User Scenarios

Your constantly-updated definition of User Scenarios and collection of topical content and literature

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


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) @ 

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

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All Literature

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