How to Create Use Scenarios that Lead to Better Products

First, what are use scenarios?

Use scenarios are stories that walk through the typical situations where the user encounters the problem. Use scenarios—in conjunction with personas—provide powerful context, because they articulate the what, who, why and when.

What use scenarios don’t do is provide the “how.” It’s not the job of product management to define how to solve a problem. Instead, the goal is to provide critical context that will set the stage for a collaborative exploration of the how. 

This context is critical because it drives innovation. With user scenarios, your team—designers, developers, analysts, product owners and testers—better understands who your users are, what problems they are trying to solve and help you to envision how you can help them.

Use Scenarios

Why use scenarios matter

Use scenarios are essential for many different reasons. After drafting a user scenarios, they can:
  • Bring your users and their problems to light in a relatable, understandable way.
  • Provide context—they help designers and developers understand what motivates personas and what obstacles they are facing.
  • Help data analysts learn what questions to ask.
  • Create shared responsibility for the user experience. Give product owners more accurate information.
  • Help your team come up with new ideas and solutions.
  • Show you where to focus your usability testing and allow you to test realistic scenarios.
  • Show the needs your persona has that might not be apparent in the confines of your workspace.
  • Help you develop better products for users.
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What use scenarios don’t do is provide the “how.” It’s not the job of product management to define how to solve a problem.

Who owns the development of use scenarios?

Product managers take the lead when it comes to developing use scenarios. But they can involve stakeholders from many aspects of the business—designers and developers, data analysts, the executive team, sales and more.

Your external-facing internal stakeholders may have context you don’t, and it can be beneficial to capture that information.

You should remember that this work is never “finished.” It’s an ongoing task that needs to account for the evolution of both personas and problems. Product managers and other team members should examine personas, problem statements, use scenarios and problem frequency regularly to keep them relevant.

How to craft
use scenarios?

Building user personas is a prerequisite for writing use scenarios. User personas are a research-based archetype of potential users designed to help teams evaluate multiple solutions as well as create connection and empathy with users. Here’s where you can learn more about this part of the framework.

The use scenario takes one of your persona’s requirements and expands it into a real-life story by focusing on the environment where your persona uses your product or service and the frequency with which the scenario occurs.

A good use scenario is written so all of your stakeholders—even non-technical people—can understand it.

A use scenario doesn’t get deep into design or details. And it doesn’t mandate solutions. It outlines what your persona needs or wants in a relatable story. From there, your designers and developers can talk about the persona and the use scenario and brainstorm solutions.

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User personas are a research-based archetype of potential users designed to help teams evaluate multiple solutions as well as create connection and empathy with users.

For example, if you are trying to understand the problems faced by full-time residential college students (let’s collectively call them Jessica) during the class registration process. You might reach out to partner universities and ask to observe students in the registration process. The students might be selected to participate in an interview where they verbalize their thinking through the process. Then a follow-up survey (quantitative research) released to hundreds of students might be built based on the observation of several students (qualitative research).

Together those two activities might reveal that students (Jessica) have too many irrelevant options and difficulty making sure courses align with their graduation requirements. Here we have two use scenarios a product manager could craft based on one user persona (Jessica).

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More examples of use scenarios

You might have multiple use scenarios for the same product or service. For example, an online grocer may have use scenarios centered around three different personas:

  • Jared: A college student (age 19-23) without access to transportation who values low prices and shelf-stable products.
  • Sam: A woman (age 33-42) with a busy family who is looking for time savings and healthy, easy-to-prepare meals that include leftovers.
  • Christina: A single senior (age 68-75) who wants to avoid crowds and is looking for simple, individual meals.

These personas are all using the same product—online grocery delivery—but their descriptions, motivations, goals, etc., are all different.

Here’s an example of a use scenario for busy families.

Start with the User Persona

Sarah Gordon

Marital/family status: Married, two children

“I want to make smart food choices that my family will love. I also wish I had time to shop and plan meals.”

Background Story
Marital/family status: Married, two children Sam is a busy professional with a young family. More than anything, she wants her family to be happy and healthy, and food plays a role in achieving those goals. There is a problem, she spends her week online working as a mid-level marketing manager 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Her schedule makes meal planning and purchasing groceries a challenging chore. Her spouse is supportive but equally as busy and they both struggle to find time to shop.
  • No time to shop after work.
  • The store is packed and the lines are long when she does have time to shop because that is the high-traffic times.
  • She doesn’t know what she wants to make or what ingredients she has at home.
  • The food she does buy often goes bad before it is eaten.
  • Maximizing the weekly food budget.
  • Finding / making healthy meals the kids love.
  • Getting the kids to eat more fruits and vegetables.
  • Learning new recipes that are easy and yummy.
  • Quickly browses pinterest recipes during her lunch break at work to find inspiration.
  • When she feels overwhelmed she buys pizza and later regrets that she isn’t ensuring her children have healthy meals.
  • Finds herself feeling stressed every time she is in the grocery store during high-traffic times. She is constantly trying to navigate slow moving people who are browsing while she is on a mission to get done as quickly as possible.
  • Not having a clear plan makes her impulse buy ingredients that later go to waste.

Use Scenario 1

It’s Monday, and it’s Sam’s turn to shop for her family: partner Taylor and their two school-age children. She has meetings throughout the day and doesn’t have time to go to the store before dinner. She would rather not turn to fast food, but she needs groceries for the evening and the rest of the week.

Use Scenario 2

Friday is fridge cleaning day and once again, Sam notices that there are many ingredients and leftovers and that have spoiled from the week. She hates when food goes to waste because she knows that means they are not maximizing their food budget.

Use Scenario 3

Sam looks at the calendar for the upcoming week and needs to decide what meals she’s going to make for her family. They all have their favorites, but she wants to introduce new, healthier options her family will enjoy. Meal planning sites are overwhelming, and it’s impossible to know what recipes are going to be winners, what will fail the taste test, and how she’s going to be able to buy all the ingredients she needs to make so many meals for the week.

Most importantly, none of the use scenarios outlined above mention the “how.” The solution-building should be done in collaboration with the development teams and engineers. So, product managers must resist the urge to be prescriptive and instead be descriptive. And, use scenarios are the tool that helps provide the much-needed context to other teams because the primary job of a product manager is to understand the market problems.

Learn more about use scenarios

When you understand use scenarios, you understand your users. And you and your team can use that information to brainstorm ideas and develop new or improved products and services that delight your user. Learn more about crafting use scenarios that lead to better products and services and more satisfied customers in Pragmatic Institute’s Build and Design courses.

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