How User Scenarios Help To Improve Your UX


Sabina Idler

July 18, 2011

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Why would I take the effort to write a user scenario? I know my target group—is that not enough to design for them? Knowing your target group is important and working with personas definitely helps to ‘get to know’ your users. What personas do not tell you is why users come to your site, what exactly they are looking for and how they go about it. A good user scenario helps you grasp your users goals and design your product to perfectly match them. Get to know your users, understand their motivation for visiting your site and then start designing. Let’s have a look at how working with user scenarios can help us to achieve a high user experience.

What is a user scenario?

User scenarios describe in detail what users do on a website and specifically why they do it. A user scenario is like a short story of a person who visits a website with a certain motivation and a specific goal in mind. A good user scenario includes all information that is relevant to the process the user undergoes in order to reach his or her goal, and nothing more.

Why do I need user scenarios?

User scenarios are a very handy tool when designing user interfaces. It is not only important to ‘get to know’ the actual users, but to understand the goals these users have. Only when we know who does what on our website, how and why they do it, we can define design requirements concrete enough to actually meet them. So we need to narrow down the often broad content we offer on our website, to specific goals our users have—and summarize them in user scenarios.

When do I need user scenarios?

You need user scenarios, whenever you design any kind of user interface, such as a website, computer program or any application for any digital device. So, pretty much always. Whatever it is that you design, design it for your users and make it easy for them to use. Only when you know exactly what your users want and what they do on your website can you ensure usability and a good user experience.

What does a good user scenario look like?

A good user scenario is short, relevant and to the point. It gives answers to the following questions: Who is the user I’m designing for? What does this user want on my site? How is this user going to achieve his or her goals? Why does this user come to my site and not anywhere else? Let’s look at those four questions separately. I will also give a brief example for each question.

Who is the user I’m designing for?

Include ‘real’ users in your scenarios. The first step is to come up with personas who represent your target group. This helps you to ‘get to know’ your users and better understand their actions. Through personas that reflect a real user, your user scenarios become more alive and therefore more realistic. An example of a (very) brief persona could look like this:

Pete Haller (32, single) works for the corporate communication department of Daimler Chrysler. He loved it in the beginning, but his job is no longer a challenge for him. However, he is scared to reorient because his status and financial security is very important to him. Pete is very organized and can’t stand chaos or inconvenience. In his free time, he reads a lot of books. Books help him to keep his mind busy and especially professional literature offers him the challenges he misses at work. The last couple of weeks, Pete has really been into medical books. Because of a family history, he is especially interested in kidney diseases.

What does this user want on my site?

Understand what your users look for. Knowing your users’ goals is important to make sure they achieve them as quickly as possible. Keep it to the point and be specific. Details that are not relevant to your user’s goal are no part of a good user scenario. Remember to keep it short. Below I give an example of how the what-section could look like:

Pete is looking for an easy to read book for non-professionals that explains different kidney deceases including symptoms, methods of treatment, and possible long-term effects. He does not want to spend more than $30 and if available he prefers used books to save money. He visits to find the right book.

How is this user going to achieve his goals?

Besides knowing what your users are looking for, it helps to have an idea of how they look for it. This includes all their foreknowledge, possibilities and limitations that are linked to achieving their goal. The how describes the way your users behave on your site. To make this section more clear, I will extend our example scenario in the following:

Pete is handy with computers but since working with them all day long, he wants to use them as little as possible when he is at home. Convenience is very important for Pete. He knows exactly what he wants and he expects to quickly find several options that he can choose from. He does not expect the payment process to be difficult or the shipping to take longer than two days. Pete likes to read expert statements and short recessions from other users to find out which book is the right one.

Why does this user come to my site?

When writing a user scenario, be specific about the why. For example, coming to a website to compare prizes is a completely different motivation than coming with a clear purchase goal. Also coming to a site because of past positive experiences is completely different than landing there by chance or because of a friend’s recommendation. All those motivations require their own user scenario. I’ll specify this in our example below:

Pete used to go to his local book dealer. He enjoys walking through town after work and pick up his purchases. Lately a friend has recommended to him. His friend was very enthusiastic about all the features Amazon offers and above all how convenient it works. This made Pete curious and he wants to try it out. He also sees the advantages of going home directly after work, and even if he likes going to the book store, ordering his books from his desk at home is way more convenient. He wants to try and order his next book online.

In sum

User scenarios are short stories that tell us about our users motivation, their goals and actions on our website. When writing a user scenario, keep it short and to the point. The four w-questions who? what? how? why? can be used as checklist for the most relevant information to include in a user scenario. Good user scenarios help to define concrete design requirements and improve our usability and achieve high user experience.

Have you already used scenario’s to your advantage? Please share your experiences below, or via Twitter. Same goes for questions and tips, as always.

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