User Scenarios

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What are User Scenarios?

User scenarios are detailed descriptions of a user – typically a persona – that describe  realistic situations relevant to the design of a solution. By painting a “rich picture” of a set of events, teams can appreciate user interactions in context, helping them to understand the practical needs and behaviors of users.

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Multiple Uses of Scenarios

The term and general concept of scenarios has many uses. In wider-ranging discussions within software development, they can range from “prescriptive” to “evocative” (see “The Persona Lifecycle” under Learn More About User Scenarios). Prescriptive scenarios describe what should happen but don’t necessarily reflect any consideration for user needs and behaviors. A typical example would be a scenario derived from a use case. Use cases are intended to describe how a system responds to events and became the core for many software development methods from the mid-1980s onwards. (They have been supplanted by user stories in many methods.) Use cases are intended to describe all of the possible outcomes from a particular set of events. The term “scenario” is used in this context to describe just one path – one set of outcomes – through the use case. A well-known instance is the “sunny day scenario” when everything happens as it should. Prescriptive scenarios are perhaps one of the main reasons that software systems are not inherently easy to use since both the use cases and prescriptive scenarios describe what users should do, as if they were a programmed system component.

Hierarchical diagram showing that different scenarios describe different parts of the system.

Individual scenarios are usually describing a particular path through an interactive system.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

User scenarios are generally evocative. Their purpose is to provide motivation and back stories explaining how and why they need to interact with our solutions the way they do. In so doing they’re intended to promote empathy and understanding, as well as a user focus in a technological solution, whether it’s a website, wearable device or voice assistant.

Scenarios, Personas and Roles

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Although usually textual, user scenarios paint a “rich picture” of important factors behind users’ needs and behaviors.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

In software development, scenarios are typically focused on actors who assume one or more roles within the system. This approach is counter-productive from a user-centered design perspective since there is no detailed understanding of the roles themselves or how the activities being described in the (prescriptive) scenarios are actually performed.

While personas can take one or more roles in the context of a system, user research provides us with a wealth of information about a persona’s relationship to a role: Do they love it or hate it? Is the role well-defined or vague? What are the pain points? (And so on.) Also, particularly in customer-facing systems, the roles themselves are not very meaningful. For example, in an e-commerce solution the role is “customer”. In the travel industry the role is “passenger” or “customer” depending on the transaction. In more general solutions the role may simply be expressed as “user”. These roles tell us almost nothing about how we need to design our solutions.

So, the focus in user-centered scenarios is personas, with the concept of role being used only when relevant. The travel example above is a case in point: for some transactions it is important to know whether the user is the customer, the passenger or both. Similarly, in many contexts some roles are associated with greater responsibility and therefore more functionality is available to them. The relationships between roles are not always hierarchical, though. In a hospitality setting, cleaning and maintenance roles would not have access to accounting information (and vice versa).

Creating User Scenarios

User scenarios have a number of benefits and applications in user-centered and user experience design. They allow us to…

  • Explore and explain motivations for certain user needs and behaviors.

  • Explicitly describe how our persona expects interactions to proceed, with expectations about the sequence of events, the formats of input and output and details of the information required to realize this scenario effectively.

  • Draw attention to “pain points” in an existing process or anticipated complexity in new processes.

For each scenario we need to describe not only the persona’s goal, but also the context in terms of the…

  • Persona involved and their role (if relevant).

  • Events leading up to the scenario, particularly those that created the need for this scenario to be realized.

  • Environment in which the scenario is performed. Note that this is not only the physical environment, but also the social, legal and organizational environments.

Then it’s time to write the scenario. User scenarios are written as stories that are rich in detail. But be careful not to include too much in the way of extraneous information. For example, what the persona is wearing would only be relevant if there was an important issue with the physical environment that needed to be explained. (Shorts in a refrigerated storeroom would be an exception!)

Learn More About User Scenarios

Detailed description of user scenarios with a how-to guide and examples.

A concise summary card on user scenarios complete with instructions.

A practical guide to relating scenarios and personas.

Extensive reference for personas and scenarios in UX design (book).

Questions related to User Scenarios

How do you explain user scenarios in a technical document?

In a technical document, explain user scenarios clearly by outlining the user's goals, actions, and the system's response. Start with a concise title summarizing the scenario, followed by a brief description of the user, their objective, and the context. Detail each step the user takes to accomplish the goal and note the system's interactions or responses at each stage. Use clear, precise language and consider incorporating visuals or diagrams to enhance understanding. This approach ensures a comprehensive overview of user interactions with the system.

What is an example of a scenario in user experience?

An example of a scenario in user experience might describe a user, “John,” navigating an e-commerce website to purchase a laptop. The scenario details John’s goals, actions, and the system’s responses as he searches for a laptop, reads product descriptions, and completes the purchase. Each interaction and system feedback is outlined step-by-step, illustrating user flow and potential pain points. For a more comprehensive insight into crafting user scenarios, refer to our article Design Scenarios: Communicating the Small Steps in the User Experience.

