Scrap the user persona. Replace it with the storyboard.

4 min read
Mark Wheeler
  •  Jul 24, 2019
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Customer-centric design is key to building great products and services that grow your business offering. As designers, however, you need to get buy-in from the wider organization to turn your ideas into reality. 

Easier said than done. How do you effectively share your ideas?

User personas are a great tool for sharing empathy, however, you can all too easily fall into the causation trap, assuming that the behavior of your users is caused by unrelated (but easy to track) attributes. Does the age of your user make them buy your product? If not, why is it listed on the persona? Personas focus on what makes people different, we need to focus on what people have in common. It’s not about nailing down individual customers—it’s about finding what their similarities are. As written in HBR, “We focus on what unites customers. Customers’ differences often prevent you from seeing what’s most important.”

If your tool for transmitting user struggles and goals to your team is ineffective, you are going to make products for a user group that does not exist and growth will stall, putting your design team under increasing pressure. An HBR article on the topic of Jobs to Be Done wrote,“[Many organizations] spend time and money compiling data-rich models that make them masters of description but failures at prediction.”

Different members of your team will be at different lengths away from the end user and therefore have less information to try to create value.

Developers, for example, are not only at a distance from the user they are serving, but they also have very little visibility of the value they create. A tool is needed that allows anyone on the team to look at a user and be inspired by their struggles to help you get the buy in you to need to make your idea a reality.

Something has to be better than user personas

If we are not going to use personas, what other tools can we use?

As humans, we are hardwired to understand and interpret stories. Stories are the way we share empathy in our culture. The great thing about stories is they can capture many different types of situations. Everyone has a story, a set of struggles and anxieties, and we need to capture this information to better serve them.

In this post, we are going to create a storyboard that represents a common story for a subset of users. When I have used storyboards in recent projects they have enabled the design research to be presented in a way that fostered executive-level support much faster than in any other past projects.

We will use design thinking methods to use this storyboard with our multifunctional team to prototype new products and services and create growth through innovation.

As noted in the book Made To Stick, the fewer levels of abstraction used when presenting information, the more memorable the information is. The storyboards you are going to create only have a very simple level of abstraction and will be easily remembered by the team (if you use real images/videos from the user research as companies like Google do, there will be no abstraction at all).

Airbnb has used storyboards to ignite their teams, producing two storyboards, one for the guest and one for the host:

Guest storyboard from Airbnb
Host storyboard from Airbnb

These storyboards are much higher quality than we need (they hired a Pixar artist) but show what we are going to make.

Planning the storyboard

Design thinking is split into 3 sections:


  1. 1) User research
  2. 2) Research interpretation and ideation
  3. 3) Prototype products/services to provide value

Step 1. Determining Jobs To Be Done

This step in design thinking is about capturing user problems. For our approach we are going to use the Jobs To Be Done method. This requires us to interview users and understand what job they are trying to do, and what obstacles (anxiety, confusion, pull from previous products) that stand in the way of a new innovation. This method (invented by Clayton Christensen) does not specify what questions to ask, as each product would need a different set of questions. We will create research questions based on the market we are researching.

To try to fully understand the users social, emotional and functional needs, as well as other important contextual information we might need such as who has purchase power etc, we will build up a story for each user we interview.

The user interview

To recap, we are interviewing users to discover their JTBD so we can find areas in which to innovate. We will break down the interview questions to follow the three-act story structure.

Act 1.  Before product use

In this act, you are going to ask questions that lead up to the purchase/usage of your product. Depending on the product this can be a small or large period. You are looking for the trigger (inciting incident) that caused the user to either go in search of your product (if they are an innovator/early adopter) or the person or advert that caused the user to consider your product (early/late majority).

People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole! — Theodore Levitt

Questions to ask users in this section include: How long did they consider the purchase? Who did they need to ask before they bought the product? Did they see any marketing material/branding before the purchase?

One of my favorite stories about this stage is described in the 10 Faces of Innovation. When thinking about buying a new TV, one anxiety is whether it will fit. A clever solution was to create a small piece of paper that folded out to the size of the TV. This could be put in magazines to advertise the TV and folded out next to your wall to see if the TV would fit.

Below is an example script for this first step:

What product did you purchase?

Paint for our living room.

Why did you buy this product?

A friend of mine posted some new pictures of their new house and I thought it was about time we had a refresh.

Did your friend post just the one?

No, they posted a bunch of images when they moved in.

How many did you see before you decided you needed a refresh?

About 4 or 5.

What time of year was this?

Around March-April.

So you went straight to the store to buy paint?

I looked online first to get some inspiration for what colors would work for our house.

Was this the same website as the paint manufacturer?

No, they only had images of the paint tins, so it was not much help.

After you decided on color, did you go straight to the store?

Yeah, I took an image with me of the color I wanted and someone in the store mixed paint to match the color for me.

How much did you spend on paint?

Too much! I had no idea how much I needed for the whole room, the paint tins gave you an idea of how many meters they would cover, but I might need to give it two coats. I ended up buying more just in case as I didn’t know if we mixed new paint if it would be the exact color again.

Act 2 . The purchase

The next section of the user journey is at the point of purchase/usage. There is usually anxiety in any purchase decision, and this normally manifests itself as an uncomfortable feeling. People also compare multiple products, but their decision might not be rational, so uncovering this process and surrounding factors is crucial.

Questions such as: Who was involved with the purchase decision? What anxiety/uncertainty did you feel before or just after the purchase? Which competitors did you look at? Are good places to start.

