In 2017, some enterprising cinematic paleontologists unearthed early storyboards for the 1993 film Jurassic Park.
Those storyboards told a slightly different story from the film we all saw: As the heroes are fleeing to the chopper to escape the park, the T-Rex confronts them one last time, and Sam Neill’s character has to make a daring leap onto the chopper at the last possible second.
Cheesy, right? Having such a B-movie cliche at the end of the film would have probably cheapened the audience’s experience, at least a little. But Spielberg and his team likely wouldn’t have seen that until someone actually sketched it out.
Product developers storyboard user experiences for the same reason. Just as a cheesy ending could have tarnished the first Jurassic Park film (which would have had big implications for a film that’s since become a franchise), an unsatisfying user experience could turn a potentially great product into a flop.
If you’re a product manager with questionable drawing skills, don’t worry. Storyboards are actually an exercise in user empathy. This guide will show you how to tap into that empathy, design better user interactions and map those onto storyboards — even if you have to draw them with stick figures.
What Do Storyboards Accomplish?
Consultant and learning solutions engineer Katie Stroud emphasizes the “story” half of the word “storyboard.” A user experience with any product follows a story arc, and Stroud maps that out in five points:
The user leaves their comfort zone.
Despite a little reluctance, the user persists and keeps trying.
The user achieve success.
The user returns to their normal work habits.
The user shares and evangelizes the success they found.
This is really a condensed version of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, the archetypal heroic tale that everyone from Homer to Tolkien has told. That means your user is the hero of this story, and you need to map out that heroic journey sequentially so your product can reliably guide the user on that journey over and over again.
(If you need a primer on how to weave a story around your user-hero, have a look at our post Agility and User Stories: What You Need to Know and Why You Should Care.)
One more storytelling element to think about at this stage: Like Ulysses and Frodo, the hero’s journey must be felt on several levels. UX designer Dan Nessler says the story told in any good storyboard should appeal to readers on three levels:
The visceral level — This is the level at which we react to the visual appeal of the product’s design.
The behavioral level — This is the level at which we react to the product’s usability.
The reflective level — This is the level at which we react to the product’s memorableness.
Why bake in so many layers of appeal? Because, as Nessler notes, your storyboard doesn’t just tell your story to key stakeholders; it sells the story and secures buy-in.
When Should You Begin Storyboarding?
Not every product requires a storyboard. You really only need to storyboard a user experience in situations where a user might struggle with a linear sequence. An excellent tutorial at Envato Tuts+ describes two kinds of projects where this is common:
Innovative product development. If the product could challenge your end user’s tech savviness, a clear storyboard can cut through the difficulty. This is why guides demonstrating how to use life vests and overhead masks are inserted into all airplane seat pockets.
Projects that require stakeholder buy-in. Imagine your team wants to develop a product, but first you need to unlock some funds from investors. “A storyboard may be the best way to succinctly convey this to an audience and reach them on an emotional level, where they are more likely to contribute (as opposed to looking at a user interface),” the Envato Tuts+ tutorial says.
Don’t lose sight of the user at this stage. A good storyboard should make clear to the viewer what the user’s objective is, says Cheryl Platz, founder of design education company Ideaplatz. Alternatively, the storyboard should demonstrate where the pain points are in the product interaction.
The Basic Structure of a Useful Storyboard
At this point, we have described what kind of story you need to tell, whom you should tell it to and why you should be telling it.
Now, let’s get our hands dirty with the how aspect of storyboard — how do you actually tell a user’s story in sequential frames?
The process breaks down into four basic steps:
1. Describe the Key Traits of the Desired User Experience
Write out exactly what should happen in the user experience. UX designer David Hall has a helpful example of what this looks like, framed by a traditional story arc.
(It doesn’t matter how logically these ideas flow at this stage, though. Just get them down on paper. You’ll organize them later.)
Hall’s story features a project manager who needs to assign tasks to team members. The product must then notify team members of new assignments, so there is a big “New Task” button that the PM pushes.
