “stories” and “scenarios” I believe there are frameworks and guidelines we can draw upon to assist – however these resources should be used carefully to ensure that implementing structure doesn’t break the flow that is the beauty of this type of scenario depiction.

Story Theory

The first resource is not a single, popular framework so I’ve adopted a model that falls somewhere between the vague (and therefore useless) and rigid models to something that is adaptable and useful.

Story theory is about writing stories. The models for story theory describe how best to structure a story in order to provide enough depth, interest and momentum for the readers of that story. Much like any tutorial on photography – which is something I wrote about previously.

The core elements of plot and character development have been around since Aristotle and as our illustrated user scenarios are unlikely to be as complex as a multi-threaded 300-page fiction novel then those basic linear concepts are still applicable.

I would like to present an eight-step plot structure developed by Glen Strathy that is a useful guide to thinking about and planning the plot for your scenario:

  1. Story goal: What is the goal of the story? What is the point we want to make? With user scenarios is it some pain point in an interaction with a product or service? Or a pleasant interaction? Success or failure? What’s it all about? Why are you preparing this scenario?
  2. Consequence: What will eventuate if the goal is not achieved? Essentially – what is driving the user in the scenario to go through the actions. It’s unlikely to be a life-and-death situation like you might have in a fiction novel but there must be something that is driving the user.
  3. Requirements: The steps in a process the user must go through to achieve the goal. This will likely be different to the steps you might have in a UI spec. There will be some overlap if you’re describing the interaction with a user interface but think about what other things the user must do before, during and after that UI interaction to actually complete the whole process from beginning to end. This is where personas will come in handy.
  4. Forewarnings: “Forewarnings are the counterpart to requirements. While requirements show that the story is progressing towards the achievement of the goal, forewarnings are events that show the consequence is getting closer”. This is what gives the raw, real-world aspect to a user scenario. The scenario shouldn’t depict a controlled laboratory environment with perfect weather, zero stress and readily-accessible help. Once again, refer to the personas and remove the optimal parameters to make it real and relevant.
  5. Costs: These are things the user “might be forced to endure in order to achieve the story goal”. Possibly not an aspect you want to explore with a simple user scenario but think about it – it might be relevant, it might be important particularly for scenarios depicting failed or sub-optimal interactions.
  6. Dividends: “Dividends are not necessary for the goal to be achieved. They may be unrelated to the goal entirely. But they are something that would never have occurred if the characters hadn’t made the effort to achieve the goal”. Think about the secondary benefits of a product or service.
  7. Prerequisites: Self-explanatory, the order in which events must take place for the goal to be achieved. Think about what happens when that sequence is not followed and whether that results in a deviation or the consequence.
  8. Preconditions: Roadblocks. Obstacles. Once again, refer to the real-world aspect of the scenario. This is not taking place in a controlled laboratory.

It seems unreasonable to try and cram all this thinking into a five-frame illustrated user scenario – but you should at least consider the framework and where relevant draw about this preparatory thinking to ensure you deliver a holistic story that achieves its goal and delivers the message.

Use your personas to flesh out your character(s) and make them believable. Different parameters of a persona profile will influence how the story plays out.

Decide what the setting of the story is and describe it both through illustration and the story.

Remember that you can annotate and caption your scenario so you don’t have to be too subtle about it but don’t inadvertently prioritise aspects of the story with black-and-white text captions that detract or confuse.

STAR

The second framework is a bit more defined. It’s a four-step format called Situation, Task, Action, Result (STAR) and is generally known for its use in recruitment by interviewers and job applicants to describe a work experience case study.

It’s certainly a simpler model than the story theory discussed above but could result in describing aspects of a scenario rather than a sequence that flows, and without the passage of time there is no interaction.

STAR is quite basic. Describe the situation, the setting of the scenario. What task or goal does the user have to perform? What action does the user actually perform? And what was the result of that action? Are they successful in performing the task? If not, what are the consequences.

Hopefully these two resources might give you some ideas when preparing your illustrated user scenarios and user stories. As I mentioned before, Darren is right – there are no rules. But it’s important to consider all these different aspects of telling the story so the audience can relate to the story, can feel empathy for the user depicted in the scenario and understand the context, the challenge and can explore different ways of looking at a product or service.

Quotes from and references to how-to-write-a-book-now.com used with permission.

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One thought on “Illustrated user scenario development techniques”

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