“The joy of UX Comics” – Bonny Colville-Hyde at UX Scotland

Bonny Colville-Hyde of Sift Digital ran a brilliant workshop session at UX Scotland on creating UX comics, which was entertaining, potentially very useful, and helped me feel a little bit more confident about my drawing skills. Plus it had personalised pencils FTW.

Bonny quoted Kevin Cheng saying that one of the reasons that comics are so useful for communication is that they “have a vocabulary that doesn’t even require language.” A single static image can convey a whole story, just based on a few details and a facial expression. And the more detail you add, the more the brain is able to draw out the story. It is very easy to pick up a comic about any topic, and follow the narrative, even if you don’t have much background knowledge on the topic. She reminded us that the brain processes images much faster than it comprehends words or maths.

In the user experience world we can, Bonny said, be guilty of doing “too much documentation for the sake of documentation.” We love our deliverables — massive decks of wireframes, lengthy study reports, huge site maps. But deliverables don’t make the experience any better, and we can bore our stakeholders with our weighty tomes.

(Actually, I’ve somewhat cured myself of this. My strategy now is to write the executive summary of the report I’m going to produce first, and distribute that. Then wait. It is very rare that anybody goes on to ask for anything further.)

UX comics introduce a bit of fun into a project, and who doesn’t like fun? Bonny described how her documentation has sometimes “gone viral” within a client organisation because the unique comic-style presentation really quickly conveys ideas. People read comics with a smile on their faces, she says, and you can’t say that about many UX deliverables.

They are also really good at increasing empathy with the user. You can see the impact of your design and system choices playing out in the world of the little characters you’ve drawn. And one great tip Bonny had was that the less you draw detail on people is better — people put themselves in the shoes of little stick people, in a way that they don’t do so much if you have made them into a fully-drawn person. Most UX documentation is abstract, but a comic can help people really relate to the frustrations and pain points of their end users. She showed a great example where she had used the technique to get people to empathise with the people who were trying to buy a car, rather than the people using the accounting system to sell the cars, whom they usually thought of as the “end user”.

Bonny argued that comics can be used in a lot of different ways during a project — to illustrate how things are now, to show how people would like things to be, and to review how things could be different.

She had some good tips for comic production. If you are going to be doing it by hand, she recommended drawing out some “master images” of elements you are likely to use a lot like phones and devices and keyboards and screens. If you do those as outlines with a thick black pen, you can then quickly trace over them to put them into your frames.

For computer based production work, she prefers to have huge library files in Adobe Illustrator. These massive multi-layered documents allow her to quickly assemble new comics by cutting and pasting and adapting objects, rather than starting from scratch each time.

Bonny and her Illustrator file

It does though, she admitted, take time to build up this kind of template library. She also uses the Comic Life 2 software, which she described as “awesome”, and which looked so much fun that I downloaded it mid-workshop.

There was a note of caution as well. She said that “the more I’ve sped up my process and made myself more efficient, the more I’ve given myself time to add spurious stuff.” You need to make sure that every frame is conveying the right information to your client or stakeholders, and isn’t just filler fluff that you are simply just enjoying drawing.

As part of the workshop we were taught some techniques for improving the way we draw people — which has always been a real weakness in my own drawing skills — and set the task of making our very own first UX comic.

Here is my effort — illustrating the user flow of Flowers-For-idiots.com, a concierge service for people who suddenly remember they’ve forgotten someone’s birthday whilst on the tube and battling with the EE wifi splash screen…

My first UX comic

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