Leveraging Scenarios (Why Apps Fail Before They Even Get Started)

The financial planning site/application Wesabe failed because they didn’t understand how to use scenarios effectively. You can avoid that mistake by realizing that UX scenarios are about life, not about optimizing the human/computer interface.


Wesabe was a financial management website/application that didn’t succeed. Instead, it lost out to Mint (which, by the way, was eventually bought by Intuit for $170 million). Wesabe’s founder, Marc Hedlund wrote in a blog post that there were really two reasons Wesabe failed and one was “I was focused on trying to make the usability of editing data as easy and functional as it could be; Mint was focused on making it so you never had to do that at all.”

Notice the critical issue here: It didn’t matter how good Wesabe got at usability — the company was fundamentally working on the wrong thing. Wesabe didn’t understand how to use its user’s scenarios and, as a result, they started on the wrong path before they wrote their first line of code. (If you’re interested, the other problem was failing either to partner up with a specific data provider or to have a strategy in place if one of their competitors did…and Mint did).

A Scenario is Real Life

A scenario (also called user stories or user journeys) is a description of your users’ real life, created after you decide who your users are. A scenario allows you to understand your user’s experience in the real world. A scenario is not the description of the button clicks or the interactions a user has with your application (that’s called an “interaction script” and is created much later in the UX design process). In fact, a scenario is only distantly concerned with the user’s interactions with the application. Instead, a scenario is primarily interested in everything going on in the user’s life while working with your application. A scenario is a story, a “slice of life” that describes the real world where a user interacts with your application. Focusing on button clicks and mouse movements will lead you, inevitably, to trying to optimize those activities when that may be exactly the wrong thing to do.

If you think about a scenario as an expression of your user’s life then there are two major takeaways for you. First: There are things in your life that you want to get rid off. As in the Wesabe/Mint story, you want to eliminate those activities (and only if you can’t eliminate them should you try to optimize them). Second: There are also things in your life that you want to do more of. Those are are things you want to enhance in your UX, rather than optimize or eliminate.

Enhancing Planning

Here’s a scenario we use in Learning Tree’s User Experience Design course as part of one of the course’s case studies:

After getting home from work, having dinner, and driving the kids to their friends’ homes and activities, Martha grabs her laptop and sits in front of the TV to start planning her family’s vacation. Martha thinks she’ll start looking at where the family could go in the American Southwest.
Martha looks at rafting down the Colorado River for three or four days, but that’s handled through a lottery—there’s no guarantee that her family would be picked (it’s also expensive). While she’s looking, she realizes that she missed an important part of the TV show she and her husband are watching so, after checking with her husband, rolls the PVR back to that part.
Martha looks at other camping/hiking locations in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon. During a break between shows, her husband brings them coffee and looks at some locations with her. Within a couple of hours, Martha finds several places that look like they have interesting activities nearby. One of her children calls to ask if she can be picked up a little later than planned, so Martha can spend some more time on this.

If you’re focused on making this scenario more efficient then you’re missing the point. If you look at the scenario, planning the vacation is not a burden for Martha. Instead it’s something she:

  • Does in the evening as part of her spare time
  • Shares with her husband,
  • Mixes in with other leisure activities (e.g. watching TV)

Most importantly, this task is not something that Martha has to spend time on — as the last line indicates, it’s something she can spend time on. For this user, rather than making the UX more efficient, you want to enrich the UX and make it more immersive.

Reducing Effort

Here’s another vacation planning scenario, this time for a busy, upwardly-mobile business executive:

Fortunately, my meeting with Phyllis finished earlier than I expected so I got a chance to try to set up my vacation—it’s only three weeks away. I wanted to go somewhere different, so I looked at resorts in the south of France.
You know, I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t go to a resort. I mean, it’s supposed to be a vacation, isn’t it? If you have to do all of the planning, set everything up, run from place to place when you get there … well, then it’s just like work, isn’t it? And what if you pick a crummy restaurant one night? I’ve got, like, two weeks I can take away from the job, I don’t want any part of it to be wrong.
So, I took a look at four or five resorts. I want to take it easy, but there are things I like to do so I was able to discard a couple of places right off the bat—didn’t have anything to do at night. One place’s beaches didn’t look all that hot, so I dropped that resort. Only one of the remaining places had rooms available in my time period and in my price range.
Of course, I looked up and William was waiting to see me. I got an e-mail off to Jan with the details about the resort to make sure it was OK for her and then told William to come in. Once I hear back from Jan, I’ll book it.

This user is not doing something he enjoys. Instead, he’s trying to shoehorn a required (and, perhaps, unpleasant) activity in between his work activities. In the first scenario, vacation planning for was an enjoyable activity all by itself. For this user, vacation planning is a necessary evil and a means to the real end – going on vacation. This scenario does call for optimization or — even better — the elimination of tasks.

In UX design, there’s a reason that scenario analysis/design occurs early in the process. While scenarios have much to tell you about how you should craft your user experience they have something more important to tell you about your users –  how your application should fit into your users’ lives. You should listen to them carefully.

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