The complete guide to scenarios – part one

The complete guide to scenarios book cover

What is the real test of how well a product has been designed? Whether it looks great? Whether it’s easy to use? Whether it sells well? In my opinion the real test of how well a product has been designed is how well it performs in the real world. Not how well it performs in the lab, or in the showroom, or in some fantasy world dreamt up by the marketing team, but how it performs when real people, in real places use it to do real things.

“All the proofe of a pudding, is in the eating” – 14th century proverb

How well a product performs in the real world is dependent on a lot of factors. Does it do what users need it to do? Is it reliable? Is it well made? Is it usable? Is it beautiful? There are a lot of factors at play but ultimately it comes down to one thing – Has a product been designed with real world use in mind? And what is the best way to design a product with real world use in mind? Answer: Scenarios,  real world scenarios that outline how users should be able to use a product or service in the real world.

Scenarios are an essential step towards creating a great design. They are the scaffolding that great designs are built around. I’m always amazed at how often people jump straight into designing a product or service without first thinking about the sort of context and scenarios within which that product or service will be used. I’ve pretty much used scenarios in every design project that I’ve worked on, and I’d recommend that you do the same. In this 2 part guide to scenarios you’ll learn what scenarios are, why you should be using them, what forms they can take and how you too can use scenarios to design for the real world. Let’s get started.

What are scenarios?

Before I cover why you should be using scenarios, I want to first look at what they are, particularly in a design context. Your understanding of the term ‘scenarios’ might be quite different from another person’s, and I want to make sure that we’re all on the same page so to speak.

Scenarios are really very simple because at heart they are just stories. They are stories about people. They are stories about people doing stuff in the real world. An example might be someone using their mobile phone to find their way to an office for an interview, or someone booking an appointment to see their doctor about a sore throat. Scenarios like the example from Nokia below describe the steps that a person will go through to hopefully accomplish something.

Nokia example storyboard

An example storyboard scenario from Nokia

Scenarios are really just stories, but I want to make it clear that they should not be confused with Agile user stories of the “As a <type of user>, I want <some goal> so that <some reason>” kind. I will spare you from my Agile user stories rant (suffice to say that most people misunderstand, and somewhat misuse Agile user stories) but just be aware that like tigers and house cats, whilst scenarios and user stories are perhaps distantly related, they are really very different beasts.

Like stories scenarios have characters, they have a plot and have a beginning, middle and end. Also like stories scenarios can be fictional, historically accurate, or like a staged TV reality show, be somewhere in between. They can outline something that has happened in the past, or might happen in the future and come in many different guises. The main scenario formats that are used within UX design are:

  • Narrative scenarios
  • Storyboards
  • Scenario maps

Narrative scenarios

Narrative scenarios are the short stories of the scenario world. They use the power of the written word to tell the user’s story and can be everything from simple bullet points outlining the steps that someone goes through, to a fully flung mini-novel. Some example narrative scenarios are shown below. You can also download a useful narrative scenario template (Word doc).


Storyboards graphically show a scenario in a comic book fashion. Like a comic book they use a mixture of words and pictures to tell a story and are great for really bringing a scenario to life.

Scenario maps

Scenario maps are very much like Jeff Patton’s user story maps. They show the steps that a user will go through for a given scenario (hence the name). They not only capture the steps but also good ideas, questions and other information that might be useful when considering a design. You can find out more about scenario maps in my step by step guide to scenario mapping article.

Why use scenarios?

There are lots of reasons why using scenarios is a great idea. I’ll cover these in a bit, but first I’d like to tell you a story of my own. A story of what can happen when a service clearly hasn’t been designed with real world use in mind. A story that could have been avoided if only the design team had utilised scenarios when designing their service. Are you sitting comfortably? Good, then I can begin…

A little while ago thanks to Mr Kellogg’s and the wonders of breakfast cereal marketing tie-ins I started a free 2 month trial of NowTV Movies, an online service in the UK offering over a 1,000 movies on demand. Great I thought. I’ll be able to watch loads of movies and keep the kids entertained with family friendly films whenever I want. One rainy Sunday afternoon (an all too common occurrence in the UK), I thought that I would unleash my new super weapon and find a movie to distract my kids from making the house even more of a mess (another all too common occurrence).

