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Scenarios describe the stories and context behind why a specific user or user group comes to your site.  They note the goals and questions to be achieved and sometimes define the possibilities of how the user(s) can achieve them on the site.

Scenarios are critical both for designing an interface and for usability testing.

What to Consider When Writing Scenarios

Good scenarios are concise but answer the following key questions:

  • Who is the user? Use the personas that have been developed to reflect the real, major user groups coming to your site.
  • Why does the user come to the site?  Note what motivates the user to come to the site and their expectations upon arrival, if any.
  • What goals does he/she have? Through task analysis, you can better understand the what the user wants on your site and therefore what the site must have for them to leave satisfied. 

Some scenarios also answer:

  • How can the user achieve their goals on the site? Define how the user can achieve his/ her goal on the site, identifying the various possibilities and any potential barriers.

Types of Scenarios

Types Examples

Goal- or Task-Based Scenarios state only what the user wants to do.  Do not include any information on how the user would complete the scenario.  These scenarios are useful in helping to define your site architecture and content. You should give these types of scenarios to users in a usability test. It gives them a reason and a goal for going to the site, but it lets them show you how they would use the site to accomplish that goal.

  • Example: A parent is worried about a ten-year old refusing to drink milk and wants to know if it really makes a difference that the child is getting very little calcium.
  • Example: You are traveling to Seattle for your job next week and you want to check on the amount you can be reimbursed for meals and other expenses.
Elaborated Scenarios give more user story details. These details give the Web team a deeper understanding of the users and users’ characteristics that may help or hinder site interaction. Knowing this information, the team is more likely to develop content, functionality, and site behavior that users find comfortable and easy to work with.
  • Example: Mr. and Mrs. Macomb are retired schoolteachers who are now in their 70s. Their Social Security checks are an important part of their income. They've just sold their big house and moved to a small apartment. They know that one of the many chores they need to do now is tell the Social Security Administration that they have moved. They don't know where the nearest Social Security office is and it's getting harder for them to do a lot of walking or driving. If it is easy and safe enough, they would like to use the computer to notify the Social Security Administration of their move. However, they are somewhat nervous about doing a task like this by computer. They never used computers in their jobs. However, their son, Steve, gave them a computer last year, set it up for them, and showed them how to use email and go to websites. They have never been to the Social Security Administration's website, so they don't know how it is organized. Also, they are reluctant to give out personal information online, so they want to know how safe it is to tell the agency about their new address this way.
Full Scale Task Scenarios include the steps to accomplish the task. A full-scale scenario can either report all the steps that a specific user currently takes to accomplish the task or it can describe the steps you plan to set up for users in the new site. Scenarios at this level are very similar to use cases, but they lay out the steps from the user's point of view rather than from the website's point of view. They explain how the site supports the goal-oriented scenarios that you started with.  

Using Scenarios in Website Design

It is impossible to write down every scenario that every user has for visiting your website. Instead, before you start to put the site together, write down 10 to 30 of the most common reasons that users have for visiting or tasks that users want to do.

Scenarios can also work together with personas by serving as the stories behind why the particular persona would come to your website. What does the persona hope to accomplish by visiting the website? What characteristics of the persona might help or hinder his or her site interaction?

You should focus on users and their tasks rather than on your site's organization and internal structure. As a result, you will know what content the site must have and how it should be organized.

Using Scenarios in Usability Testing

When identifying scenarios for usability testing, you should limit your test to 10 to 12 tasks due to time constraints. Additionally, in a usability test, you can ask users for their own scenarios. Why would they come to your site? What do they want to do?

Usability testing scenarios should not include any information about how to accomplish a task. The usability test will show how the participant accomplishes a task and shows you whether the interface facilitates completing the scenario.

You should, however, write down how to accomplish the task. This information is included in the material that the observers and note-takers will use. Include the main pathway and any alternative pathways the participant may use to accomplish the scenario. After the test, compare how you thought users would complete the task to how they actually completed the task. This comparison provides valuable insight into the effectiveness of your site’s architecture and navigation.