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Communicating Concepts Through Comics

Today I attended Kevin Cheng and Jane Jao’s “Communicating Concepts Through Comics” presentation. Download the slides [5MB PDF] in order to follow along with my notes…

“What is community?”
– On a project, they wanted to add community to local service
– Unfortunately, different people had different ideas of community — some thought message boards, some thought recommendations, etc.
– Marketing had a different idea from design had a different idea from management had a different idea from engineering

Well, what are the tools we have to communicate these concepts?
– Personas – tells you user’s needs and desires, but doesn’t communicate concepts
– Use cases – too much detail, too highly defined
– Wireframes – details the nuances of the interface, but doesn’t communicate philosophy

Skills and resources
– video, animation, interactive prototype — effective but take a lot of skills/resources
– scripts, personas, use cases — fewer skills/resources, but subject to interpretation

They then show a scenario of use depicted in comics
(my thought: what’s the difference between this and a story board or a scenario?)

There’s a flash tool, Tarquin, that allows you to drop comics boxes into flash and it creates a little interactive comic.

They “user tested” the comics
– Asked users about four different attributes
– what was appealing? (fun, interesting)
– useful (you would actually use)
– complicated (maybe useful, but tedious and time consuming)
– confusing (ambiguous, etc.)
– Helped refine the story
– Different colors to highlight the different attributes
– Important to get the users marking up comics on paper

We do an exercise
– draw the person next to you
– draw the smiley face

Question: Who is an artist?
– From the book, “Orbiting the Giant Hairball”
– the author asked kids, “Who here is an artist?”
– kindergarten – everyone an artist;
– with each subsequent grade it drops dramatically, until very very few consider themselves artists…

Comics used to communicate concepts:
– Cathy comic explaining where you can buy stamps…
– Storyboards from film…
– Apple had illustrated stories…

Five qualities
– Communication
– can be more powerful than words
– kind of a “universal” language
– Imagination
– smiley face – could represent anyone
– short black-haired person – could be many people
– understanding comics — amplification through simplification… different levels of abstraction
– the more abstract, the more open to interpretation
– when making comics for local, made the mistake of including big screenshots in the comic
– the problem was, people focused on the UI
– so, they abstracted out a bit, showing just bits of the screen
– and then abstracted it further… show just the UI elements that gives context (like the radio buttons or little link list)
– we’re NOT talking about illustrated stories… the text is used as a crutch (apple photo example)
– Expression
– “i’m sorry”, “thank you” – pretty basic, straightforward
– mapped to different facial expressions changes the meaning
– Motion
– conveying time, how it’s elapsed, etc.
– Iteration
– You want to be able to change ideas quickly and get to the point of knowing what you want to build

You can draw comics.
– Don’t get worked up about artistic ability.
– Use cheat sheet’s like Kevin’s set of facial expressions.
– Focus on the user, product, context, not the UI.
– Or use photos and trace them.
– Or use Yahoo!’s avatars. (
– Storyboard Artist and Comic Life software for Mac OS X.


At the end of the session, I asked a question:
You originally said that you used comics to get a shared sense of the idea “community,” because different stakeholders had different interpretation. However, you also mentioned that comics are powerful for leaving room for interpretation. How do those square?

My paraphrase of Jane and Kevin’s answer:
Comics are great for solicitating feedback on concepts. To present many ideas and get responses.

If you want to explain a concrete direction, use a short video.