Voyage of discovery (sessions)

Storymap from discovery session

The big question for any website or digital product is ‘does it work for our users in order to drive and deliver our business needs and goals?’ It’s the users who turn into customers so making sure that your digital product is user-focused should be a big priority. Where should we start? How do we connect business and user needs?

This is where I raise my hand and tell you about design discovery. But before I tell you about that, let’s rewind the clock to my earlier days of web design. [Cue Wayne’s World style flashback]. Back then, maybe seven or eight years ago) many designers, myself included, were so keen to get started with projects that we’d go through the motions of a kick-off meeting where we’d get our client’s requirements and goals and then sprint off towards a solution. We had technical requirements, a chosen CMS, SMART goals and brand assets. Good to go right? We cracked on with sketches, visuals and dev and made the website that our clients wanted. The only problem though, was it the website they needed?

The advent of UX

At some point, between then and now, the industry (and I) started recognising that designing websites for businesses’ requirements didn’t mean that they actually worked. User Experience, although it’s been around for decades, started coming to the forefront of web designers’ minds. The priority was no longer designing what our clients wanted but what our users wanted too. That’s not to say that we weren’t designing for target audiences, of course we were. But we were designing for what our clients thought they were or wanted them to be; not necessarily who they actually were.

With this sea change came a new understanding for many designers. A new perspective of identifying user needs through research, empathy, perspective taking and a desire to please our users and our clients. Suddenly our kick-off meetings were too business focused and not user focused enough. We needed to adapt our projects to being user-focused. We needed to champion the users, but before we could do that, we needed to understand them.

User research is the first and obvious way to do this and is insanely valuable. But is it the first step? Can we truly identify users without an intimate understanding of our client’s business? Can we design the best solution for our clients and their users without knowing what our clients are trying to achieve? If the value proposition is hazy, then is understanding the users hazy too?

Design discovery

There is no design with discovery”
– Dan Brown, Practical Design Discovery

My role now now is to clear the haze before projects commence. I do this through discovery. There’s no one way to do this and the tools I use vary depending on my clients and their situations. This article highlights a typical framework I use to get my clients thinking about their business and how they communicate their value proposition to their users.

Invariably web projects require a mixture of stakeholders, all with slightly different objectives. We might have marketing, sales, CEOs, operations, customer services and IT stakeholders, to name a few. And they all see their own business through different lenses. When the business stakeholders aren’t in alignment, how can they possibly communicate clearly to their users?

Storymapping

While there are many ways of accessing stakeholder information, one of the tools I’ve found most effective is ‘Storymapping.’ This was coined by Donna Lichaw in her book The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products That People Love. I highly recommend it. As with some of the best UX tools out there, it’s super simple but very effective. UX designers are naturally empathetic and predisposed to aligning themselves with users’ emotions and needs but this doesn’t come easily to everyone. More importantly than empathy, perhaps, is the ability to shift mental perspectives. Perspective taking, ‘the active cognitive process of imagining the world from another’s vantage point’, encourages stakeholders to think from their users’ perspective. Helping them understand how their service supports users’ pain points.

Storytelling is not new in design and development. A core component of Agile development is User Stories. These encourage developers to think about functionality from the user’s perspective. Storytelling evokes a strong neurological response in people. By framing a discovery activity around it, the needs of the user go from facts and stats to emotional connections with the intended audience.

What is it?

Storymapping takes place as a short session in which we create stories for our user personas, mapping out how and why they are interacting with our stakeholders’ website.

As with all stories, there’s a beginning, middle and end. We use the idea of simple narrative to drive this forward. As with any good story, we need a protagonist and exposition. Who are they? What’s their current state? Once we’ve set the scene, we need an inciting incident, a problem or pain point they need to overcome; a trigger on why they might need the stakeholders’ service.

Then in the middle, the action happens, how will they approach solving their problem? What assistance do they need? How does the service assist them? Who is the villain? What are the obstacles and barriers standing in their way? What’s the climax of the story? How do they overcome their problem and defeat the villain? What’s the value proposition of the service that makes them say ‘yes, this is exactly what I was looking for?’

But we don’t leave it at that ‘aha’ moment. It’s one thing to get our protagonist to the climax of their narrative, but the story doesn’t end there. How do they return home a hero? How does our user, our potential customer go from interested, to invested, to ambassador? What’s the ending? How do we know their goals have been met?

What are the outcomes?

You’ll notice that this entire session is based around question asking. It’s about framing the problem, not bypassing straight to the solution. When I first started introducing this session, I was worried that my participants wouldn’t get it. Would they think it was silly? Would they think it was unnecessary?

Thankfully, that’s not the case. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Of all the perspective taking exercises I’ve facilitated, this has had the most engagement from participants. It’s not an easy exercise. It makes people think, it makes them ask difficult questions of themselves, it highlights internal lack of alignment and understanding. It reveals holes or distractions that stop users achieving their goals.

This could feel negative, but it’s not. As an exercise, revealing these issues means that we can fix them and ultimately improve not only the new website or product, but set in place improvements to the stakeholders’ business and service. It also highlights the positive. The result of one session with a client introduced a much clearer value proposition and benefits to potential customers; many of which were not communicated on their existing website. This allowed us to write much more value-led copy for their new site.

Shared understanding leads to better communication

There’s a wealth of information that each stakeholder holds and storymapping gets it out of their head and onto the wall. It helps stakeholders declare their assumptions to minimise assumed knowledge. It gets everyone on the same page. It also allows me as a facilitator to ask the difficult questions, the ones that internal teams sometimes avoid due to hierarchy. It’s essential that everyone feels an equal in these sessions.

There aren’t always opportunities, or the structure, in everyday life for people within an organisation to talk to each other about their customers. Having an interdisciplinary group of people in a session allows stakeholders to share stories of their customers and ask each other questions. Oftentimes we have a mixture of people from big picture, visionary, thinkers to those who are front-line and customer facing. Having these people bring their own experience of their audience and business together enables us to better understand the intents of the interactions between customer and company; user and website.

Front-line staff are often the best source of information for capturing and understanding user needs. They are the ones who field complaints, offer support and hear objections to their product or service. Customer service and sales representatives often know more about their customers than those in leadership positions. Having these people in storymapping sessions is vital. There’s much to learn from them and they often offer information about pain-points that’s unknown to leadership roles.

The representation of customers enables us to put the users’ pain-points at the heart of the session and identify what the business does to address those. Storymapping, at the highest level, outlines how customers think about the website and therefore the service offering. Along with the benefits of shared understanding, it forms the basis of design improvements. If the content of the website doesn’t clearly state the value proposition, we can rewrite it. If the next steps for the user are not clear, we can rework the user journey. If the product or service doesn’t address pain-points, we can help clients create a roadmap of improvements to their offering.

Storymapping is one of the first steps I take in discovery. But it’s only the beginning. It’s the exercise that gets everyone in alignment before diving into other discovery sessions such as ‘How might we’, goal setting, content idea generation, user journey flows, and into Information Architecture planning and wireframing. It sets the stage and stops us skipping to the solve. It’s one of many tools, but one that I’ll be using time-again.