seen + learned

User scenarios beyond the web

User scenarios have been widely adopted by web designers as a useful tool for helping ensure sites provide what visitors need and expect. Less well-known is that they are also a great tool for ensuring offline communications do the same.

Recently I was in Sears. They have created central checkout kiosks at my local store (Cambridge, MA) which is a step forward, because previously, it was impossible to find a cash register and a salesperson at the same time. Now there's a large checkout hub at the exit/entrance to the connecting mall. When I entered the store I came from downstairs – not from the mall. I did not pass a kiosk. I shopped and could not find where to pay. I looked for signs, and found this (pardon the fuzzy, surreptitiously shot image).

The sign points to a wall. There's no pay kiosk on either side of the wall.

This could be blamed on a number of things, but for the sake of this post I'm going to pin it on a lack of user scenarios when the store was planning the pay kiosks. If, when someone in Sears corporate offices was thinking about or planning the kiosks, the context of shoppers making purchases came up, hopefully they would have realized that finding where to pay is just one part of a flow that ends with paying – that paying is a part of a larger scenario.

A few years ago, we worked with the marketing team at Sloan Executive Education. They run programs that are attended by professionals from all over the world. Aware that there was a flow of information, and that it needed to be consistent to ensure that expectations were met, we mapped out scenarios related to how potential participants found out about the programs, registered, made travel plans and arrived at the program. After listing all the recipient types and situations, we could evaluate the communications and see where information needed to be changed, added or made more consistent.

There are hybrid online/offline situations that call for scenarios as well. Hospitals can have complex and inconsistent technical setups that send healthcare workers back and forth between paper and electronic files. Working with a client who provides software to streamline hospital discharge, we needed to design a fax form that would literally connect paper and digital correspondence. Care facilities received faxes from hospitals to let them know there was a potential patient for them. Included in the fax was a unique code that, when entered on a website, would provide the patient details and acceptance information. We used scenarios that captured the full flow of contact – online and offline. Because we looked beyond the web interactions we were able to design a complete system that worked, not just a form or site that only addressed part of the situation.