Visual storytelling for customer experiences.
James Young in conversation with Deb Aoki

James Young, Principal

Deb Aoki is a versatile creative strategist who combines her writing, drawing, and design skills to help transform end-to-end customer experiences. Listen in as Deb shares with James what it was like to introduce visual storytelling into her work with Sony, Microsoft, eBay, Citrix, and other organizations.

Visual Storytelling for Customer Experiences from Tangible on Vimeo.

Sign up for our remote visual storytelling class.

Learn how to stop meetings from going round and round by drawing more circles.

Fill out this form and we will reach out the next time we offer a Simple Sketching class taught by the one and only Deb Aoki.

Video Transcription

James:
Today, we’re going to be talking with very good friend of mine, Deb Aoki, and she’s going to be talking about visual storytelling for customers’ experience. I have worked with Deb for, gosh, it seems many years, five, seven years. Deb and I have also, we built curriculum around design thinking and mashing that up with simple sketching together. We’ve conducted classes together. We’ve taught inside corporations together. Gosh, we’ve done, it seems like everything, so I’m very excited.

Deb:
Thanks so much for that nice introduction. And thank you for inviting me to talk, have a conversation with you about visual storytelling for customer experiences.

Deb:
I’ve been using drawing and visual storytelling in customer experience design for several years now. And it’s been kind of a journey. It’s been interesting getting to this point where it becomes a big part of how I do my work nowadays.

Deb:
So I’m Deb Aoki. I work in user experience design and I work at Adobe. I’ve been working in technology for the last 20-something years in various companies from enterprise computing, e-commerce, media, game development. It’s just kind of been an interesting mix, but it’s interesting because even though I have this background in comics and I love to draw on and I write about manga and I read a lot of comics, this background that I have, the skill that I had, even knowing how to draw comics and knowing how to draw quickly was something that was always kind of a hobby. It was kind of something that was always on the side, whereas throughout most of my career, I was a content strategist. I was a writer. I was a web writer. I was a person who wrote headlines, or I wrote user interface copy for things like eBay, shopping cart and so on.

Deb:
But then while I was at eBay, something really changed about my work that made a big difference is when I started drawing. I started using a lot of drawing in meetings and in product development and in helping to communicate and do workshops and meetings, and it really transformed how I worked with my colleagues and it transformed how we made products more customer centered.

Deb:
So let me tell you a little story about something we did at eBay when we were doing some product development that we use visual storytelling. So sometime, and it was a summertime, it was maybe August, there was a group of us that got together for about two days and we were challenged to come up with different promotions to inspire people to do more shopping on eBay for Christmas. And so we came up with, we brainstormed and kind of went through a lot of post-it notes and we settled on four concepts that we kind of liked. So I took the original drawings and I made them into these storyboards to kind of sum up what the big idea was.

Deb:
So the first idea was called group deals. Now group deals is kind of this thing where we would present an item to you and it would be if you said you want to buy it and you committed that you want to buy it, then if you shared this with other people, the more people who wanted to buy it, the cheaper it would get. And in the end of the period, if a lot of people bought it, you all would get this really good price.

Deb:
The second concept was called eBay game, and this is really similar to the Monopoly game you play at McDonald’s where every purchase you make, you get a game piece. And then if you collect the letters, eBay, you maybe could get a discount or you get a prize, like a $5,000 gift card for example.

Deb:
The third concept was VIP private sales. So this was the thing. If you spent $250 or more between November 1st and December 15, it would unlock special deals that was only for you and people like you who had spent that much money during that period of time.

Deb:
The fourth concept was called group gifts. Now, the main idea behind this is that maybe you want to buy a present for somebody and it was kind of on the expensive side. So this is a way for you to pick an item on eBay and then send invitations to your mutual friends and say, “Hey, I want to buy this for our friend, and would you like to chip in?” We chip in how much or how little you want. And then when you meet the goal, then the item gets purchased, it gets shipped to the recipient and everyone gets notified what role they played in getting that gift to that person.

