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Story Bored

Of course, interaction designers and other user interface specialists have for years been using various forms of scenarios, including storyboards, the cinematically inspired visual equivalents. Look where it has gotten them. Office software suites are looking more and more like wide-screen Hollywood epics, complete with a cast of characters and their irritating comic sidekicks. (Frankly, though, I would take a road runner to an animated paper clip any day.)

Scenarios, despite the we-do-them-too claims of me-too hustlers and the creative redefinitions of battalions of boundary blurrers, are not the same as use cases, as Ivar Jacobson has always been quick to explain. Both are task models and both employ a narrative form to describe the sequence of events, but a use case is an abstraction: a single case (kind) of use. A scenario documents a concrete instance of interaction. It tells a literal if not always literary story (Constantine and Lockwood 2000). To write a scenario about a user interacting with a user interface, you must have a user and an interface in mind, and you need to be able to refer to that interface and its features in your narrative. This means that scenarios aren't much help when it comes to designing user interfaces, because the user interface is one of the characters in the story. You have necessarily conceived at least a partial design for the user interface before you even started writing the scenario. Scenarios are not useless—they can be helpful in building understanding of a problem or for refining interaction with an existing user interface—but scenarios are usually too concrete to offer much intellectual leverage for designing the structure and contents of brand new user interfaces (Constantine and Lockwood 1999).


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