What makes a good scenario?

A good scenario is user-centered, specific, and realistic, clearly outlining user goals, actions, and context. It should illustrate how users interact with a product, highlighting possible pain points and user flows. Simplicity and clarity are vital to avoiding unnecessary jargon and complexity. Developing engaging and informative scenarios is crucial in understanding and enhancing user experience. For more depth on creating compelling scenarios, refer to the book chapter Personas – The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction.

What is the difference between a user story and a user scenario?

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A user story, as Laura Klein mentions in the video above, is a concise representation of a feature, often written on cards or sticky notes in Agile methodologies. It is usually in the format: 'As a [user type], I would like [some goal or action], so that [outcome],' focusing on a user's need, want, and perspective, and can typically be completed in hours or days. In contrast, a user scenario is more detailed, illustrating how a user interacts with a product to accomplish a specific goal, providing a comprehensive view of user interactions.

For more insights on user stories, refer to this article. Note that from a user-centered design and user experience perspective, persona stories are preferable to user stories. Persona stories do not encourage the author to pretend they’re the user and instead rely on user research. They take the form “[Persona][action][goal]” and can be followed by “so that [outcome]” if different from the goal. For more information see this article on persona stories.

What is the difference between a use case and a user scenario?

A use case is a set of steps that describe the interactions between a role and a system to achieve a goal. It's more technical and focuses on how the system responds to user actions. On the other hand, a user scenario is a narrative describing how a user interacts with a system, focusing on a user's experience, goals, and actions, typically used to understand user needs and behaviors in context. Use cases detail every alternative path that users may take for the given goal, including all error conditions. User scenarios are not usually so detailed.

What is a scenario in Agile?

In Agile methodology, a scenario represents a specific user interaction with the system, illustrating the steps a user takes to accomplish a goal. It’s detailed and focused, providing a clear context and user perspective, aiding in developing features that are user-centric and aligned with user needs. It’s essential for ensuring that developed functionalities meet user expectations effectively.

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As Laura Klein points out in her video, Agile design often involves releasing something that might not seem 'perfect' to designers. The focus is on iterative improvement, constantly enhancing based on feedback and learning what would make the design better, aiming for what is ‘good enough’ to solve a problem and learn from. It’s about achieving balance and focusing on user satisfaction and continuous enhancement.

What is user scenario testing?

User scenario testing is a crucial UX method where designers evaluate the usability and intuitiveness of a product by observing potential users as they perform tasks within specific contexts or situations, reflecting real-world use. This technique allows designers to identify and resolve usability issues, enhancing the overall user experience. It focuses on user behavior, goals, and task flows, ensuring products meet user needs and expectations efficiently. 

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Alan Dix, a renowned HCI professor, explains that user scenarios are invaluable stories for design derived from observing or conversing with users. They allow designers to comprehend and convey the dynamics of user interactions, providing a rich, linear view of users’ experiences, intents, and actions.

Where to learn more about user scenarios?

Enroll in the HCI: Foundations of UX Design course on Interaction Design Foundation to learn more about user scenarios. This course, led by HCI Professor Alan Dix, offers extensive insights into creating compelling user scenarios and understanding user interactions, aiding in crafting user-centered designs. By studying this course, you can deepen your knowledge in user experience and interaction design, learning how to build more user-friendly, engaging products.

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Literature on User Scenarios

Here’s the entire UX literature on User Scenarios by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about User Scenarios

Take a deep dive into User Scenarios with our course Human-Computer Interaction: The Foundations of UX Design .

Interactions between products/designs/services on one side and humans on the other should be as intuitive as conversations between two humans—and yet many products and services fail to achieve this. So, what do you need to know so as to create an intuitive user experience? Human psychology? Human-centered design? Specialized design processes? The answer is, of course, all of the above, and this course will cover them all.

Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) will give you the skills to properly understand, and design, the relationship between the “humans”, on one side, and the “computers” (websites, apps, products, services, etc.), on the other side. With these skills, you will be able to build products that work more efficiently and therefore sell better. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the IT and Design-related occupations will grow by 12% from 2014–2024, faster than the average for all occupations. This goes to show the immense demand in the market for professionals equipped with the right design skills.

Whether you are a newcomer to the subject of HCI or a professional, by the end of the course you will have learned how to implement user-centered design for the best possible results.

In the “Build Your Portfolio: Interaction Design Project”, you’ll find a series of practical exercises that will give you first-hand experience of the methods we’ll cover. If you want to complete these optional exercises, you’ll create a series of case studies for your portfolio which you can show your future employer or freelance customers.

This in-depth, video-based course is created with the amazing Alan Dix, the co-author of the internationally best-selling textbook Human-Computer Interaction and a superstar in the field of Human-Computer Interaction. Alan is currently professor and Director of the Computational Foundry at Swansea University.    

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