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Designing with Scenarios: Putting Personas to Work

by Kim Goodwin
on July 29, 2011

This article is an excerpt from the podcast that Adam and Kim recorded after her
virtual seminar, Designing with Scenarios: Putting Personas to Work. You
can hear the full podcast or read the transcript on the podcasts page.

Adam Churchill: Is it a true that scenarios only work if you have
have data-driven personas? Have you seen scenarios used effectively, even if the
research can’t be funded?

Kim Goodwin: Great question. I think that you can do scenarios without data.

It’s better to have data if you can because it has a few benefits. One is,
you’re more confident that you’re getting to a good answer. And it makes it a
lot easier to make design decisions because instead of wondering how a person
would react, you actually know. This is assuming you know them well.

Think of it like you’re planning an event, or buying a gift for someone
close to you, versus, say, buying a gift for your child’s teacher or an
acquaintance you don’t know well.

The first one is a whole lot easier than the second one, and data gives you
the confidence that you’re doing the right thing. Secondly, the data helps you
persuade stakeholders. It’s not you, the designer, who is
probably pretty low on the totem pole, saying this is how it
should be. It’s you, the designer, channeling the users and saying, “Look, based
on our data, here’s how people think and act, and so here’s why this is a great

So, data is best, but not always necessary. I definitely do scenarios without
data. A few weeks ago, I was working with some subject matter experts on an idea
for a medical device. Four of us sat in a room, and we didn’t have data. The
point was to get to some design ideas fairly quickly, so that they could explore
the feasibility of this idea.

It didn’t make a lot of sense for us to go get data, and we said, “OK, let’s
build some shared assumptions about the kinds of users we’re talking about.” We
came up with what I call provisional personas, which are like sketchy
representations of what we think the usage patterns and goals are. Then we
used those to create scenarios just as we normally would.

Regardless of the absence of data, scenarios are a design tool you can always
use. You’re just going to be making decisions and communicating with a bit less
confidence when you don’t have data. But the tool still works great.

Adam: Can you explain the difference between scenarios and a storyboard?

Kim: A scenario is the story, it’s the script. It’s the words that describe the
action. A storyboard, on the other hand, is the graphic depiction of that
action. For instance, the movie extras on your DVDs or your Blu-ray where they
show scenes building or sketches stuck on the wall. That’s what I mean when I
talk about a storyboard.

It’s essentially at a thumbnail level, but the key to storyboarding is the
depiction of sequence over time, right? A storyboard can be a very rough napkin
sketch. If you’re talking about a high-level service design, like getting
through the airport, you might have stick figures walking through physical
space. If you’re doing just a screen-based design, you probably won’t storyboard
your first pass at the scenario because it’s so high-level, you’re not really
getting into solutions.

But then as you start to get into more detail in design, you’re going to keep
storyboarding at the whiteboard, drawing multiple instances of a screen and how
it changes over time. As you start to express that design and share it with
stakeholders, you can have storyboards at that wireframe level, where they’re
pretty much content and control complete, but you haven’t really incorporated
any visual design.

You can still use that storyboarding approach down at the pixel level where
you’re showing changes in screen state over time like putting them in a
PowerPoint presentation or something similar and flipping through them. It’s
similar to keyframing, like they do in the movies. So storyboarding is
essentially a sequence of pictures that tell a story, and the scenario is the
text of the story itself.

You can hear the full podcast interview with Adam and Kim, and you and your team can listen to Kim’s entire webinar on Designing with Scenarios: Putting Your Personas to Work.

About the Author

Kim Goodwin

Nobody has more experience bringing personas and scenarios to design teams than Kim Goodwin. Much of the modern thinking about using personas and scenarios in design came from her time while she was VP of Design at Cooper. And her book, Designing for the Digital Age, is a treasure trove for anyone who wants to ramp up their design skills.

Share Your Thoughts With Us

What’s your experience with scenarios? Are you using data when developing them? Share
your thoughts with us on the UIE Brain Sparks blog.