Designing User Scenarios for Mobile and Transit Experiences

I’ve been working on a design technique for visually representing user scenarios for transportation and other mobile experiences. When users are in transit or using a mobile device there is a special relationship with both time and space. Such scenarios and use cases could be modeled with flow charts or swim lanes, but such diagrams do not capture important moments in space and geography. Maps and timelines are a familiar and intuitive and visual element for presenting this information.

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Sometime users’ goals can be associated with a specific place in time or geography.

Before I show an example scenario, I should describe how user scenarios fit in the overall design process.

Scenarios design is an activity that often used as part of a user-centered design process. Modeling with scenarios is an early steps in a goal-directed design process, which is explained in About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design by Alan Cooper:

  • Research users and the problem domain
  • Model users and product context
    - Create user personas
    - Create persona-based scenarios
  • Define the user, business, and technical requirements
  • Define a design structure and flow or design framework
  • Refine behaviors, form, and content
  • Support development needs

After the creating personas for the design problem or domain, scenarios are used to tell a complete story about the ideal user experience and “describe how the persona interacts with the system”. (Cooper, 2007) Scenarios are a powerful modeling tool, allowing the designer to explore the context of user interactions and not lose sight of the broader user goals. It’s a process that has the added benefit of refining the system requirements and often eliciting new system features and requirements.

Here’s an example of scenario design in action. What I’ve added to a common scenario sequence is a timeline of the user and system behavior. For the primary persona, I would model several different scenarios. Most scenarios will achieve one of the persona’s goals, but their also could be a sequence for a system failure. Our persona will drive to an appointment in a nearby city. The user is somewhat familiar with the freeway system, but is going to a new destination, in a busy part of the city.

The primary persona is a frequent traveler in the same geographic region. The user likes to feel productive while driving. It is a time of day when she plans, thinks, and would like to communicate, when it is safe and legal. She used to enjoy driving but has grown to strongly dislike commuting during the work week.

The following are some of the user’s goals:

  • Arrive on time
  • Make use of spare time— “I don’t like waiting.”
  • Learn about new areas and nearby places
  • Find an inexpensive place to park and charge electric vehicle near destination

“I’m always on time for meetings; I like to plan ahead, but also take a spare moment enjoy the area.”


The following are some basic requirements and system constraints:

  • Use only technologies that are commercially available today.
  • Operating system may be either an embedded automotive system or personal mobile device.
  • Electric vehicle with only 150 miles of range
  • Comply with Department of Transportation guidelines for user interaction and distracted driving.

Success Criteria:

  • Identify the problems and context in the real world
  • Identify “key path” to user goal
  • Shows an end-to-end experience or full story
    Avoid focusing too much on a single interaction or aspect of the system.
  • Show the dimensions of both time and space and how this relates to the user’s interactions.
  • Account for first- and last-mile problems
  • Shows how the experience accounts for unknowns and interruptions.
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The scenario shows the relevant activities that comprise a trip or other story. Viewing these activities spatially allows us to judge the user workload. In the scenario above, the car or phone operating system may actually perform some trip planning and determine safe times for certain activities.

For transit and mobile users in cities, the end of a trip is often the most complex part of the scenario. These are often called “first mile” and “last mile” problems. Users of cars, for instance, face last mile problems such as detours, finding a location, navigation, parking, and switching to a different transit system. While city and transportation planners work to provide services to reduce the problem, it’s still an important problem for designers to consider. In the example scenario, we zoom in on the last mile, in this case the last 3 miles of a car trip. This could also be considered a separate scenarios.

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That’s about it. Any feedback on this idea is appreciated.

Co-founder of Vibemap. I write about data, cities, transit, and local government.

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