Write better walkthroughs with the 3x3 Method

Tom Cavill
3 min readAug 20, 2014

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” — Albert Einstein

As a product designer, you have many roles to fill. Strategist, UX designer, front-end dev, and marketer to name a few. The smaller your team (maybe your “team” is just you), the greater the number of hats there are to wear.

Among these roles, yet often overlooked, is that of salesperson. Not the suited, briefcase-wielding type; but the stealthier kind: the copywriter. When designing your marketing materials — chief among them your app’s walkthrough screens or site’s homepage — your copy and its layout are your primary tools.

When was the last time you got to an app’s homescreen/page and felt a little exasperated? “So what does it do exactly? Why do I need this?” — your job as a designer is to answer these questions quickly, efficiently and beautifully. It’s a tough task, but there’s a method that can help, which I call the 3x3.

Constraints for clarity

When designing the walkthroughs for Peeps, my current startup, I had a hard time knowing what to focus on. My head was so deep in the product — what we had, what was upcoming, what worked well, what wasn’t quite there — that it was hard to see the wood for the trees. I needed a way to focus on what the key benefits were for end-users. Why should they sign up for this?

I decided to constrain my thinking in order to regain clarity. Remembering the Einstein quote above (and various other odes to simplicity), I drew three boxes on a sheet of paper. Underneath each of them, three lines. The task was thus: explain to a n00b what the product is and why they should use it. 3 illustrations, each with 3 words accompanying them. This is the 3x3 method.

Try it now

Try it with your own product. 3 boxes, each with three lines underneath. Sketch a simple illustration in the boxes, then write 3 words on the lines underneath. Explain what, why and how.

  • What — what does your product do?
  • Whywhat’s the benefit? (makes for a good slogan).
  • How a differentiator. Perhaps an innovative piece of functionality or a cost indicator.

Make no mistake: It’s hard. But that’s the point. By constraining yourself to an extreme level, you’re forced to boil down your product to its bare fundamentals. Your use of language has to change. Do away with determiners and adjectives and concentrate on verbs and nouns, whilst avoiding lists and maintaining a semblance of a sentence for each panel.

This is the first part of the exercise, designed to help you establish what the core of your product offering is.

I cheated a little on the last panel here (told you it was tough!)

Where’s the beef?

The second part is where you beef out the choices arrived at so far, and shape them into something that will sell your products’ concepts to potential users. In production — that is, where you eventually display the walkthroughs — you will likely need to soften the language so it reads well for your readers; but maintain the key messages derived from the 3x3 exercise.

The final Peeps walkthrough. Note how the original 3x3 has been expanded, but retains the same message.

If you struggle, the reasons why may reveal an insight into your product. For example: perhaps there are two or three features you feel are deserving of attention? The 3x3 should force you to settle on the most pertinent.

These kind of learnings can be super valuable, and a good reason to spend 10 minutes making your 3x3.

Show me your 3x3s — I’m @tomcavill on twitter. You can download Peeps on the App Store.