NowTV screenshot

NowTV – An online TV and movies service in the UK

Movies are obviously made for the big screen so I thought that I would simply plug my laptop into my TV (via HDMI) and hey presto, home cinema. This is where I came into my first problem. NowTV is an online service, but Chrome is not supported! You’d have thought that using the most popular browser out there would be a common real world scenario that NowTV would consider when designing their service, but apparently not.

No problem I thought. I have an iPad and an Apple TV box. I felt sure that NowTV will have an app that I can use to stream the movie to my TV using AirPlay. I was right, NowTV do indeed have an iPad app and having installed the app (which obviously took a little while) I logged in and let my son choose a movie to watch. He chose the rather lacklustre Planes 2: Fire & Rescue (not a patch on Cars, or even the first Planes) and I started it playing. I attempted to use the AirPlay feature to play the movie on my TV but alas once again NowTV thwarted my best laid plans. It would seem that the NowTV app doesn’t support AirPlay. Let me repeat that because I find it very hard to believe. NowTV, a TV and movie streaming service doesn’t support a feature designed to let you watch TV and movies on your TV. WTF?

By this stage I was having to quell a mini mutiny in the living room. Fortunately the helpful message from NowTV did mention that there was an Apple TV app that I could use instead. OK, third time lucky I thought.

I found the app (which fortunately was pre-installed) and was confronted with the login screen (see screenshot below). Now I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to enter a username and password using a TV remote, but trust me it’s a nightmare, a bloody nightmare. It reminds me of the old days of trying to enter your name for a high score on your favourite home video game using just a directional control pad and a couple of buttons. You have to laboriously go up and down to select the right letter and hope that you’ve not accidentally hit the wrong button. It’s like one of those game shows where contestants have to complete an impossibly hard challenge against the clock, whilst the studio audience cheers them on. “Come on Daddy, come on. I want to watch the film. NOW”. Entering the username wasn’t too bad as at least you can see what you’re doing but it honestly took me 4 attempts to get the password correct as each letter quickly becomes obscured.

This is another clear indication that NowTV haven’t considered real world scenarios. In the real world someone entering their username and password into an Apple TV box generally does it from the privacy of their own home, where protecting their password from prying eyes is less important than being able to see whether they’re entering the correct password or not. An option to make the password visible (which a lot of mobile apps now support) would therefore be a very good idea. Even better, why not let users login using their iPad or iPhone app?

NowTV password entry screen

An option to show the password on entry would make sense for the NowTV Apple TV app

After three failed attempts to login to the Apple TV app I was finally in. It had taken about 15 minutes of blood, sweat and tears (mostly from the kids) but I’d made it. I put the Planes 2 movie on (which ironically the kids got bored of after about 20 mins), sat back and wondered how differently NowTV would have designed the service if only they’d have used scenarios to consider how people would actually use it in the real world.

5 reasons you should be using scenarios

That example shows what can happen when you don’t design with real world use in mind. Scenarios as I’ve already mentioned are a great way to avoid this sort of disappointing user experience by helping you to design for the real world. Here are just 5 reasons why you should be using scenarios.

1. Scenarios help to keep a design grounded in reality

Scenarios help to ‘keep it real’ by forcing you to think about how real people, in real situations will use your product or service in the real world.

2. Scenarios help you to focus on the ‘what’, rather than the ‘how’

Scenarios help you to initially focus on the ‘what’ of a product or service, rather than the ‘how’. What do users need it to do? What part does it play in their life? They help you to think about the problem, rather than just the solution.

3. Scenarios help identify required features

Scenarios help to identify the features and functionality that will be required, and more importantly why those features and functionality are useful to users.

4. Scenarios help you to consider the bigger picture

Scenarios help you to think about the part that your product or service will play in someone’s life. They help you to initially consider the bigger picture, and to see the proverbial wood from the trees.

5. Scenarios help to communicate

By utilising the power of storytelling scenarios help to communicate a design. They are a great way to walk someone through a design and to put across the design vision and the design thinking that has been applied.

Part 2 of the guide

So I’ve covered what scenarios are and why they’re such an important design tool. In part 2 of this guide to scenarios find out how to actually use scenarios to design products and services that really perform in the real world.