My whole job is bringing insights and concepts to my organization ….It’s not easy. I fight against twitter, newsletters and dozens of sophisticated channels for my stakeholders’ attention. If Twitter wins and my insights don’t get through, or people forget my insights 2 minutes later, then really, I’m not accomplishing much.
I think I’ve found a way to get through. It’s a tool that you can use too: Comics.
Comics have helped me more effectively communicate my results in a number of challenging situations.
My foray into comics
My foray into comics for communicating user research results started a couple of years ago with a personas project. My team did dozens of interviews to learn about the aspirations, motivations and behaviours of my former employer’s core user demographic. We were excited about the impact that our insights could have on our organization.
One of the amazing visual designers on the team was set in charge of their presentation. Contrary to the norms for persona documentation, he drew a friendly cartoon faces for the personas and gave each persona a memorable alliterative name.
I can hear the persona purists now: Blasphemy! I know, I know — they must have real names and they must have real photos.
We broke the rules, and I think that’s what made the difference.
The friendly faces went up and stayed up in cubicles instead of shoved into a drawer. The personas naturally came up in conversation — and, contrary to conventional wisdom, didn’t become elastic.
The somewhat radical success of the comics for personas got me thinking. Why did the comic presentation work, against all expert wisdom? How can I draw my own comics?
I started reading the classics: Scott McCleod’s “Understanding Comics”, Will Eisner’s “Comics and Sequential Art” and Kevin Cheng’s book “See what I Mean.” These books have some great advice on constructing comics. These books also give expert insight into pacing, framing and dialog. To avoid this becoming a book report — I’ll just suggest that you consider reading these.
I also found a number of presentations posted to Slideshare by veteran UXers. Bonny Colville-Hyde and Deb Aoki have particularly great resources about how they’ve used comics in their UX work.
I also dug into a number of illustration resources like Ed Emberely books and the Tumblr feeds of numerous professional character designers.
Using what I learned, I created some storyboards for projects.. which was good, and appropriate for the projects, but not particularly radical.
Then…a unique situation arose where comics took the project to a completely different level….
Comics for storytelling
Part of working at a finance company is that my stakeholders can be a tough crowd. They’re nice people, but they don’t accept fluff.
For a project, we had collected some great thick data through a series of problem interviews.
In some circumstances, a list of insights (with accompanying quotes) would be sufficient. In this case, I felt like I had to involve my stakeholders in the synthesis of the interviews for them to accept the results.
So… my colleague and I made comics. Each problem interview became a comic illustrating the story we heard. This helped address potential trust issues, because, by the very fact that we’re sharing each interview, we’re not glossing over inconvenient details.
When we presented our research, we got the tough questions that I expected about sampling and generalizability. We were ready for them. After we got past these questions, we talked about the stories.
I knew we had succeeded when the team barbed back and forth about details of the stories. ‘Could you believe x? Yeah, that was wild.”
Woohoo! I felt like I unlocked a secret level as a UX researcher: People remembered the details of my work.
Why did comics work so well?
Why do comics work? I am still looking for definitive evidence to back this up, but my theory is…
Comics are fun to look at, and a welcome change from bullet point presentations.
A good comic will zero in on a non-verbal micro-reaction. Emotions make for memorable content. Text descriptions just didn’t convey this as well.
They’re super dense
You can pack a lot of information into a comic.The authors of Lissa, an ethnographic comic, said that it took them a 30 page paper to describe the context that they were able to put into a 1 page spread.
How can you do this?
Want to try making a comic?
I’m still figuring things out. Here’s what I’d suggest as a starting point based on my experiences:
- Gather your raw material
- Create a synopsis
- Decide on a grid
- Map out the story
- Create a style guide
A great deal of this process was inspired by the book “The Art of Comic Book Writing” book by SCAD instructor Mark Kneece.
Gather your raw material
Your first step is to gather your raw material through great research. Go beyond the tidy narrative and learn about exceptions and contradictions. Seek out visuals.
Create a synopsis
After you have your raw material, write a synopsis. Capture the story and details the comic should communicate, without worrying about how this is broken out.
Immediately after each interview, my colleague and I wrote a synopsis. We worked together to make sure that we agreed on the big facts. We both had our own notes and recordings from the interviews available, and we went them where we didn’t agree.
At this point we also pulled out the quotes that we thought should be included.
