Storyboarding out the human drama within

It’s typical in product development to write “user stories” & “use cases” based upon a self-identifying rubric meant to suggest a whiff of empathy: “As a geologist analyzing rock patterns, I need…” Of course it’s a pale shade of what true empathy means, codified into a simplistic formula to crank out at rapid pace & high volume use cases to fill up engineering backlogs — idle hands are wasting investor dollars, amiright?! 🙄😝

But what’s truly needed is a way to visually dramatize the dynamics of people in their contexts using diverse tools to accomplish their goals. Yes, inviting non-UX peers to join site visits is one way that helps vivify what’s really happening in a user’s life. But that’s not always practical or feasible (it’s a bit impolite to have 5-7 people ganging up on the unwitting user at their office!) so another approach is storyboarding — just like comic book style drawing, actually illustrating out the scenarios for everyone to see…and understand. This, of course, is nothing new…

I’ve lately been re-training myself to get back into storyboarding, inspired by fantastic work done by a very talented colleague. Her drawings sparked productive dialogues with Product & UX leadership about the nature of the feature, how to validate its purpose, and plans for evolving the overall direction (basically, a roadmap). So, how does one get started? 🤔

My process goes something like this:

  • Study & internalize research (first or second hand) about users, contexts, tools, problems — as much relevant info gleaned from Product, UX, Marketing. Talk it out where possible to get more understanding as to what’s happening, and fill-in missing gaps. 
  • Ponder the human drama — what’s the conflict, frustration, un-met need, and emotional vibe. Who else is involved? Where are they located? How are they communicating? 🎭
  • Outline a quick narrative, in text; I typically long-form write it out on stickies or in my notebook. 📒✍🏽
    • That narrative should capture a specific “vignette” of activity, maybe a specific task or two.
  • Start roughing out (pen on paper, or on whiteboard) that sequence of panels — again, comic book style — that reflect your narrative. 
    • There’s no need to be fancy — you’re not trying to re-create Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns here. Focus on blocking out key scenes, characters, emotions, basic actions. 
  • Over time, keep iterating & evolving as you develop a better sense for that human drama, the real issues that need to be resolved by your feature / product / service. Toggle back & forth among the research and narrative. This is truly the key point of UX storyboarding, to actualize empathy with illustrative abstraction (a bit of a contradiction, perhaps) — but it’s not fictional; it must be based upon real research findings: observations, anecdotes, etc. 🤓
  • Draw a cleaned up final version that can be shown to your stakeholders (**Note: I didn’t say “pretty” — that’s not the goal) My colleague had printed it out large to put up on a wall to allow for shared discussion among stakeholders in a conf room. I’ve used mine in PPT slides as well.

Either way, the subsequent discussion with stakeholders should highlight what the key scenes & emotional aspects mean for the opportunity to help resolve them, to improve the scenario. What I’ve witnessed is increased understanding by Product and UX leaders once seeing the storyboards, connecting them back to the more technical requirements of what to build. Storyboards deepen the appreciation for why…and “what else we need to be aware of”, the peripheral stuff that also matters.

Give all stakeholders stickies + markers so they can capture doubts or areas of further research. The result is an improved sense for how a presumed feature or product could better address user needs — but in a highly visual manner that gets everyone outside of JIRA or Word docs, which tend to drive thinking down a certain road. Instead, storyboards expand our interpretations of what’s possible or necessary, due to illustrating the human drama of conflict, emotion, and communication. Then those hastily cranked out “user stories” for the backlog can take on a more momentous sense of urgency and importance they’re actually due! 🤠👍🏽

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