Deb:
So anyway, usually when you have these type of situations, right, when you have a couple of ideas that you’re trying to decide which direction do we go, which feature do we use, which product do we make, this is what usually happens. Usually there’ll be someone who will go, “Oh, let’s do this, because this is what’s hot now. This is super trendy, right? Let’s get on this.” And then someone will say, “Well, we’re going to do this, because this is my idea and it’s the best idea.” This is usually the person who was the loudest or the highest ranking, or sometimes they’re the loudest and the highest ranking. Then someone usually, and this is usually the person from engineering will say, “Well, this one’s at least the easiest to build. We could build this fast.” And then there’s someone who will say, “Oh, I like this one. I have a good feeling about this. This looks like fun. Let’s just try it.”

Deb:
But then what was interesting is that when we took these storyboards and we put them in front of a focus groups of 100 people in the US and 100 people in the UK, and we just threw it in front of them. Hey, what do you think of this? Would you use this? Would you not use this? And the winner was group gifts, which was a concept that nobody felt strongly in love. It wasn’t something that any one of these people felt like, “Yeah, that’s the one that I’m rooting for.” It was just kind of lukewarm on this idea, but customers when we put this content in front of them thought, “Yeah, this is something I would use. Yeah, this is something I think is really neat. I think it’s really helpful.”

Deb:
So what was interesting about this was that based on all that upfront feedback we got from customers, both negative and positive, because then we were able to take into account their reservations about it and build that into the product ahead of time. We were also able to kind of get a sense of what really appealed to them, so that helped us write good content with key messaging points about the things they liked most. So, it was really interesting, because based on this, starting from concept for us, from customer need and interest first, we were able to build this product within three months. And I think it’s still around in eBay today. It’s not a perfect product, but it was an example of how we built something differently rather than building on because someone important wanted it or it was trendy or whatever. It was just purely from what people wanted and drawing helped us get to that point.

Deb:
So why should you use visuals and storytelling when you’re designing customer experiences? And a lot of times I work in customer experience design and a lot of times these types of discussions are usually just, let’s show screenshots, screenshots, or let’s show them wire frames and mocks. What’s interesting about using drawing instead or incorporating drawing into this process is this gives you an opportunity to test end to end experiences from the user’s point of view, kind of test drive it and see how it would feel as a customer to use this before you do any designing or coding.

Deb:
It’s also nice about it is that you’ll notice that when I did that eBay example that the page mocks or the pages that were shown in those examples were not very polished. They’re really sketchy and really vague, but they just kind of show, well, this is kind of how this might work, and that’s purposeful because then it makes it when you’re showing this type of concept in front of people, then they’re giving you feedback on the quality of the idea of what they think of the idea versus doing nitpicky, not useful feedback, like I don’t like that color or change that photo.

Deb:
The other nice thing about drawing is really it’s faster and cheaper than coding. So for example, if we waited until we build prototypes when you put that in front of users, that would have taken us much longer than two days to get versions that we could put in front of users and get feedback. The other nice thing about drawing and drawing instead of just screenshots, is that it encourages customer empathy because you’re showing customer needs, motivations and pain points in the context of how, where, and when they’re experiencing.

Deb:
So the story from eBay is just one of several examples of things I’ve learned over the years. And some of these stories I found, I learned something different from each one through that way.

Deb:
So one example is this is a project that I worked on with James. We were called by a kitchen counter company to help them kind of come up with new ideas to delight their customers, basically, to change how their products are sold. So this was one example that we did something together where I did the drawing and James used his background in improv.

James:
Well, journey acting is actually, I really kind of co-created it with you for there, but it’s the idea that you’re actually acting out an end to end process. So I get the team to practice some improv to get outside of their selves a little bit in their day-to-day work and actually act out. So people are acting out bits and pieces. Sometimes people are acting out a entry form, “Hi, I’m an empty form. Can I get your name? Can I get your address? Can I get your blood type?” So they have to, sometimes people are acting up data. And so then data is, “I’m the package of data going from API to API,” and they’re really working this out. And what’s great about it is that it is very democratized or our way of, it kind of allows people to express things that they know are true in a very, somewhat safe place, because they’re already doing something that professionally seems a little silly, and it’s fun and they love it. And then they get the added extra a portion of that, which is the visualization of the whole story by Deb.

