A Forgotten Prototype Technique: Comics

Jared Spool

March 29th, 2006

If I look back at how I became excited about building usable designs, one key moment came when listening to the Drama and Personality in User Interface Design panel at the CHI ’89 conference in Austin, Texas. All the panelists rocked and have left an indelible impression on my work and philosophy.

But one panelist, Laurie Vertelney, really changed the way I looked at things. Laurie, working for Apple Computer at the time, showed some prototypes she’d created for her work.

What made these prototypes different from any I’d seen before was they weren’t of the design of the device (in this case, a predecessor to what would become the Apple Newton), but instead were of the experience using the device. The prototype was a comic strip and each panel represented what the user’s life would be like as the interacted with the handheld unit.

I immediately saw how this was different. When you build a prototype design, you typically only see it from the design’s perspective: What are the buttons? How do they work? What displays when? Where is everything in relationship to everything else in the design? No doubt, these are important issues, but they are only one side of the story.

What’s often missing is the view from the user’s experience: What’s frustrating? What works well? What is their motivation? What do they do with the results of the interaction? How does it dovetail into other aspects of their life?

With this one short demonstration, Laurie showed me I’d completely missed this perspective. It completely changed how I looked at design.

What was even more remarkable about her comics was how simple they were. She’d used simple, almost stick-figure characters to draw her people. Yet, each person was expressive, showing the observer how they felt about the frustrations of the current problems and the delight that came from the solutions Laurie’s team was proposing. You couldn’t help but get excited about the designs they were looking at.

After that session, I spent the next few years focusing on capturing these experiences. For the Harvard Business School, I drew really crappy looking cartoons that got the faculty all excited about a new system they were installing in addition to giving us in-depth feedback on what details we’d missed in the initial design. For a major resort hotel chain, we used video interviews of imaginary guests to describe their hotel-stay experience, which we then used as a use-case like requirements set for an information system upgrade. For another client, we hired animators to create a short film that detailed a day in the life with their product.

In each case, the actual design never showed up — only the user’s experiences while interacting with the design. I was always amazed how much valuable information we yielded from that.

As time went on, we moved to more traditional approaches of prototyping and those early techniques fell by the wayside. It wasn’t until I was sitting in Kevin Cheng (one half of the OK/Cancel team) and Jane Jao’s excellent Communicating Concepts through Comics session at the recent IA Summit that I realized I’d forgotten how important this type of prototyping really is to the design process. (Luke wrote up a great description of the session here.)

Sample comic strip

Comic strips, even poorly drawn ones ( the only kind I can do), allow us to focus on the experience the user has with the design and get feedback during the early concept and discovery stages, where the broad brush strokes are being worked out. Teams can evaluate the strips with real users and collect rich information which will guide every subsequent of the design process.

It’s a powerful technique that I’m surprised we don’t see used more often.

3 Responses to “A Forgotten Prototype Technique: Comics”

  1. IA Summit 2006 » Blog Archive » My thoughts on Communicating With Comics Says:

    [...] I’ve written a small missive on Kevin and Jane’s excellent Communicating with Comics session here. [...]

  2. Nancy Broden Says:

    Disney uses storyboards (in a similar vein to the Kevin Cheng example shown) to convey not only the experience from the user’s point of view, but also to bring to life the persona depicted. The storyboards are very helpful to gain key stakeholder buy-in on a proposed design strategy because they translate concepts into readily understood narratives.

    Having Disney talent do the illustrations helps immensely, needless to say… :-)

  3. Web in the burbs » So that logo… Says:

    [...] A Forgotten Prototype Technique: Comics – Jared Spool [...]

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