Design scenarios—and how thrilled users ruin them

Scenario-based design is the best tool we have for designing great products that our customers will love, yet all too often I see scenarios that are completely useless. Like this one:

Joe works at a Fortune 500 company. On occasion, he needs to access Snarfbladt info for his customers. He discovered that the BladtBlaster 2000 allows him to request access to Snarfbladts from the BladtBlaster website. Joe is thrilled.

What’s wrong with this scenario? In short, everything. It’s not really a design scenario but a thinly veiled feature advertisement. Its only purpose is for the feature owner to say “somewhere out there is a customer who needs Snarfbladt info, so please don’t cut my feature.” Beyond that, it accomplishes nothing.

Unfortunately, most scenarios I’ve seen in practice follow this basic template.

Feature- and task-based design

To better understand the problems with this scenario, let’s quickly review the history of scenario-based design. In the early days of the software business, there was very little software with very little capability, so there was a feature arms race. Feature-based design boils down to creating products with long feature lists and the product with the longest list wins.

The problem with this approach is that user don’t do features, they do tasks. So while having a long list of features might initially appear impressive, having many complex, poorly coordinated features doesn’t help users get their work done. As an alternative, task-based design is all about helping users get their work done, with efficient, well designed end-to-end tasks.

Scenario-based design

Task-based design sounds pretty good, so what’s the problem? The problem is that great user experiences are designed for their target users and task-based design doesn’t consider target users at all. Add the tendency for people to design for themselves, and task-based design often leads to designs that developers love but customers hate.

Great design requires designing for a clear target. Enter scenario-based design. What’s a scenario?

A scenario describes a specific target user trying to achieve a specific goal or task in a specific context or environment.

Or more concisely:

Scenario = user + task + environment

So, the difference between scenario- and task-based design is the focus on users and their environment. Good designs are useful, but great designs are usable and desirable by providing what users need. Design scenarios are about excellence, not acceptability. You can get to acceptable through good task design.

Best of all, a solid set of scenarios creates a decision making framework. Brainstorming? Review your scenarios to give you inspiration. Choosing between two alternatives? Use the scenarios to help you decide. If you aren’t constantly referring to your scenarios throughout the design process, you’re doing it wrong.

Scenario analysis

What’s wrong with the original scenario? Let’s analyze each sentence:

Joe works at a Fortune 500 company. A meaningless attempt at providing a description of the user and environment. This tells you nothing about Joe—he could be anybody doing anything anywhere. Not a clear target.

On occasion, he needs to access Snarfbladt info for his customers. At least we have a goal/task.

He discovered that the BladtBlaster 2000 allows him to request access to Snarfbladts from the BladtBlaster website. Here’s the advertisement that suggests why Joe wants the feature. But there’s a first degree scenario-writing crime here: the scenario provides the solution. Who says Joe wants to request access from the BladtBlaster website? Aren’t there other possible solutions? By putting the solution in the scenario, no other solution is possible. (Unless, of course, you ignore the scenario.)

Joe is thrilled. Another first degree scenario-writing crime. See why below.

What’s wrong with having a thrilled user?

It might seem like a small detail, but ending a scenario with a thrilled user completely undermines the scenario. Why? Consider Everett’s Rule of Scenario-Based Design:

If success is shipping a feature, you aren’t doing scenario-based design! Rather, you’re doing feature-based design.

Instead of using scenario-based design to figure out how to thrill Joe, we have guaranteed “success” by simply shipping the feature.

But who says Joe is really thrilled? What specifically about the design is going to thrill him? That information should be in the scenario, but it’s not. By adding those three little words, we’ve devolved all the way back to feature-based design. We’re now doing scenario-based design in name only.

Let’s try again

Joe works in the shipping department of a large company, where he is responsible for the pickup and delivery of about 200 packages a day across 10 buildings. To maintain his aggressive schedule, he is always on the move, either with a cart or carrying a few packages underarm.

Between deliveries, Joe occasionally needs to access Snarfbladt info for his customers. The BladtBlaster 2000 allows him to access the Snarfbladts info instantly. Best of all, he can do it while walking, using a single hand with only three thumb strokes or less.

While the new scenario doesn’t have a specific solution or tell us that Joe is thrilled, we now have a pretty clear picture to help us visualize what might thrill him (as well as what might frustrate him.) It’s now up to us to design a solution that nails this scenario for Joe.

If you do only one thing:
Write scenarios that can be used as a decision-making framework. Provide details about users, goals, tasks, and environment. Don’t provide a solution because figuring out the best solution is the entire point of the scenario. And don’t declare that the user is thrilled because a feature exists. Provide the details for what it would take to thrill the user instead.

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