Deb:
So as part of that process is we made the people at this company act out the journey of a kitchen counter from being from a mountain of quartz in Turkey, to being made into slabs in Israel, and then shipped off to New York and then following the journey of a homeowner who just comes to a showroom, kitchen showroom, and decides they want to get a certain type of countertop. Anyway, there’s a lot of pain points and a lot of the pain points seem to be centered around this person, the inside sales specialist, the person who handles the order fulfillment, and this person ends up being the nexus of all these requests and emails and invoices and discounts and things like that. And it just seemed really obvious that this person was in a lot of pain. I think this person was actually in the room, wasn’t she?

James:
I think they were, yeah.

Deb:
But what I found really interesting about this whole process was normally people would say, “Okay, then let’s streamline this inside sales process. Let’s streamline this communication things, so things aren’t so bad for this person,” but the group looking at the big picture, looking at that big chart, had an insight of their own quite without our prompting, really. They figured out that most of the problems were upstream, that it was about inventory. So, it was interesting, because by showing this in this way, they could see the process in a way they didn’t before, and they came up with these opportunities for improvement quite on their own just by looking at them.

Deb:
So I think what that was, and starting from that, I mean with this as the grounding, then we had to work. The rest of the workshop was kind of like, how do we address this? How do we address? And this map stayed up throughout the entire workshop. It helped inform the rest of their time with us as they tried to come up with new solutions.

James:
And what was interesting about this is that they really hired us to kind of figure out and they thought that we were going to try to figure out their supply chain, help them figure out their supply chain. In which case, we saw the most easiest solution was just to communicate what was going on with the supply chain, that way nobody fell in love with [Vanilla Nor 00:00:13:53], that way nobody can get attached to it and say, “That’s the right perfect color for my kitchen,” and they can move to vanilla something else. And that would actually was such an easy solution really rather than actually having to have to rethink their supply chain from Israel.

Deb:
Right, right. That was a lot of fun actually. And that was kind of neat because it was something outside of what normally we would work on, but I thought it was really great watching the people in the room really they’re really making that connection. I really mean the solution.

Deb:
This was another neat project, and this is something I worked on with you, James. We created these personas of different customers that are in a small, medium business. And I thought this was your idea.

James:
Well, I created these what are called provisional personas. This was kind of the first time this had been done with this company really. And they were an amalgamation of all the salespeople and the technical salespeople and all this. And they really created them themselves with Deb’s help, and then I thought, wouldn’t it be great to actually put them into actual, each one of these represent the customers, the different types of roles in customers. And so I thought for the whole project, wouldn’t it be great to have these standing around the office? And so we actually, I had Deb create these life-size personas and we blew them up and we sent them to some company, I forget what it’s called, party stand-ups for $150 each, which was great.

James:
We created them, and then one morning, the team came in and found their personas standing around the room. And they had little things where they could read about them and some stats about them that we had kind of created, but it changed the way the whole project went really again, because these people were now part of the whole story of the product that we were building a strategy around. And so bringing your users directly into that story and being faced with them every day was wonderful. And I also remember about this company is that all of a sudden they started the company was doing recruiting for employees and they would bring all the employees that were being recruited over to show them this.

Deb:
Oh, is that right? I think there’s a video, because you shot this on the floor.

James:
Yeah. Yeah. When I set them up, I shot a little video for Deb to show them what it was looking like, but yeah, they would come and they would parade them around these personas in our war room with all of your drawings everywhere, and it was always funny to see.

Deb:
What I enjoyed about that particular workshop too, was that as part of the persona process, I invited them to give each character needs, not needs that we assigned, and because they took that kind of ownership, they started talking about these personas by me, not the accountant or not the accounts payable person. He said, “Oh, Maggie. Yeah. Maggie would never do that. No, no, that’s not Maggie’s thing.” It was great.

