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Promise, Vision, Scenario, and User Stories

by Jared M. Spool

People like to share their stories with me. Lately, many of these stories have been about their experiences on recent United Airlines flights. I’ve become a bit of a magnet for United Airlines stories.

Most of these stories are about how the airline failed them in some way. In their minds, they weren’t asking for much.

They wanted their flight to go exactly as the airline had promised. Yet, for whatever reason, it had gone awry. And then, due to issues that seem to be endemic inside the airline, it got worse. The outcome was frustration and disappointment.

Yet sometimes the stories have a happy ending. Frequently these stories start with something that went wrong, but then a helpful employee takes the reins and goes above and beyond. The problem isn’t just resolved, the employee treats the passengers great, and everything ends well.

These stories are about promises. Promises broken and promises exceeded.

If you listen closely to the stories, you can hear the underlying user experience interactions. You can hear where those interactions went well and where they failed. The promises can be the key to how you deliver better products and services.

We Can Design Our Users’ Promise Stories

If you speak with an Uber customer, they frequently have a glowingly positive story to tell. They talk about how simple it is to get a car. How easy it is when the trip is automatically charged to their credit card. How much nicer the ride is than a taxi, and how it’s often the same price or less.

This isn’t an accident. The Uber team has carefully designed the rider experience: The way the app works and the system that handles the payment. All of that was designed as an explicit experience. The Uber team made an intentional promise about great service, then designed every aspect of the system to fulfill that promise.

United Airlines’ promise stories are also designed, but not like Uber. Often, they are what we call an unintentional design. Unintentional design happens when the organization focuses on the business or the technology, but doesn’t focus on the customer or user experience. The result is an experience that emerges that often isn’t pleasant.

As an organization, we can choose if we want to be more like Uber or United Airlines. We can choose the promises our customers talk about and design the stories they’ll tell.

Promise Stories Represent the User’s Perspective

The promise story is what a user tells a friend. It focuses on their perspective of what happened. For a banking customer, that story might sound something like this:

“When I was young, I opened my first bank account. I’ve had it ever since. When I got my first job, I had my pay directly deposited into it. I remember it being easy to set up.

The bank figured out how much my regular expenses were and kept telling me how much money I could save, if I was good and didn’t act crazy with money. So I started following the bank’s advice and soon I had a pretty big savings.

When my kid was born, I told the bank I wanted to use that money for college. They told me how much I needed to save each week from my pay. Every time I’d spend more than I should, the bank would tell me, and I’d stop.

Now my kid is about to graduate from high school and just got accepted to a great college. Thanks to following the bank’s suggestion, I’ve got enough money to pay for her education. My daughter will be the first person in our family to go to college. I’m so proud of her and excited that I can afford it.”

While the storyteller doesn’t say specifically how the banking software was designed, it’s easy to imagine an interface that would fulfill the important elements of the story. That’s when the vision story comes into play.

Vision Stories Show How We’ll Deliver on the Promise Story

A vision story describes the experience the user has as it happens. Whereas the promise is what the user tells their friend after the experience, the vision is about the experience proper, or an important piece of it.

Here’s a vision story demonstrating the experience of how the system coaches the user on good financial practices:

“Soon after our banking customer, Mary, had her baby, she decided she wanted to start saving for her daughter’s college education. She went to the bank’s economic calculator to estimate the cost of tuition. This gave her the goal to achieve.

The bank set up a savings plan for her, using her history of direct-deposit income and fixed household expenses. Adjusting for the new expenses incurred with a new baby in the household, the bank system identified how much spending money she’d have each month after putting the college money aside.

It would be tight, but she could do it. As each month progressed, the bank system tracked her income and expenses. When her projected spending money started to get low, the system sent Mary a warning.There were a few months where she didn’t quite save as much as she would’ve liked, but most months she was putting aside enough money to keep her on track. The financial advice the system gave Mary was helpful and on point.

When her daughter graduated from high school, Mary had managed to save enough money for tuition at a good school. Mary found the system encouraging and optimistic. She was happy and proud to have saved the money.”

The vision story tells one way the design could deliver the promise story’s experience. The combination of the two are a powerful high-level view of why the team is building this design. As the team faces design decisions, they can ask which alternative will get them closer to their vision and promise stories.

Scenarios Provide Context for Designing the Promise and Vision

When the team researches their personas and collects scenarios for various users, they can frame those scenarios within the perspective provided by their vision story. The scenarios flesh out details needed to ensure all the little details that go into a great design are incorporated into their design.

Using their research, the banking system team might decide to focus on a persona, Dianne, who is a single mother living in a small apartment and works as an paralegal in a large law firm. The team would provide essential details, like her income, rent, and other fixed expenses. They’d also identify the expenses common with having a new baby.

Using this information as their basis, they could create a series of scenarios from the vision story. One scenario might describe the moment when Dianne decides to start saving for her newborn’s college expenses. Another scenario could describe a month when Dianne’s expenses are high enough that they start encroaching on her savings plan. A third scenario could describe how Dianne might use the financial calculators to make adjustments to her savings plan.

Each scenario ties directly back to the vision story, which, in turn, ties directly to the promise story. When the team starts working on features or design elements that fall outside of the existing scenarios, they can use the vision story to guide them back. (Or, if necessary, they can adjust the vision story to incorporate the new features.)

User Stories Connect Design to Development

The promise, vision, and scenario stories set the groundwork for developing a cohesive set of user stories. User stories are how Agile development teams choose what to focus on with in their sprints. They dictate what will get built.

Many teams use a similar format for their user stories: “As a <⁠role⁠>, I want to <⁠activity⁠>, so I can <⁠outcome⁠>.” These are easy to construct when we have solid scenarios to work with.

For example, our savings helper system can have users stories such as:

As a banking customer, I want to estimate how much money I’ll need for tuition in 18 years, so I can make a savings plan.

As a banking customer, I want to calculate how much I need to save each month, so I can start putting that money aside.

As a banking customer, I want to receive notifications when my discretionary spending money starts to run low, so I don’t put my funds for fixed expenses and my savings at risk.

The development team can use these stories to create the functionality to realize the promise of the design. Because the team put all the hard work in when creating the promise and vision stories, it’s easy to see how the user stories map development efforts directly to how the team will meet its promise to the user.

Hear It; Tell It

For this to work, everyone needs to know the stories as well as they know childhood stories like Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel. Every member of the team should easily recount the story, almost identically to how any other team member would tell it.

You can’t make this work by writing the stories and shoving them in a PDF on a server. They have to be frequently discussed amongst the team. They also have to be the ones telling the stories frequently. It’s the repetition of the stories that’ll make them come alive.

It’s not unusual for teams to hold design reviews. However, how often do those reviews compare the design to the scenarios behind them? What would happen if, in preparation for the review, everyone talked about the promise, vision, and scenario stories that are the basis for the design work?

Keeping the Stories Relevant

Giving the stories a constant presence throughout the project is essential to ensuring the promise stays top of mind. Drawing the connections between the work being done today and the promise story the team wants their users to tell will help keep the work relevant.

What stories are your users telling today? Simple interviews and other basic research can give the team a baseline on where the product or service sits in the hearts and minds of your current customers and users. From there, the team can establish where they’d like to be.

When a team integrates the promise of their design into their day-to-day design work, they are on the path to producing something great.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.