Decide on your grid
After writing the synopsis, create your script. The script is the detailed plan for each square panel in a comic.
The first step of script-writing is to decide on a grid. You need to decide how many panels (squares) will each page will have. As a UX person, this seems counter-intuitive — it certainly goes against the mantra of content-first.The reason why you choose your grid first is because it impacts how the story unfolds. The grid impacts how much “room” you have to communicate an idea, and what ideas are seen at the same time. You need to design expecting that people won’t necessarily read a story completely linearly. They’re going to jump around on a page. If you put the punch-line at the bottom right.. people will just skip ahead to it, and maybe miss some of the important context leading up to it.
Well, as fun as it might be to use a portrait-style grid, print a comic book and pass it around… I’m guessing that you, too, have remote stakeholders. I’d suggest to leave your options open: Use a layout you can present on a single PowerPoint slide. This means a landscape layout with a larger font size.
I learned this the hard way: We had comics that worked well in a booklet. This was a problem because we’re a remote team and couldn’t print out the booklet for everyone we were sharing with. We crammed the comics onto PowerPoint before a meeting. I added some arbitrary breaks that made our story harder to follow.
In “The Art of Comic Book Writing”, Mark Kneece recommends 5–9 panels per page.
Map out the story
The next step, after setting up the grid, is to map out your story. A map is a high level plan of what needs to be shown/ said in every panel.
I found I wrestled a lot with how to break up and illustrate the complex ideas in my synopsis. I found that what I felt I should do as a trustworthy observer diverged from traditional advice for creating comics.
The traditional advice is to reduce the text and divide panels by actions — to show 1 panel per action. When following these rules, there was some content in my synopsis that was inconvenient to include. I found that I had a lot of narrative compared to traditional comics.
In my wrestling, I found inspiration from graphic journalists.
If you look at Jen, Susan and Josh’s work, none of these artists shy away from big blocks of text. Sometimes they have panels that are just text.
You’ll also notice that action isn’t the fundamental unit of the story. Each panel is an idea. Sometimes the visual component is a graph or abstract illustration. They provide some interesting cues to where they are in time using colour.
A style guide is your next, quite designerly, step.
- Who are the characters? The hairdo, clothes and body type that the characters have all carry meaning.
- What are the scenes? It’s nice to study and get the details right of the scenes…. Before getting into the flow of story-writing.
Before my colleague and I dove in to draw our comics, we talked about the above questions together.
- We decided to use stick figures… to get around some of the aforementioned issues with adding meaning that wasn’t present.
- We used very spare scenes because we did not have sufficient information about the actual context. For more panels, the scene was just a background colour that reinforced the hero’s mood at that point of the story
After all this work, it’s time to put your comic together. As fun as I find it to draw, it isn’t so practical when working with someone else. For this project, my colleague and I used an online tool for creating our comics. The tool we used is called “Storyboard That”. It’s got a lot of posable characters.
Storyboard That”is admittedly overwhelming looking and has some rough interactions… I still like it. It makes it easy to experiment with ideas and create something that looks reasonably good.
The biggest challenge I encountered was that it gives so much freedom, it’s easy to do some terrible things. Like, you can throw in a scene that isn’t anything like the true context. I kept my comics purposely sparse to avoid adding unintended context to the comics.
It allows you to search and add pictures of the objects. I’m honestly not sure where these pictures come from. Often these pictures aren’t the same style as the characters, which doesn’t look great. I drew a number of my own objects to use in comics — like the back of a monitor, a baby, a “time running out” clock — stuff that I’m likely to use again and again.
I try to pay attention to vary my shots to make the comic interesting. For instance, I’d hyper zoom on a face to show an emotion, then zoom out in the next panel to show the scene.
If you’re considering this — don’t worry too much about your drawing skills. Just get the expressions right, and maybe play with some different face shapes. My favorite resource on this topic is the Famous Artists Cartoon Course.
Finally, after your comic is complete, review it with people who were present for your research. My colleague and I validated our comics with each other — to ensure that we stayed true to the emotion and content of the interviews. This was a great opportunity to be critical about the visual component of the comics — to make sure that we didn’t take liberties that would change the meaning of what we learned.
I learned a lot about comics from this exercise… I feel like I’m just scratching the surface. I am excited about the potential of comics to deliver results that people actually read.
If you have suggestions to improve on this process, I’d love to chat.
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