Deb:
And then sometimes I’ll do things like if I’m trying to make a point. I think one thing that user experience designers do a lot is sometimes we’ll show people our stakeholders or our partners, or even clients, screenshots, screenshot, screenshot, screenshot, screenshot, screenshots that look very similar to each other, and then we expect people to get excited over the minute changes with each new screenshot. And so sometimes I like to try to show instead, not just screenshots, but the screenshots and context, screenshots and emotion, so that you as a viewer can hone in on what’s the moments that really matter.

Deb:
Augmented reality game for Ghostbusters, for the Sony Studios. Now the character designer, the animators who did a 3D modeling were based in Brazil and the engineers were in Tokyo. And then in between whereas the product managers in San Francisco. So we originally had this game design document which just was all text, and it was maybe like if I printed it out, it was a stack of up to three inches high. And so there was a lot of misunderstanding on what the sequence of the actions would be. So I end up just drawing very simple storyboards for each sequence using the little red triangle above the eye, that’s the AR glasses. The little green word balloons, that shows what that person is seeing through the AR glasses and the green shows anything that’s virtual. So I made hundreds of these drawings, because this helps smooth out the expectation of the product designer and the game designer, the 3D modeler and the engineers in Japan who all didn’t really speak the same language. So from these very simple drawings, we end up creating this.

Deb:
A lot of trying to do that, but it was really rewarding.

Deb:
This is another example of helping a different team come together. This was for Adobe. This was one where we were trying to come up with a data experience platform and the problems we had a lot of acquisition companies and we had a lot of silo products. So what we did was we created an end-to-end story of what a future state might look like that was an ideal future state for a company being able to use the products, to be able to manage what they’re advertising and marketing for different audience members.

Deb:
So what we did there is I created this story with the help of the team. And then I asked them as they walked through the story to use different colored post-it notes to highlight, the yellow ones were, “I like the site because I have an idea I want to add to this.” And the blue post-it notes were a blocker, “There’s no way this could work. This is why.” And then a pink is a pain point. And then orange was, “I have questions.” And so these were engineers and your product designers, they walk through the whole floor and they just use the different post-it notes. And as a result, they were able to get a definite sense of what was possible, what wasn’t possible, what really needed a lot of work, what was easy to do. And this exercise helped these teams who normally didn’t work together online. In fact, I did this when I was a consultant for Adobe, and then I joined Adobe maybe two years later. And the team that I worked with then said, “Oh, we still have this. We have this thing hanging up in our office and we look at it all the time and we see how far we’ve come.” That’s really nice, and they still remember all the characters in the story.

Deb:
But I do want to emphasize that when a lot of the examples I’m showing you today are pretty polished looking, but a lot of times when I’m doing this drawing, when I’m working with customers, I’m working with colleagues and designers and program managers, a lot of times the drawing I’m doing is very fast and very messy. And that’s a good thing, because when it’s fast and messy, then no one feels like, “Oh, I can’t say anything because she spent so much time on it,” or, “Oh, that looks so pretty.” When it’s fast and messy and even on a whiteboard, and I say, “Is this is how this works? No. Oh, okay.” Now just wipe it, clean it, and then go, “How does this work?” So what messy does is it invites conversation. It reminds people that this is something we are co-creating, not about me showing you how pretty I can draw.

Deb:
So one thing when I teach people this skill, you usually tell them a lot of designers surprise a lot of people I work with surprisingly have real strong blocks about making drawing, like, “Oh, I can’t draw. I can’t draw a straight line. I don’t know how to draw.” But I keep reminding people, you’re not making art here. You’re just communicating. It’s just like writing.

Deb:
So why does visual storytelling work? Why does it really help with communication and collaboration and alignment? Well, it’s because visual storytelling gives you MICE powers. This doesn’t mean that you become a mouse near to your tail and cape. MICE is an acronym. So M is for memory power, something you see as well as hear and write. And you you’ll remember it much more. Visuals are a great memory anchor.

James:
I would back that up. I mean, I think every time I get to bring you into the room, the whole team remembers. The whole team is more together and on track, and so I think that’s an important piece.

Deb:
Another one is about information processing power. It’s that visuals are, because our brains are really attracted to visuals and pictures and spend a good deal of our brain processing part is spent understanding visual information. So visuals give you more, boosts your information processing power.