Continuing our example script:

How many tins did you end up buying?


Did you look at other suppliers?

I looked at the generic paint brands but I couldn’t find the color I was looking for.

It must have been more expensive to have it mixed?

Yeah, but the color is going to last a couple of years so there is no point in buying paint because it is cheap. It would annoy me looking at the walls if I knew it was cheap paint.

Why is that?

When my friends come round I will be embarrassed if it looked cheap.

It matters what your friends think?

Of course!

Why is that?

We all secretly think our houses are better than our friends right?

Did you buy anything else?

Some paint brushes.

Did you take the paint tins home or have them delivered?

They had no delivery option so I had to take them home in the car.

Did they fit in the car?

My partner was with me and helped me carry them to the car.

How heavy was the paint?

Very heavy! I had to stop half way to the car as the thick plastic handles dug a groove into my hands.

Was that the only problem with getting it home?

No, the paint kept moving around in the car, I ended up driving differently to stop it constantly moving around.

How easy was it to paint the room?

A nightmare! We couldn’t open the paint tins, so I got a fork to pry it open and bent the fork! Then I forgot to buy sheets to cover the furniture and had to go back to the store.

It was easy from then on right?

No, the paint had settled and needed stirring. Seen as though I ruined my fork I just used that to stir it.

Act 3 .  Life after the purchase (Dénouement)

The final section of the interview centres around if the user adopted the innovation. Not all users who buy your product will continue using it (churn) and depending on who you are interviewing (active/inactive user) you will need to cater the questions asked.

Sample questions: Would you buy the product again? Did you continue to use the product? Did you recommend the product to a friend (NPS)?

Continuing our example script:

How long did it take to paint the room?

A full day to get the first coat on.

Did you need that second coat?


What did you do with the leftover paint?

That is a good question. I couldn’t re-seal the paint tins so I couldn’t store them in case they got knocked over.

What did you do with them?

I had to take them back to the store so they could dispose of the leftover paint.

What did you do with the unopened tins?

I had to keep them, the store wouldn’t take them back as they had been specially mixed. I’ll keep them in case I need a patch-up job.

Would you recommend this store to a friend?

I’m not sure. It was expensive and involved multiple trips.

For each of the acts above, delving deeper with the 5 whys is important, remembering not to rush, as each layer of why reveals important information.

Step 2. Merging stories

This step involves merging stories that share a similar JTBD. As mentioned in the 10 Faces of Innovation, we are going to make a hero character out of the research above so that we can find ways to create value for them.

As it is impossible for the entire team to read every user story, we are going to average the stories we have to create our hero. This averaging needs to be along an axis of JTBD, otherwise, it will create a generic hero that would be impossible to accurately create value for. You need to combine stories that share a Job To Be Done regardless of any other factor or attribute of the user.

In our example above, our hero story looks like this:

  1. A piece of online content is the trigger for thinking about a refresh
  2. Inspiration is important and is done on a variety of online sites
  3. Their friends’ view of the color is just as important as their own
  4. They buy the paint in-store (not online)
  5. They have problems getting it home
  6. They have problems opening and using the paint
  7. They have problems with the leftover paint

Once this hero story has been created, we will share it amongst the team using a storyboard (see below).

Step 3. Prototyping

The final step is the most well understood. Prototyping and testing products in the field to test value propositions with real users.

The more research you do upfront, the leaner you will be when it comes to the experiments you run. In The Four Steps to the Epiphany Steve Blank kickstarted the lean revolution by removing wasted time by doing more research upfront and therefore limiting the ideation search space.

Looking at our hero story above it is clear that there are pain points in this story that we can design solutions to including:

  1. Stackable paint tins
  2. Resealable paint tins
  3. Comfortable handle tins

For each of these ideas, we need to find a super cheap and fast way to see if they actually create value.

Taking the comfortable handle example we could get an existing tin, remove the hard plastic handles and replace them with cheap comfortable material and put the old and new designs side by side to see which ones the customers prefer.

How to create your storyboard

The storyboard is created from the hero stories generated in step two of the design thinking process.

What fidelity is required?

Storyboards utilize visual storytelling, and their fidelity need only provide enough information for the viewer to empathize with the user (example below).

What layout should I use?

A basic storyboard frame with 8 screens per page is a good place to start.

Sample storyboard

How many screens do I need?

As a rough guide a minimum of 8, as fewer will not give enough detail to the design team, and a maximum of 16 as too many will be hard to take in at once (the Airbnb examples uses 15).

Example storyboard cell

From our example hero story above, the first cell will detail the trigger that started the user on their journey:

Sample cell from storyboard

The level of detail is basic, but the level of symbolism is right. Did you notice the little details? They are on a desktop, they are sat at home, they are alone, it is morning. You picked up all these details instantly without needing to think about it.

The advantage of using the storyboard approach is that it allows all team members to look for ways to innovate. The marketing team, for example, would have a wealth of information about the pre-purchase that would inform their next experiments, and the retention team would have insights into how to bring back churned users. Storyboards could be made for each team detailing the struggles your users face to inspire new products and services.

A benefit of using storyboards is you can use them to look for moments to give the user a great experience.

A wonderful moment in the user journey

In a fashion project I worked on, I spotted a moment in the user story where we could provide a small message whenever the user tried to filter their appearance (body positivity was a company value in a world of over-stylized Instagram images). After we implemented it our users started tweeting pictures of the message immediately, helping grow the business and cementing the brand values in the process.

Feature image found on Airbnb’s Medium.

Want to read more about crafting user journeys?

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