Design Research 101: Prototyping Your Service with a Storyboard

Photos by Alissa Millenson

Photos by Alissa Millenson

In my last post, I talked about how to capture unarticulated needs though a design research tool called a card sort. Today’s topic, storyboarding, moves us from the world of words to the world of images. Similar to a card sort, it’s a tool to help you get at intangible, unquantifiable data.

WHEN TO USE IT:
Storyboards communicate a concept by visualizing user interactions. They use the art of the narrative to focus on a person's experience of using your service. Storyboard development is one way to prototype your service concept.

In the book Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Toolkit for Managers, Tim Ogilvie and Jeanne Liedtka advise the following:

 “Use this approach [storyboarding] to move beyond the functional view and into the human story of the experience, to shift the focus to the user and the problem that the new experience solves."

WHY IT'S AWESOME: 
Perhaps the best part about storyboards is that they are cheap. Instead of developing costly technology and hiring people to prototype your concept, a pen and paper is really all that’s required to create a storyboard. Furthermore, when you’re introducing something unfamiliar, pictures are easy to grasp. Believe me, you'll learn a ton by simply putting images in front of your user.

WHY EVERYONE CAN DO IT:
For those of us who are less artistically inclined, the idea of putting pen to paper and drawing can be nerve racking. Let me break it down for you. Below are some simple shapes that you can practice drawing. These are the basic elements needed if you want to create a storyboard:

elements.jpg

FAQS FOR STORYBOARD DEVELOPMENT: 
1. How do I know what to show? 
Start by writing out the story you want to tell. If you’re presenting the storyboard to users, you’ll want to focus in on the service elements you want feedback on. Figure out what you want to learn and make sure it shows up in your narrative. Use super low-fidelity sketches with words underneath to begin. It doesn't have to be much better than this:

When you're sketching out your story, it's great to start with a low-fidelity white board drawing like this. "B1" indicates it is the first board or panel in the story. The text for this panel reads "Miguel, a Project Director, is drifting apart from the rest of the his team."

When you're sketching out your story, it's great to start with a low-fidelity white board drawing like this. "B1" indicates it is the first board or panel in the story. The text for this panel reads "Miguel, a Project Director, is drifting apart from the rest of the his team."

2. How do I create empathy?
Luckily, stories are a great medium to do this. I like to create distinct main characters and use visual cues to define them. For example, in the service concept below, the main character, Miguel has spiky hair, a tie, and round glasses. The way your draw your images can also convey tone. Is this playful? Serious? Formal?

These are sketches from a storyboard about a service for project directors at a community college. I developed a main character, Miguel, and made him distinctive. Even thought he doesn't appear exactly the same in every drawing, he is recognizable. Can you see how the drawing on the right is an iteration of the white board sketch above?

These are sketches from a storyboard about a service for project directors at a community college. I developed a main character, Miguel, and made him distinctive. Even thought he doesn't appear exactly the same in every drawing, he is recognizable. Can you see how the drawing on the right is an iteration of the white board sketch above?

3. How do I emphasize the elements of my service?
If there is a digital component to your service you’ll want to show these interactions. You can emphasize its importance in the frame by using color or a different line weight. Stressing the non-tangible or digital elements of your service makes it easier for the user to understand what’s happening in the panel. 

Here a few panels from a storyboard about a sensor-based service for elders. The interaction of a working motion sensor is conveyed with blue lines.

Here a few panels from a storyboard about a sensor-based service for elders. The interaction of a working motion sensor is conveyed with blue lines.

4. How can I save time when creating images?
One way to do this is to, first, draw your main characters and repeating service elements by hand and then scan them into your computer. From there you can then edit them digitally in a program like Adobe Photoshop and copy and reuse bits of images to make new panels. For example, in the picture below, instead of redrawing the whole character, I just deleted and redrew the line that makes their mouth. Don't have Adobe Photoshop? You can also use PowerPoint to do this, or draw and trace by hand.  

Here, I wanted to change the mood of the character. Instead of redrawing Marcy, I copied the drawing in Photoshop and re-drew three things: two dots for eyeballs, and one line to change her frown into a grin.

Here, I wanted to change the mood of the character. Instead of redrawing Marcy, I copied the drawing in Photoshop and re-drew three things: two dots for eyeballs, and one line to change her frown into a grin.

5. How do I solicit feedback?
Show, don’t tell! Make your imagery and narrative vague enough to cause the user to question but specific enough to provide cues. Include some blank speech bubbles, lines, or unlabeled flow charts. Usually the user will speak up if the story is unclear. Ask them to describe what is going in each panel or to give their personal take on the narrative. 

Ask your user, "What might Marcy be thinking at this point in the story?"

Ask your user, "What might Marcy be thinking at this point in the story?"

Remember that these are just a starting point! There are many different ways to create and sequence images in a storyboard. At the core, it's not about your drawing skills, but about communicating a concept. What difficulties have you had when creating a storyboard? Where else have you been surprised about the impact of a "show, don't tell" approach?

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