Illustration by Edward Abbott

Why Human-Centered Design Needs a Visual Storyteller, and How I Became One

People think better in pictures. Some authors draw out an entire world and their characters before they ever start writing. Imagine how helpful it would be as a writer to see your characters as they interact with their surroundings while you tell the story of their journey and experiences. As a designer, this idea of capturing customer journeys by sketching them is how I better understand customers and their needs.

I’m a visual and experience designer at Capital One; it’s my job to make sure that when a customer uses our products they don’t have to think about how it works. That’s great—but I wanted to build on that. In some cases, customers are interacting with us under inexact circumstances. What if your debit card was lost or stolen? What if you saw fraud on your account? It can be scary stuff. It’s also a defining moment for how we react and what we serve to them.

Jumping in on a project and moving right from research and customer interviews to high-fidelity design has been done and can work. With this approach, maybe you’ll get lucky with a perfectly intuitive customer experience. But do you really get it? Can you really have empathy for exactly what customers need without hearing it directly from them? If you have the capacity, I really recommend being there from the beginning. And if you’re able to be there from the beginning, I’ve found that sketching those experiences is one of the best ways to share that empathy with those who can’t be.

“No, not my wallet!”

Now, I understand that we all can’t be there 100% of the time. It’s just not realistic. Before we figure out how to solve for the problem we need to understand the customer narrative and how we can socialize that story to our stakeholders. An illustration gives them a real-life visual example of who we need to help, what they are going through, and how we can start to think about helping them.

Visual Storytelling helps translate empathy for other designers, stakeholders, and partners who don’t get to be there during research.

Whether I’m sitting in someone’s home and listening to them talk about the way they save money and plan for the future, or if they come to the office and tell us about a time they lost their debit card, there is no better way to understand customers’ behaviors and feelings than hearing their stories firsthand.

Before I start putting “pencil to paper” to sketch out the customer experience, I am able to visualize their words. I remember how they felt and how excited they were to get their problem resolved. I can now tell that story through illustration. It gives me that connection, that true feeling of human-centered design.

“I really need my card but I can’t leave the house”

I was drawing a storyboard for an internal animated video of On-Demand banking products. The experience involved a customer who had a plumbing disaster in her home. She also needed to order a new debit card but couldn’t leave her home to go to a branch. Because I could listen to her story, see her expressions and feel her frustration, I could visualize that anxiety.

Creating a role out of a need

I was a web designer and developer when I started with Capital One. Soon after, I realized I was writing a lot less code and started to move into a mostly visual design role. I liked being able to access the more expressive parts of my brain, but everything was still digital. I wanted to pick up a pencil and get back to doing creative things that were analog and get away from the computer more.

It was later when I started working with a new team and focusing on more innovative banking products and services that a need arose to visualize interactions that aren’t yet developed. These customer interactions are a unique blend of touch points that are both physical (offline) and digital (online). They aren’t always centered around an app or interface. Testing these concepts with our stakeholders (just like we do with low-fidelity prototypes) helps us to gauge and test hypothesis before we go and build an end-to-end high-fidelity experience prototype. My team’s reaction to this method has been really positive and encouraging. I asked fellow designer and team leader Daniel Filler, how he remembers helping to guide me in this direction:

“There’s something extremely effective about lower fidelity illustrations — it sets the tone that this experience is conceptual, it’s an idea that invites the same level of constructive feedback that a low-fidelity prototype would.”

Fast forward to today, I don’t design for the web at all. I visualize and illustrate customer experiences. I tell stories. I’m bringing my foundational skills as an artist to work and using them to help the customer.

As such I’ve been working to establish my personal brand within Capital One as an illustrator. This is not a position that ever existed prior. It’s not an official title but word is getting around and the demand for my type of work has definitely increased.

The value of visual storytelling in the design process

Customer needs translate into designing for a multitude of touch points. It could be a transaction inside of a bank branch, delivering a replacement debit card, or how customers interact and find services in our app or other devices like Alexa on an Echo. What these all have in common is the customer and their interactions with us. The designers and stakeholders all want to be on the same page with how we want to solve for these customer needs. My job is to visualize these experiences through illustration. It allows my team to share our findings in a way that is more relatable than just reading through pages of customer interviews or research videos and synthesis.

Without visual storytelling things could get lost in translation. If our internal customers can’t see what we see, more is left open to interpretation and imagination.

It greatly helps me to be there early in the process, and illustrating those interactions with customers helps bring our partners into the early stages of the process when we explore why we’re designing these products and services; who they’re for. I asked Jeremy Phillips, a product manager, his thoughts on how being involved early with strategy and product helps us better visualize the experience.

“I definitely think it’s important to have all stakeholders present for the user feedback and the user experience. It’s difficult to understand our goals for the project without seeing the customer reaction and hearing banker feedback firsthand.”

The ultimate goal is to not just be a guy who draws nice pictures to make a keynote deck look better. The bigger picture is that I support my team with all aspects of getting products to customers. It’s my hope that visual storytelling will also help to shape the larger picture like project roadmaps and business strategy.

Illustration is relatable and impactful

I asked around to find some like-minded designers who have been using illustration to tell user-centered stories. Chad Poorman, a designer in the mortgage space, has been using illustration to create user personas that represent experiences in the consumer application process.

Illustration by Chad Poorman
“As we reimagine the consumer application process for mortgages, we’re using illustrated storyboards to develop our user personas, and communicate stories to our stakeholders (internally). Illustration is relatable. It brings a fun, more human element to the table that helps creates conversation and allows everyone to engage a bit more during meetings. And engaging our partners in the design process is ultimately what helps us deliver great products.”

Erik Jutras works with Small Business. For him, illustrations help to create visual representations of customer frustrations and pain points that they encounter in their day to day lives while running their businesses.

Illustration by Eric Jutras
“The storyboards really helped our partners (product, design, engineering) visualize the various use cases of our product, while providing the foundation for discussions between our partners regarding the functionality of the product and its feasibility of implementation.”

Kevin Kalahiki—a fellow comic geek who works with Erik said,

“Storyboarding is about as close as I’ve come to fulfilling my childhood dream of drawing comics for a living. The tale of funding a brand new small business savings account is not quite as perilous as the tale of Earth’s mightiest heroes taking on Thanos, but it will do.”
Illustration by Kevin Kalahiki

Finding others like myself who work at the Bank and have also been introducing their interest in drawing and illustration to their work has been very encouraging. It’s especially satisfying that they are finding success with the process.

The Story Behind the Artwork

I relate visual storytelling to something Klaus Voorman said:

“I wanted to express and show people, instead of explaining to them, how it was to live in an attic apartment and how the walls were, and that the bathtub was in the kitchen. Of course, when you draw that — ‘Oh, he’s sitting in the bathtub and the phone rings’ — it’s much more lively.”

The quote is in reference to making the 50th anniversary graphic novel that tells the story around creating the iconic cover to the Beatles Revolver album.

The assumption is that at a bank, products and services are very process-oriented. So the presentations and design behind it would be also. Myself and the other human-centered designers are working to change that. This same principle could work anywhere. I’m not just creating visual stories that only relate to people and money. This can be done with anything. Just listen and visualize.


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