Work table with various design tools.

Designing User Experience: User Stories and Frequencies

So Agile

Often, clients come to us with the same problem: “I need a website.” While they’ve come to the right place, this doesn’t really tell the whole story. Before we design a website, we usually have a short discovery phase where the client explains to us what they’d like the website to do, and the problems they’d like to solve. Oftentimes, there can be gaps between the client’s goals, your goals as a designer or developer, and the goals of the user, who isn’t exactly attending your discovery meetings. One way to create a voice for the user is to create user stories.

Why User Stories?

Well, that’s a great question. Here’s a few reasons:

Basic requirements don’t tell the whole story

Often times, a client will tell you something like “I want people to be able to post photos to the site.” That’s awfully vague, and raises a lot of other questions. Who’s posting these photos? Is someone moderating them? Why are users posting photos here? How? Through their phone, a mobile app, a simple upload? Who’s looking at them? Creating a few user stories will let you quickly document the who, what, where, when, how, and why of the basic functionality of your project.

User Frequencies eliminate bias about user’s priorities

Often times, clients come to us with problems based on complaints from their users or customers. Sometimes this advice is valuable, but other times, it’s just a headache for the client. This classic scene from Clerks sums it up:

For example, a restaurant owner might get a lot of questions about whether or not patrons can bring their dogs. The answer is no, but the owner spends a lot of time politely explaining this to customers. To solve this problem, the owner might want to put a big fat text block at the top of their website that says “NO DOGS”. As professionals, we might recognize the problem with that, but how do you reconcile reducing stress for your client while still delivering a positive user experience?

If you go off of user feedback alone, there will be a bias towards “problem customers,” or squeeky wheels who have very specific problems. Making user frequencies based on data and other information helps you sort out what really is (or isn’t) important to all or most users, not just a specific subset.

User Stories can justify your design and development decisions

Clients need to understand how your designs are helping users achieve their goals and driving conversions for the client. Sometimes, it’s not as clear as “this gigantic BUY NOW button will help drive sales.” Creating a short narrative about what a user is trying to accomplish will give both you and your client a common frame of reference when evaluating your work moving forward. Does this app make it easy to upload photos? Can a user find the business’ hours? When a client asks for revisions, they will give better feedback, and you’ll be able to explain your choices more clearly.

Writing User Stories

Traditional user stories typically follow the format:

As a __________, I want to __________ so that ___________

That’s it! Each story has three critical parts. The first blank is the user or role who is using the software (like an administrator). The second blank represents that user’s goal, or desire. The third part is the benefit, or end result. Here’s some basic examples:

As a user, I want to check a restaurant’s menu so that I can plan a dinner date.

As a Manager, I want to be able to easily add new content to my website.

Some developers like to leave out the third part (as I did in the second example), while others prefer to include it first, stressing the underlying benefit involved with achieving the user’s goal.

That’s it! That’s what a user story is, but there’s a lot more to do to be able to plan a successful web strategy.

Let’s Get Descriptive

Traditional user stories are short and simple. This is great for most software, but doesn’t really tell the full narrative of who’s using the website, and why, and it doesn’t really give you a way to measure success beyond fulfilling the basic requirements. As Web Designers and Developers, we need to do more than meet basic requirements – We need to make smart decisions in order to leave users with a positive experience, in order to help our clients achieve their goals. It’s about all about crafting an experience tailored to a specific set of people.

Talk to your clients about the demographics they’re trying to reach, or better yet, collect feedback from actual users or customers. Then, start to add a little nuance to your user stories, by adding in more of the who, what, where, when, and how of what a user is trying to accomplish. Feel free to include multiple actions, goals, or benefits. Here’s some examples:

I’m a mid-level IT manager shopping for a new piece of software. I need to find out what value [client’s product] can provide for my team. I have been looking at several solutions, and only have a minute or two initially to spend on each option.

I’m a parent who wants to book a private party at a family restaurant. To make a decision, I need to check menus for vegetarian options, and contact someone about pricing and availability.

I’m a business owner looking to hire a web design agency. I’ve had a phone conversation with someone at the agency. I want to check out their website to see examples of their work, to establish if they’re credible, so that I can make an informed decision about whether or not to hire them.

From some of these examples, you can get a feel for the tangential aspects of a narrative that are important to the user experience. In the IT manager example, you get a sense that you’re competing for the user’s attention, and that user needs quick, engaging content that quickly explains a product. In the last example, establishing trust and quality of work is more important than simply looking at a portfolio.

Weighting Stories with Frequency

Now that you have a bunch of stories, you need some way to rank them. In creating stories, you might start to notice a lot of the same actions being repeated. Let’s continue the restaurant example with a new story:

I’m at a party with some friends and we want to grab a quick bite out. I want to check a restaurant’s menu on my phone so that my friends and I can make a decision.

Both this story, and the one ealier about the parent, include something about viewing menus. Only The parent’s story includes contacting the restaurant, too. Taking both actions, and the narratives we’ve created, we can make an educated guess that viewing the menu is a more important, or at least a more common action, since they’re crucial to both stories. This is what user frequencies are all about: Quantifying actions based on how often users need to complete certain tasks. A basic user frequency can be just a short list of actions with a weighted number, like this:

View Menu: 5
Make Reservation: 2
Check Hours: 3
Learn About Private Parties: 1

Mix in Some Data

User Frequencies are helpful, but you might notice that we just made up the stories, and as a result, the frequencies are a little squishy. Checking out a menu is more important than making a reservation, but is it really 2.5 times more important? Not everybody wants to book a private party, but when someone does, it often puts a lot more money in a client’s pocket than a regular diner.

This is where data comes in. Corroborate your user stories with any kind of data you have: analytics from your current site, surveys, even general data about the web or your industry.

For starters, how many users are on their phones? We know that around 30% of global web traffic is from mobile devices, but can be more or less depending on demographics. If your analytics are showing mobile usage of 35%, you might want to give weight to actions that a mobile user would want to take, like the story of a person trying to make a decision at a party with friends.

Analytics shouldn’t be the be all and end all, though. Often times, clients have very different goals from users. For example, you might notice 2% of users are booking reservations through your website. However, that’s a direct conversion, and a big money maker for your client. You’ll want to weight that accordingly, and perhaps feature the reservation booking system more prominently to encourage the behavior that you want to see from users. You can even create an Expected Value on a conversion by multiplying the percentage of people who will take an action with the value of that action to your business.

Choose Your Own Adventure

User stories and frequencies are great tools for helping you and your clients set goals and execute user experiences according to those goals. At the end of the day, the important thing is to make your stories, quick, easy, informative, and accessible. Don’t treat the formula as strict: add, cut, remix, and revamp the way you do user stories in ways that work for you (and your clients).

Have you done user stories or frequencies? Do you have any good tricks? Post about it in the comments.