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What Are User Scenarios in UX?

UX is all about empathizing with users in an effort to iteratively develop an ideal solution, and one of the most helpful deliverables is a user scenario.

According to the Interaction Design Foundation,

“User scenarios are detailed descriptions of a user – typically a persona – that describe realistic situations relevant to the design of a solution. By painting a ‘rich picture’ of a set of events, teams can appreciate user interactions in context, helping them to understand the practical needs and behaviors of users.”

It’s important to understand the order in which you create UX deliverables. If you start with writing user scenarios, you jumped the gun. You must conduct extensive research and create at least a primary persona before writing any user scenarios. In fact, your persona can (and should) include a user scenario.

What is a user scenario?

user scenario

A good user scenario is a detailed description of your user within a specific context in relation to your solution. You should include your user’s goals, problems, motivations, relevant habits, and demographics. Adding other personal traits, like hobbies or beliefs is also helpful to make your user sound real; it helps your team empathize with the target group. 

Understanding the elements of a user scenario makes it clear that you must develop your persona first, and this involves a lot of research. In many cases, a persona is the desired outcome of an entire research study, so a user scenario is one of the final deliverables you will put together, typically for presentation or mapping purposes.   

Write the user scenarios so that you and your team can read it and reference it as much as they need. During the process of brainstorming potential solutions, you constantly consider your personas, and the user scenario is the cherry on top for solving specific problems or pain points. 

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Why you should create user scenarios

A well written user scenario is like a representation of your target group’s mental model. According to the Nielsen Norman Group (NNG), a mental model is “based on belief, not facts: that is, it’s a model of what users know (or think they know) about a system such as your website.” Keep in mind, mental models vary from user to user and constantly change, which is why it’s so important that your research and design process is iterative.  

So, why is it important to understand a user’s mental model? Because without user research, your designer’s and/or stakeholder’s mental model guides the design, and they simply know too much about it. Everything seems easy when you know a lot about the product or service, so you potentially overlook how users really feel. It all comes back to empathy

user scenario

Key benefits of user scenarios:

  • Provide detailed context 
  • Get a picture of steps taken leading up to the use of a product/service
  • Prioritize features that address main pain points
  • Learn more about motivations and feelings in relation to the product/service 
  • Gain a better understanding of why someone might use your product/service

How to write a user scenario

Okay, you have all your data synthesized, you have at least a primary persona, perhaps an empathy map, and you have to present your findings to your team and stakeholders. It’s time to write a user scenario, maybe multiple scenarios depending on your research findings and planned workshops.

What to include in your user scenario:

  • Context: Describe the situation and steps your user takes to arrive at your product/service
  • Goals: What do they want to achieve?
  • Problems: What are they trying to solve and what obstacles do they encounter?
  • Motivations: Why do they need or want your offering?
  • Personal traits: Provide background to paint a more detailed picture 
  • Relevant habits, hobbies and/or beliefs: Actions and emotions that occur in relation to your product/service add a layer of context 
  • Demographics: Relevant info about location, income, occupation, marital status, etc. 

One of the more challenging things about writing user scenarios is knowing how much detail to provide. Get specific, but don’t add details that distract from the brief narrative you want to communicate. 

User scenario example

user scenario

Sheryl is a Marketing Manager in Las Vegas, and she has a business trip coming up in Northern California. The trip is half pleasure, half work, and she wants to do some hiking in the mountain trails. She knows the roads can be pretty bumpy, so she wants to rent a car that is suitable for off-road driving. Sheryl discovers our website to find the perfect car. She is unfamiliar with these types of vehicles, so she compares some models and reads the reviews to get a better idea of her best option. When she finds one she likes in the budget allotted by her company, she books it. 

Here’s a breakdown of this user scenario based on the suggested elements listed above:

Context: Renting a car for a business trip

Goals: Sheryl wants a car that is reliable for off-road driving and within her company’s budget

Problems: She’s unfamiliar with these types of vehicles

Motivations: Hiking in the mountains while on her business trip, and arriving at the trails safely 

Personal traits: Adventurous, outdoorsy, safety-minded 

Relevant habits: Hiking 

Demographics: Female, Marketing Manager in Las Vegas

The details in user scenarios

It’s possible that someone would read the above user scenario and consider it a bit too detailed. Sometimes things like location or gender aren’t relevant. It depends on the context or message you want to provide. 

One detail you should not include in a user scenario is a specific tool or function of your product/service. In the user scenario example, Sheryl “compares some models and reads the reviews.” The important thing is that she wants a way to learn about the available vehicles. This suggests a number of solutions for the car rental website without naming any specifically. The vehicle she rents must also fall within a certain budget, but the scenario does not suggest how to go about designing a pricing feature. 

You also run the risk of going even deeper with the details to the point of suggesting design and layout criteria. For example, you would NOT want to write something like “Sheryl clicked the tab in the top right corner of the image to activate a drop down menu to add the vehicle to her compare list.” This is way too much info and likely not supported by your research.  

A user scenario is a way of supporting solution brainstorming, it’s not necessarily for making recommendations. 

The difference between a user scenario, user story, and user journey

Some people may compare a user scenario to a brief story or narrative, which causes confusion because the term “user story” exists in the world of UX. There’s also a “user journey,” which is another type of deliverable that has a narrative style and highlights much of the same information as a scenario, but it is different.

user scenario

User journey map

“A user journey map is from the perspective of the person’s experience,” according to NNG. It is a visual story outlining important steps of a user’s experience with your product/service, their actions, emotions and thoughts at each step, and pain points and goals along the way. Sometimes recommendations or potential solutions are also listed at various steps of the journey. 

This journey is typically laid out in chart format with columns and rows that help visualize each step the user takes. It is a more robust UX deliverable compared to a user scenario.   

User story

User stories are much shorter and follow this typical structure: “As a (type of user), I want (a goal) so that (a benefit or value).” So while your user scenario is telling a story for a specific context, it is not a “user story.”   

If you were writing a user story for Sheryl, it would look something like this: “As a person on a business trip, I want to rent a car that is reliable for off-road driving so that I can hike in the mountains during my downtime.” 

The user story provides a brief glimpse of the user, their goal, and what they hope to achieve. It’s a way of ensuring that you and your team remain focused on the value you provide to your users. With this user story, it is clear that the offering is more than an available vehicle, the value is in the ability to escape and go on an adventure. Understanding the value inspires your design choices. 

Empathize with the help of user scenarios 

There are several tools for user research, but when it comes to user scenarios, you have your fingers and a keyboard (or a pen and paper!). There are two things you should keep in mind when writing user scenarios:

  1. The primary goal is to help your team empathize with your target group   
  2. Context is everything

Provide enough detail so that your team understands who the user is, their motivation, their intention, the action they take, and the resolution. These are the key components, as outlined by NNG.   

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