K-Scripts: The fastest and most flexible way to articulate a user experience

We always sketch and doodle whenever we make physical products. But can we sketch user experiences?

In designing physical products, sketching is commonly used as a quick and inexpensive method to allow the designer to express an idea quickly, evaluate the concept, and explain it to others. Early sketches (which really are a form of prototyping) can be easily tweaked, changed wholesale, edited, questioned or improved. Consider Da Vinci’s helicopter concept, or Degas’ studies of ballet dancers made before he created 3d sculptures — both are methods to explore and understand the idea. 

The power of sketching comes from the rapid expression of the idea as it’s generated — which means that a designer doesn’t have time to become emotionally attached on a particular strategy. We’ve all had experiences when someone has invested a lot of time creating an expression of an idea that the slightest question or request to change direction becomes a difficult, or sometimes antagonistic, conversation — while expressing the same questions or changes early in the process would have been met with a desire to work collaboratively.

When designers present overly-developed/overly-complete ideas, that are too close to the actual solution too early in the design process, people often reject the ideas or fail to understand the core ideas because its easy to focus on the wrong details. 

If you know about the Uncanny Valley you’ll know that the more something like a robot starts to resemble a human form, the more affinity people have for the robot until the robot gets very close to looking human — in which case we are repulsed by it. Why? Because the details are so close, the figure looks more like a corpse than a human, and humans are wired to see these slight differences and stay away (staying away from dead/diseased organisms is generally good for a species). Can you think about a time when you saw a designer create a high-fidelity mockup, (for a website? a concept for a video commercial? a 3D printed and painted physical object?) only to show a senior executive at a design review and have the exec focus on a trivial detail? “Is that how big the logo would be?” “That’s not the right font.” “We never use that word in this context” — when in fact they should be focused on the bigger issues that the designer is working to validate. This is what I call the Uncanny Valley of Design.

So here’s the question: how can we sketch complex systems that deal with user-interactions, some of which may not even have a clear physical representations, while expressing an idea in an intellectually and emotionally compelling way?

My solution is to use words instead of images to express the concept and I called them K-Scripts. When you read a book, you imagine a lot that isn’t explicitly stated. It’s why books provide an extremely rich visual and emotional impression in your mind, yet the movie-version always feels off when you’ve read the book, first. If we could use that same technique to enable a designer to create a very strong perspective that focused the reader on the right things, then the reader could:

1) Clearly imagine the vision of a future end state

2) Keep the reader focused on all the important things, and none of the nit-picks

3) Engaging the reader’s imagination to provide feedback and input that improve the concept

I pioneered the technique in the late 90s when I was making speech-recognition systems. Creating, at the time, a 2-column script to express the core of the idea of a person using a speech-system felt like the right thing to do. It’s easy for a customer to read the script, and it runs like a little play. Then, when I wanted to explain some concepts that wouldn’t nicely fit on the script (like how a particular interaction was technically possible) I expanded the expression of the document to include another column that enabled me to add notes, and allowed others to ask clarifying questions, or provide ideas in that space.

After leaving the speech industry, I started to apply this same idea to web design, mobile application design, social-robot interaction design, and teaching it in my design-thinking class at MIT. Since then, it has been used at numerous organizations including big ones like Adobe and the U.S. Air Force, for articulating interactive experiences for software, hardware, robotics and a whole lot more.

Another great application of this technique is the ability to enable a design to communicate simultaneously to a technical and non-technical audience. Each one can focus on their area of knowledge without getting bogged down in the wrong details. And by using text to create these sketches, it allows for easy editing and collaboration by anyone, on almost any digital medium. I actually don’t know a way for technical and non-technical people to mock up a drawing and maintain an easy to understand change-log.)

How To Make A K-Script

K-Scripts are valuable when they focus on the 80% case — the most typical cases that users will encounter. They can also be used for failure conditions (in which a user may make mistakes, even if we don’t expect to have it happen often) or any other context — but the best value is to show off a normal interaction and not a possible, but unlikely one.

The format of the K-Script can be elegant and visually designed, or as simple as a spreadsheet table. Regardless of the format used, all K-Scripts contain three essential elements:

Who:

The first section defines the actor, whomever is performing the action, and shows the sequential relationship between a user (or users) and the product. The who could be a generic person, a specific user, a product, a system or any entity that is involved in the interaction.