Hall’s story considers all the things that could happen after pushing that “New Task” button:
A prompt might ask the PM to enter a task description, the name of whom the task is assigned to and a due date. There’s a big “Save” button to click afterward.
But, wait: There’s a dropdown menu in the “Assign to” field that includes all 2,000 employees in the organization. How much friction could that cause?
Not to worry. Assignee names are grouped by department for easy browsing, and the user can also type in the person’s name.
OK, so what happens after the user clicks “Save?” First, a notification lets the user know that the task has been assigned, and details have been emailed to the assignee. Then, the tool prompts the user to either create a new task, review the list of created tasks, return to a dashboard or log out.
2. Describe What Interactions Are Needed to Create That Experience
Now comes the part where you organize and sequence all of these actions into a single experience.
There are at least a couple of ways you can do this. You can sequence the moves with arrows, for example. Or, you can indicate available options with a decision tree. Whatever would be the most logical for your product.
Again, think about the sequence of actions from the user’s perspective. Software engineer Ambrose Little even phrases these steps in the first person, as if he were in the user’s shoes. “As a user, I want to receive notifications when new applications are submitted,” he offers as an example.
Getting in the user’s shoes like this help “these stories take on more life through the incorporation of richer user and usage contexts and personas: real people in real places doing real things, not just some abstract, feature-oriented description of functionality that clothes itself in a generic ‘user,’” he writes.
3. Consider the Emotional Component of Each Interaction
Take Little’s advice one step further. Consider what each step of the sequence feels like to the user. Give those feelings an associated emotion, software developer Nick Babich says. “I add emoticons at each step, to give a feeling for what’s going on in the character’s head. You can draw in each emotional state as a simple expression.”
Now, you have all the information you need to begin drawing.
4. Sketch the Scenes and Add Captions
Don’t skip the previous step. Translating software pain points into real human emotion is necessary because it’s these emotions you will be relaying to the product’s stakeholders.
As researcher Corrie van der Lelie writes, the relaying of these emotions is designed to evoke comments, judgement or acceptance, depending on the process phase. “Storyboards are a valuable aid to the designer in this task by providing a common visual language that people from different backgrounds can ‘read’ and understand.”
So, grab a pen and paper and begin to sketch out exactly what that user-product interaction looks like. If something in the product’s design frustrates a user’s progress toward a goal, illustrate that, even if that means taking a red pen and drawing little zig-zag pain lines from the point of interaction.
The team at UX for the Masses has several useful, varied examples so you can see what the end result might look like:
There’s no need at this stage to get extremely detailed or to illustrate every possible move a user could make. In fact, designer Hala Khoursheed writes at the Bridgeable blog that storyboards should be a little vague. This leaves room for would-be users, stakeholders and any other audience members to provide feedback.
That’s ultimately what storyboards are for — to solicit feedback. Your viewer could use that vague space between your conception and your storyboards to interpret the scenes, give input or point out interactions that you might have missed.
Advanced Skills: How to Improve Your Storyboarding
Like any skill, storyboarding is something you can improve with time.
But it’s not the actual sketching of experiences that you want to get better at. Instead, your focus needs to always be your user and the context in which the user interacts with your product.
That context often changes over time, Prototypr product manager Alex Alexakis writes, and therefore so should your storyboards. “Product stories often change,” Alexakis writes.
“... Product Managers often need to take the bold decision to kill features, when these stop being part of the story. It does not matter if there is a user that is still using this feature. You’d better lose a few customers, than lose the coherence of the new story you are trying to craft.”
Likewise, your users’ needs or opportunities might change, and this evolution might require an update to the product story. Laurie Keith, director of business development at the Ad Council, credits Amazon’s culture of customer obsession as a key factor in its ability to deliver great products.
“Jeff Bezos believes that customers want something better even if they don’t know it,” Keith writes. “By putting yourself in the mind of your customer, you understand what your customers need and want and give your product a vision.”
That process, she says, allows Amazon to develop products on its customers’ behalf.
Whether your organization is seeking to proactively develop products or simply respond to a clear need among your customers, storyboards are an indispensable tool for advocating on those customers’ behalf.
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