Prototyping the conversation: a simple way to design content-first

Content creators often hear—and say—that we need to design content-first. Content is king, right? Cool story, bro, but you try going forth and designing a complex flow with just words. Because I’m a dreamer, I frequently found myself trying to draw design elements that I wasn’t sure were within established patterns or even existed. I felt like I was overstepping, as though I could replace the interaction designer (spoiler: I can’t).

There’s got to be a better way!

And there totally is. I’m calling it “prototyping the conversation,” and it’s so simple you’re gonna kick yourself if you’re not already doing it. You don’t have to draw a damn thing, and you’ll be rewarded with a solid direction the team can quickly discuss and unify around.

Allow me to walk you through the process using a first-time use flow we designed for TurboTax Self-Employed customers.

  1. Understand the customer.
    So who is the TurboTax Self-Employed customer filing annual taxes in October? They come into QuickBooks Self-Employed after they finish filing with TurboTax, so they’re probably tired and not in the best mood. They don’t want to do more work right now. They don’t want to be starting anything new. But if we don’t tell them who QuickBooks is and get them to realize some benefit right away, they’re going to forget all about us and miss out on the many ways we help the self-employed. How do we succinctly connect what that customer just did (filing their taxes) with what we’re asking them to do? Gaining real customer empathy lets you choose the length of the conversation, the kinds of words you can use, and the appropriate tone to take.
We know you’re tired, but here’s who we are and how we’re related to TurboTax.

2. Choose the goal(s) of the flow.
What we’re asking them to do is sync their bank accounts with our service. That’s really sensitive stuff. As Jon Fasoli says, asking a customer for a username and password is like asking them for $10, but asking for their bank’s sign-in info is like asking them for $100. It’s risky, and lots of people drop off at this step. But at the same time, it’s the quickest way we can get a user to see some benefit, and successfully connecting a bank is one of QuickBooks Self-Employed’s biggest indicators of return use. It’s easy to wax poetic about the benefits of the product (receipts! mileage! totally sweet insights!), but ain’t nobody got time for that. By articulating the goal of your flow, you’ll inform the design and keep your team focused.

Why sync your bank? We sum it up to guide you to the ultimate goal of this flow.

3. Imagine what your brand character might say to this customer, face to face, to accomplish your goal.
Here’s where your voice and tone strategy comes in. (If you don’t have one, come up with a few quick guidelines for speaking to your customers in this situation and consider dedicating resources to building this strategy.) An easy place to start imagining this conversation is to think of how you might explain the situation to a friend: Y’all are chilling at the dive-in, gin cocktails in hand, and you realize now is the perfect time and place to pitch them on something that you just *know* would help them out. What would you say? How would you talk? How would your friend respond? Starting with your friend/customer and setting aside concerns about length and design, write all that down exactly as though you’re saying it aloud, and don’t forget to delete the expletives. I like to format it like a script; you might have another brilliant idea, which you should share in the comments.

The final flow ended up having a bifurcation: track expenses or track mileage. But this is one way a good friend (who happens to be an accountant) could open your consult.

4. Share with your team.

So here’s what the conversation prototype could look like in this case:

Customer: Oh thank god, I finally finished my taxes. I’m on this screen telling me about effortless expense tracking to help me with the next time I have to do this, and it’s free, so… yeah, I’m in. Wonder what I have to do.
Us: OK, let’s go to QuickBooks Self-Employed to do that…
Hi, welcome to QuickBooks! We work with TurboTax to make next year’s taxes easier. Come on in!
Customer: Weird that I have to type my login info again if you guys work with TurboTax, but OK, I’ll sign in.
Us: How was filing your 2017 taxes with TurboTax?
Customer: some kind of facial expression, likely a grimace
Us: OK, we hope to improve on that.
We’ll help you track your self-employed income and expenses year-round so that you owe less or get a bigger refund next year. Sending all that deduction info back to TurboTax will be as easy as pushing a button.
You’re almost there. All you have to do now is link your bank so we can collect and sort your expenses for you. Then you can take a vacation from thinking about taxes for a while! We’ll keep tracking it all here so that when you’re ready, next year’s taxes will be a breeze.
Customer: OK, you got me. I’ll connect my bank.

So as you can see, this ain’t final. I don’t think we used a single phrase from this conversation prototype in the designs we shipped. But prototyping the conversation in this way “did something magical for the team,” according to my product manager:

It brought what we were all working on to life and made it feel real.

Design happened faster because there was a rich conversation to build off of. Customer feedback and testing had a starting point. We all had something concrete to refer to when the temptation arose to do too much in the limited time we had.

So give this a try the next time you start a project. It really puts design power into the hands of content creators, and it’s a quick, relatively easy way to motivate your team and get content into the process early (which is kinda one of my biggest things).