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User Experience Storytelling – Grab their imaginations!

Posted by: Hilary Cinis

June 1, 2016

Problem: Effectively communicating Data61 productisation work fitting with real people in their real situations to researchers and software engineers  

Solution: Highly visual, short and entertaining comics


I attended Webstock in 2014, intending to find inspiration for more creative approaches to my work.

Now, I have a creative background, UX is something I learned on the job over the years and I worked hard to conform to the data driven (and somewhat dry) approaches used to communicate the work we do.

I always felt I failed to deliver the impact UX documentation is supposed to and we all know no-one reads it.

After a great deal of consideration, I figured it was time to reignite my creative skills – leveraging my visual design background and start using those particular skills in my own way to solve this design problem.

What I came home from Webstock with was a great rush of excitement and a galvanised idea that gave me some direction on how to capture the imaginations of my colleagues. Stop creating heavy boring UX documents and create comics that told a story instead!

Its not a ground breaking idea, story telling, but the results at Data61 have been spectacular.

Because I am surrounded by researchers and scientists, I had been trying extensively to court their interest and educate using user research and scientific language (eg “hypothesis”, “experiments”, “validation”) and still do, and it works to a point.

So the idea of creating comics, was a great left turn – they all got it right away, it created buzz and excitement about the industry focussed work we are doing beyond the want for a pretty presentation layer.

So I spent a few weeks translating some more developed projects into a highly visual story, it breaks down pretty neatly in this:

  • Primary use case = story line
  • Context = story line
  • Personas = characters
  • Environment = panel illustrations
  • Pain points = drama or the villain
  • Solution = the hero or hero super power
  • Collaborative methods = team and production credits

…and then chucked in a bunch of stupid stuff that I found personally amusing (eg aliens, egg timers…).

Then I posted them up on the walls in the kitchen at Data61…

Comics on display in the main kitchen entrance
Comics that were on display in the main kitchen entrance

Hugh Durrant-Whyte specifically found me out to tell me how much he loved them, then requested one for his pet project (he got the above mentioned alien character in his)

Feel free to download them and check them out, these are all real projects that I have worked on providing a full range of UX and UI work for.

These are hard work, no software will write a story for you, but as a uxer, that part shouldn’t be too difficult. I looked at a few programs to short cut the illustration work – I can draw but I don’t have the time – and decided on Comic Life 3

It takes me about 10 hours to produce each one (a nice way to fill the train commute) and they require image sourcing and go through many layouts to find the right flow. Some flowed really well and others I needed to write a script and even scrap earlier completed versions.

I found being a comic book fan, it was quite easy to use a traditional comic book style with a “villain” (usually a situation, not a persona) and a “hero” (main persona) using a “superpower” (the software) who saves the day. Also, I am highly visual so the layouts weren’t hard so much, more I had too many ideas in my head and ended up not using a lot of stuff.

To help with the internal communications issue, I created an overarching idea of a “NICTA Jam” (participatory or collaborative design) to hold together the series I was creating, which explained that all this is only achievable when good people work together understanding and including the audience.

The last point, which I anticipated having to be clear about and said “no” to a couple of requests, is these are NOT external product marketing brochures. They need to be approached as internal communications designed to illustrate the work. This was hard as the interest in them is  high and its easy to see the application to a market. The difference is subtle but it’s important.

To be honest a couple do work in a marketing communication sense but when the work is directed specifically for an external audience with a marketing voice, the original purpose is lost because internal teams feel they are being sold and idea, and not included in it.

Wanna learn more? It was Erika Hall‘s workshop at Webstock that really dropped the penny for me, her blog and books are good reading. And there is a workshop at UX Australia by Dave Malouf  on storytelling, I highly recommend attending if you want to sharpen these skills.