SXSW 2011 – Conserve Code Storyboard Experiences with Customers First


SXSW 2011 – Conserve Code Storyboard Experiences with Customers First


Joseph O’Sullivan and Rachel Evans

Having had a full 7 hours of sleep last night I’m feeling far more refreshed and energized for this morning session. As I entered, I was handed stickie notes and a piece of storyboard paper with 6 cells to draw in.  I’m guessing I should get my pen out of my case to write with, we’ll see.  And a quick personal note – THANK YOU to the Austin Convention Center for having these rooms at normal human operating temperature, not the deep freeze of most normal ballrooms.  Thank you Austin!

SXSW 2011 - Joseph O’Sullivan and Rachel Evans Storboard with Customers FirstAnd we begin. Both our speakers are involved in design at Intuit. Design thinking is all about Deep customer empathy, Go broad to go narrow, rapid experimentation with customers (which is what we’re focusing on for this talk). They use storyboards for the entire context of use, not just the actual design.

Storyboards came from Hollywood, Hells Angels by Howard Hughes was the first film to use them, they used sketches due to the complexity of aerial footage.  Disney took up storyboards shortly after. Today, designers tell the story of the customer via storyboards. Agile design has also lent itself to the use of storyboards. Scott McCloud has also got our attention as someone advocating storyboards.

At Intuit, we use storyboards for:

  • Web application
  • Mobile applications
  • Customer care
  • Human resources
  • Community support

They show a video demonstrating their mobile tax tool, Snap Tax. At the beginning of the project they realized they needed to drive excitement to get doing taxes on the phone. Refunds are fun, so they wanted to show the refund in the first two minutes of using the app to continue using the tool to complete a return. They storyboard the customer well before using the tool, while worried about whether they are getting a refund or not. The tool would provide a few questions, and then the customer would see the refund amount, and be excited.

Pro Tip: It’s easier to get true feedback (i.e. “boy, this stinks” or “this is good”) when designs look really rough, and very crude. More refined drawings seem to cause people to not be so inclined to share their true feelings, perhaps for feelings of not wanting to “hurt” the design team on something that seems rather formalized. In fact, very rough, hand drawn looking designs work best for getting true customer feedback. Also, by not focusing on the actual interface the team can feel more unrestricted in interface development. Finally, rough (fast) drawings mean they only put a few moments into the storyboard so the customer could give the feedback. No large amount of work or time is lost if the concept is deemed not worthy of producing.

So, what did they find by doing these tests? Turned out, the Intuit team’s assumptions were totally wrong. The actual question people had was, can this really do my taxes? Customers were not excited about the idea. Intuit scrapped the idea. Imagine if they had built a working prototype, they would have lost huge amounts of time.

Storyboard benefits:

  • Storyboards are a mirror, you’re telling the customer story, from the customer’s perspective. You are identifying the user’s problem, the context in which the will use the solution and how they will be personally benefited.
  • Pity begets honesty, the cruder and rougher the more HONEST than with finished versions. People reviewing your storyboards are not criticizing your art, you can get to the sense of what they think. This is extremely helpful information early in the process.
  • Narcissus Antidote, people never become attached to a storyboard, so if things don’t work, it’s OK to throw away. But if coding was done, there’s a tendency to want to hold onto it.

Storyboard structure is made of:

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Problem, what’s the customer problem?

Solution, what’s my solution

Benefit, does my solution provide a happy outcome that they tell their friends about?

You can’t test the idea in isolation, it needs to be in the context of the customer experience, what’s the customer problem?

With Snap Tax, Accountants get tons of information, faxes, phone, paperwork, email. The solution was to test an online checklist the accountant could send to the client. The benefit would be they would save 2 hours per return.

An important point in storyboards is every cell has intention and a purpose.

Problem: The key thing to understand is what is the problem? What you need to learn is, do you understand the problem, is it an important problem? The example shown has 4 cells to highlight the problem.

Solution: For the solution, what you need to learn is does your solution solve the problem completely? As the customer goes through and comments about each cell, does this solution work for them?

Benefit: As to the benefit, what you can learn is what is good about your idea from the customer perspective, will it delight them? The example shows one cell. Will they use the product and tell others?

Now there’s the part where we use the paper and stickies. We are going to create a storyboard, fun! The storyboard concept is created using:

  • Script
  • Visuals
  • Structure

Storyboard-MaterialsFor our 6 cell storyboard, two stickies are for the problem, next three are for the solution, and last one of the 6 is for the benefit. (Everyone starts by placing a stickie over each cell, the drawing in the cell will come later. So first, be thinking about the problem and write them down on the stickies.



1. First is what’s the project you’re interested in or working on, what’s your goal? Our example project is a guy who wants to crowdsouce a taxi ride home after being out after hours.

2. Next, what are they like? In our example case the customer is 21 – 30 year old, male, urban, smartphone, tech savvy, likes to drink but aware of the social consequence.

3. Next, what’s the problem, from the customer’s point of view. We use… “I’m trying to, but I can’t because…” Careful, don’t insert your solution as the problem!

Next step in the process is to start structuring the script:

4. So what is the solution? What are the important moments that need to occur for the solution to execute? For our example guy, it’s texting a cab, then the driver gets a text while driving home, and finally a confirmation text exchange.

The script storyboard should be 2 problem cells, 3 solutions cells, 1 benefit cell.

5. Finally, the benefit. This is not a benefit of the product or service or features. Instead, this is what would the customer say is great about your solution. DO NOT regurgitate the feature list. In our example, it might be; “I didn’t have to fight for a taxi” or “It confirms my belief that people are good.”

Once this is done, we must evaluate our assumptions by asking some potential or existing customers about our ideas. What do you want to learn about this thing? If you take this to a customer, what do you want to learn? Your goal is to gather as much new feedback as possible. What do you want to learn about each section of your script?

  • Customer problem, do you understand the problem, is it an important problem?
  • Solution, does your solution solve the problem completely?
  • Customer Benefit, what is good about your idea from the customer’s perspective?

After reviewing our assumptions with customers, and making adjustments that might be necessary, we are now (finally) ready for drawing:

Drawing, you don’t have to be an artist to draw a storyboard, it’s actually helpful for the reasons above to NOT have a nice drawing.  To imagine how rough we’re talking, think about your 3rd grade drawing that mom placed on the fridge and you’ve got it.  In the example, phone, head, face, body and UI equals a cell.

For each cell, pull the stickie (2 problems, 3 solutions and 1 benefit) off one at a time and draw in the cell the item written about on the stickie.

Now, our whole audience here in the ballroom is in complete and deep silence as everyone is thinking and drawing.

Finally, they ask each person in the audience to share their storyboard with their neighbor.  And suddenly the silence is broken by the sound of 1,400 people all talking to each other.  Each person in the audience shares their designs with each other.

And with that, our exercise is complete.  We now know how to create a storyboard.  The key learning is the amount of thought that goes into the problem, solution and benefit well before pencil or pen ever start drawing figures on paper!

Joseph and Rachel have done a fabulous job and I personally believe this is one of the best sessions I’ve attended at SXSW 2011.  Congrats to you both!

And now we move into Q&A.  This was a VERY useful session and a great way to learn about, and practice, creating storyboard experiences with customers first, all to conserve code.


  1. Thanks for the great summary! I went to this session too, and also thought it was great, but lost my notes. I was very sad about that until I found this post!

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