If you are involved in the user experience design of an interactive product (site, webapp, mobile app, whatever) you might do a number of different tasks. Some of you write code, some of you don't. Some do only visual design while others do only interaction design. Some of you do all of it all of the time.
Whatever your role, if you care about user experience, there's something that you need to do immediately before you create another concept model, flow chart, wireframe or comp. You need to form a vision for the user experience and then you need to tell it as a story. The combination of these two steps can help you in your everyday work and it can also help a team get moving together toward a well-defined goal.
The who, what, why, where, when and how
There are three things that a designer should always be striving for:
- To understand the product direction and the motivation behind it (what problem are we solving and why should we solve it)
- To understand the user as defined by the product direction and be able to internalize the point-of-view of that user (who are we solving it for and when and where are they using it to solve the problem)
- To understand the possibilities and limitations of the technologies that will be used to implement it. (how are we going to solve it)
These can never be considered "done" but they should always be in progress.
The answers to the questions often only exist in the heads of a few people and rarely get communicated completely to the entire team or organization. This often leads to each person having a slightly different version the who, what, why, where, when and how (which I'll abbrievate from here as W5H).
Once you, as the designer, have begun to understand the W5H, your first goal should be to form a vision of how this comes together to create a great experience and then create a story that illustrates that vision. Your goal is to build toward a common understanding of how it will feel to use the thing you're creating.
You can do this on your own, but a better idea would be to involve other smart people with different perspectives. Find an engineer with a good product sense and product person with an interest in design and take an hour to talk. Don't be tempted to sketch UIs. Just get in a room and describe the actions that a person takes to accomplish the task as it stands today. If you have a whiteboard, list the the actions or draw them as a storyboard.
If you're working on a new product, describe a person using your top competitor's product. If you have an existing product, describe how someone uses the current version: "They sit down at their computer. They launch their browser. They click the bookmark for our site..." etc.
Be detailed but not exhaustive. Don't list every permutation of how they might do it. Just pick the most common and leave it at that. This is the boring part, so you want to move on to the fun stuff as soon as possible.
Once you're satisfied that you've described the current state of the world, take a look at it in whole. You're likely to find at least a few places where you say, "that's a stupid way of doing this."
Now start describing it as it should work. Don't be afraid to let "in a perfect world" ideas creep in. If it involves flying cars or the transportation of matter ala Star Trek, you might want to reign it in, but technology moves fast. It's likely that some of those "in a perfect world" ideas are actually possible.
Once you've described this vision of a new, better world and the smart product person and engineer have agreed that it makes sense you need to take the next step: tell the story of this vision in an easy to understand narrative that anyone in the company can understand.
Open Powerpoint or Keynote. Create a slide to describe the W5H. Then, make a few slides to describe the old, stupid way. Make the pain points obvious. Then make the transition into your vision. Create an example user and give him or her a name. Create one slide for every step of the new process. Illustrate the slides with stock photography or concept UIs (just don't get caught up in details, make if feel like a UI you'd see in a movie -- one big button right in the middle).
Show it to your product and engineering allies and make sure it accurate reflects the vision you'd discussed previously. Then tell the story again and again to anyone who'll listen. When you get intelligent feedback integrate it into the vision.
Get as many people as possible visualizing the same thing so that everyone's on the same page. That might not necessarily be your job as a designer, but I'll bet you've increased the likelihood for success on the project by accomplishing this.
More than any other piece of documentation, this clear and compelling story can solidify in everyone's mind the vision for the user experience and get everyone on the team pulling in the same direction. It'll make your work better because you can see how each interaction fits into the big picture and give the entire team a clear goal to shoot for.
Note: If you're a product manager and you don't involve your designer in creating this vision, then you probably aren't getting the best of them. If you're an engineering manager and the designer or the product manager haven't thought about this vision you should get involved and encourage them to do so.