Deb:
C is communication power. Communication means that what you draw and what you show as a picture makes it much easier for people to literally see what you mean. See what you’re thinking. The E stands for emotional power. So a lot of times you’ll notice that I’m drawing faces, I’m drawing humans, I’m drawing people who are, they’re happy or they’re sad or they’re frustrated, they’re confused. And when people see that, they feel the emotional power of what the story that you’re telling them. Wow. That’s terrible. We got to do something about this. So there’s your human brain, like I said, the brain processes visual information so much faster than just text alone and drawing interestingly encourages conversation and it encourages creativity.

James:
Thank you, Deb. I think that was fantastic. I loved seeing all that. I’ve seen bits and pieces of that before, but I really enjoyed that. One of the things I think I want to kind of end with here is oftentimes when we are working together and doing some sort of facilitation or workshop, at the end of it, people will come up and say, “Oh, I wish I could draw like Deb. I just can’t draw.” And of course, one of the things that we have taught in our workshops, many times we are training our design team training before is yes, you can. You can, because you know how to make a circle, a square and a line and different squiggly lines. So therefore, you just need to figure out how to put them together. But people still kind of say, “Oh, but I can’t draw. I wish I was an artist of that sort. My brother-in-law’s an artist like that, but I’m not.” So I always think, I want to kind of just say that, I think watching you draw when you do live scribing in the situation is truly magical. It does change the whole story, the whole situation. But I also kind of want to say that, yes, you can. You can do this yourself. It’s just that we’ve lost that muscle to be brave enough to draw somehow.

Deb:
That’s always kind of puzzled me. I didn’t realize that until I started using this at work, because when I was drawing all my life, I was surrounded by people who were like-minded people who like to draw and other comic artists and stuff like that, and so it’s just kind of normal. And to get to this point when I became in the business world where I would, we would be talking in circles or people would using jargon and stuff like that, and I had to write what they were explaining. I said, “I’m not sure I get what the steps are.” So I would just pick up a pen and go, “So do you mean this happens first and this happens next, and then the user does this and then what happens here?” Then just drawing it out while I’m narrating.

Deb:
What was interesting about when I did that was that then I would get situations where the product manager would, “Yeah, that’s how it works.” And then the engineer would look and go, “No, there’s no way it could work like that.” Whereas previously, before the drawing was on the board, everyone had their own picture in their mind how something was going to work. And then by taking it, picking what, here’s what I think you said, and I draw it out and then it’s like I either get confirmation and clarification or I get, “No, that’s not how it works at all.” But it’s fun, because then of course we’ve all been in meetings where people just tune out and don’t contribute or they’re introverted or whatever, and I find that drawing like that in a meeting shakes things up.

James:
Well, and I also want to, I’ll also say that, I mean, you mentioned a couple of times, something something about designers can do this or something like that. And I want to kind of stress that again, I know for sure, because this is that we actually, we teach this drawing to engineers, product managers, VPs. We teach it to anybody, professionals, that want to use this and anybody can do it. So I just want to be clear about that, that this is not a tool for designers. This is actually a tool for the whole team. And I have seen Deb turn some of the most scaredy cat people who would never begin to draw into people who are fantastic communicators visually with their work.

James:
And I want to also say that what we want to do is offer a class with Deb remotely to learn how to harness this superpower yourself. And really, you may say, “Oh, I can’t do that. That’s so hard.” And you look at Deb’s drawings, but really what she will teach you is how to communicate that and how to get your drawings to really work and to really communicate so that I hope that you all sign up for that class, because I think that would be a lot of fun with us. And again, Deb is truly one of the more fun people to take this, to learn from in drawing, so that’s fun.

James:
Deb, I want to thank you for joining us today. I want to thank you for giving that talk to our viewers. I know the power of working with visuals and working with you in a room. And I’m glad to be able to have an opportunity to share that with other people and how that works with really customer experience, the whole runs the whole gamut of customer experience.

Deb:
Thank you. Thank you for being such a great co-facilitator and instigator these things. I’ve learned a lot from you, as well.

James:
Good. Thank you.