Observable Action:

This section describes an action that a user performs or an action that occurs by a system — as long as it’s something a viewer could observe. Whether it is discussing a physical interaction (touching a screen, walking down stairs) or a verbal one (talking to a machine), a detailed and truthful description matters here; the What section is what enables the reader to create a mental picture of the interaction.

Unobservable Action:

This is the section that enables a designer to help the reader understand why a situation may be occurring (motivation of the user, or notes about how the system or technology works to enable this interaction.) It’s also a good place for others to pose questions about the interaction.

Example: A Basic K-Script

Let’s take a look at a short K-Script for the design of a new ticketing kiosk at a large fair:

K-Scripts are an exceptionally easy thing to construct — and it would take a lot longer to sketch it out visually. The K-Script format also allows someone else to edit and provide feedback:

The Revised K-Script With Markings by 2 Readers

People can ask detailed questions, make comments, or even add content.

The thoroughness of the Unobservable Action / Notes section is essential for a thorough K-Script that will be used to convey an interaction because it’s the place where people can challenge particular assumptions or learn how a technology can drive a particular type of interaction.

When to use a K-Script

The ability to whip K-Scripts up quickly is what makes them a powerful tool early on in the design process. A K-Script is a great way to introduce a new idea, as it can provide a clear picture of the interaction to those who have no familiarity with the product, but it can also be useful throughout the entire design process. Just as they function as an easy way to convey basic functionality, they can constantly be refined and become more robust (and more complete) over time, while still maintaining their flexibility.

In addition to their use as a resource for the designer during product development, K-Scripts can also be used to demonstrate functionality to clients or investors. By combining a thorough and well-developed K-Script with a rudimentary system prototype, customers can experience the feel of the system (through a functional prototype) as well as understand the depth and complexity at which the final system will operate. And since it’s text and it’s focused on the user experience, anyone with a little understanding of the context will be able to understand it — even non-designers.

Since K-Scripts are not meant to be all encompassing it’s not necessary to create convoluted and overly complex scripts. The better use is to have the script focus on typical interactions and use more detailed logic diagrams to show non-typical interactions. However, additional K-Scripts should be created for less common or fringe cases when the script format is the best way to express the idea. A set of K-scripts creates a holistic view of the system that can communicate to lots of different groups and provide vision that aligns teams.

Tips for successful K-Scripts

  • Ensure that common scenarios are represented in the K-Scripts — the things that the user will most frequently encounter.
  • The K-Scripts should represent the salient functionality of the product but do not have to exhaustively cover every single case; users should be able to accurately infer how the system will respond to simple variations.
  • However, consider including Error Condition K-scripts to convey what happens if something goes wrong. What happens if a user isn’t successful? What happens if they say something to a speech-system that’s unintelligible? What if a users changes their mind and needs to make a change? These are situations that will certainly happen, so pick the common types of error conditions that help designers, technologists, etc. to understand how common errors are handled.

Useful Conventions

Over the years here are the conventions I’ve found the most useful when writing K-Scripts. Use quotation marks for buttons, speech-commands, and other specific actions that a user can take:

  • For an iPhone app 3 buttons appear: “Video” “Audio “Pictures”
  • For a Speech Recognition System: You can say “Red”, “Green” or “Blue”.

Use angle brackets for notes for the user to read while reading the script, for variables, non-textual elements and some actions. 

For and iPhone app:

  • <Logo appears>
  • “The weather in <Boston> is <67> degrees”
  • “There <is/are> <1> <book/books> remaining.”

For Speech Systems

  • <user presses zero>
  • <NBC audio jingle plays>

More Sample K-Scripts

Let’s take a look at a short K-Script used for Ethnographic Research for an interaction at a sandwich store:

This quick-to-make K-Script allows for a design to conduct ethnographic research and made a representation of an existing interaction. It’s an easy starting place for another designer to review the interaction and suggest methods to improve the sub ordering experience.

K-Script Showing An Error Condition

Here the script shows how a speech-recognition system would be able to handle a situation in which the user doesn’t reply to a question:

K-Scripts for Every Design Problem

K-Scripts should be easy to make and extremely powerful — I encourage you to try them out and see if it speeds things up and helps you communicate your ideas to others (and to yourself). Highlight parts you find valuable and if you’ve got questions just ask!