Every time I go to Airbnb, I marvel at the framed storyboards they created with Pixar back in 2012. Storyboards are the standard that have helped the behemoth create cohesive experiences. And for a while I thought, “well if you have storyboards then you can create a mind-blowing product…the end.”
However, I discovered that designing experiences requires more than just a storyboard. A storyboard needs supporting communication tools so you can communicate with different stakeholders your grand vision. In design, storyboards have cousins like the Customer Journey Map, Job Stories and Task Flows. Recently, our team came together to redefine the process from storyboarding to execution. These are some of the lessons I’ve learned to make storyboarding more concrete when developing concepts.
Imagine you are the director of a movie and you’re about to meet with different departments.
Storyboards: What’s the unique perspective?
You make a first stop with the storyboard department because you’re interested in understanding your customer as a character. A customer is a person, not a user, with emotions and experiences. As you start understanding his world, it is important to find the compelling emotions that are driving him. What does he want the most? What’s preventing him from getting what he wants? What might help him succeed? How might he change as a result of the obstacle? What are the stakes?
Once you complete a storyboard, you partner with research to test out the narrative in front of an audience (in design this means customers). There’s a misconception that research only does usability studies of features and products. The feedback can help you refine assumptions (Pixar’s Coco had a long list of cultural consultants!). If you don’t get feedback on your storyboards and iterate on them, then they become useless artifacts.
Journey Maps: What’s the structure?
In order to plan this great story with producers, you need to map the beats — what keeps the story moving. A Customer Journey helps this process via Moments of Truth and Engagement Levels. A Moment of Truth is a CRITICAL point where your character needs to make a decision (right or wrong) in order to move on to the next phase. We track Engagement Levels along these critical points to humanize the problem and to give guidance to the team on what parts need the most attention using the emoji set of our main characters (created by Yuki Alzona).
Mental Models: What’s happening in each scene?
After you have taken care of structure, it’s time to focus on the nitty gritty scenes. You can use Job Stories and Task Flows to understand how your character moves inside a scene. Unlike User Stories, Job Stories help clarify context through a situation, a motivation and an outcome (user stories are more ambiguous and lead to many assumptions). This level of granularity also narrow the focus on discussions with stakeholders.
Each Job Story can be expanded into a detailed sequence, the Task Flow.
The Task Flow keeps design at an abstract level so you can easily switch and move things around. You can see where in the sequence your character will face a dilemma (diamonds) and the different paths he can take to achieve his journey (not every journey is linear). Both Job Stories and Task Flows create a Mental Model of how your character thinks and reacts to situations. Mental Models allow you to find consensus on what experience you are creating, not how you are creating (production) before the rest of crew come in to polish the work.
You have walked in the shoes of a director to get a glimpse into how storyboards stand together with other communication tools to achieve successful execution. As product designers we are not always designing with La La Land scenarios. The challenges we face in design require us to bridge complex systems with people. Great products that create strong bonds between the two tell great stories. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel to decipher how to build great stories, let’s learn from industries that have been enchanting us with epic stories.
More Takes on Story & Design
Here are some of my favorite storytelling resources that can help you craft better product stories:
Thanks Rebecca & Daniel for lending a hand on editing :smile_cat: