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How to place users at the heart of multimedia storytelling

Adriano Gazza, Multimedia team lead for the NHS website, explains how the principles of user-centred design can help create engaging video, animation and infographic content for the public that is clinically accurate.

It was only when I came to NHS Digital that I was exposed to the concept of user-centred design.

One of the frequent challenges in my previous creative roles was explaining why we needed to bear in mind specific considerations for the audience that a commissioner had not always recognised.

Often, clients submitted a request for a video without a strategic purpose. We would rely on brand guidelines where they existed, but this still didn’t answer the central question of why we should create things a certain way. This all started to change when I began to learn the principles of user-centred design.

An empty chair in a studio depicts how we need to fill that chair and put the user at the heart of everything we do.

Building a toolbox of techniques

We joined one of the internal training sessions “Introduction to user centred design” at the start of 2020, back when collaboratively making cardboard prototypes and eating biscuits with colleagues in a conference room was possible!

A stand-out for me was the famous ‘Double Diamond’. This was made by the Design Council to convey the design process to designers and non-designers alike.

The double diamond demonstrates what is the right problem to solve and how it should be solved in the right way.

There are other blog posts that will better expand on what the diamonds actually mean, but the key for me is the process of exploring an issue more widely or deeply (divergent thinking) and then taking focused action (convergent thinking).

In the exploration phase, it is key to speak to people affected by the issues to find out what is needed rather than what you think they need.

In the second diamond you explore different options and test these as small-scale solutions to quickly learn and iterate.

I was immediately struck by how this could serve us in multimedia production. By using the tools and techniques used in user-centred design, we would be able to better identify and serve our users with products that were creative yet effective. We would also be able to respectfully question unrealistic or not fully thought-out requests from commissioners and clients.

Solutions in crisis response

Often, I’d be presented with a client’s brief which had either been pulled together hastily as a form of crisis response, or because a style of video or animation was currently in vogue. This approach was almost always guaranteed to not fully address the needs of the audience, instead merely satisfying the requirements of the commissioner.

Over the years I have been given lots of arbitrary requests over anything from fonts to music choices in videos including the use of xylophones for no apparent reason!

But being honest, at times were my own choices any less subjective?

How good was I at recognising the complexity of audience needs which may overlap with my lived experiences? While I bring professional experience and consider myself to be sensible and reflective of subject matter and tone, I recognise that it is a shift to really explore user need and potential impact with target audiences.

Storyboarding as a prototype

The philosophy and process of user-centred design as a way to ensure that “the needs, wants and limitations of the end user of the video/content are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process… to create highly usable and accessible products for them”, is fundamental to how we as a multimedia team now approach every project.

We take time to identify the end users and what their needs actually are (as opposed to what we think they are), and then come up with ideas that meet these as clearly as possible.

Once we have one or more useable prototypes, we can test this with users, even if that is a smaller group internally for a fast turnaround social media project for example.

In video and animation, a prototype can take a few forms:

  • a script: just as you would read a play
  • a storyboard: a pictorial version of a script, almost like a comic strip, showing key scenes to help users and commissioners/clients visualise the final video
  • animatic; essentially a storyboard in motion, cutting from frame to frame on screen

This creates an opportunity to bring the concepts to life and explore their impact, much as a cardboard prototype or an alpha product would.

It’s best to do this work early, because once the team moves into actual production, it becomes more time consuming and labour intensive to change things.

Applying the models to create accessible user-centred output

As a team we were excited to start using the Double Diamond model.

We began to test it in our work, using a checklist for each project to remind us, and nudge clients and commissioners also. This not only ensured that we start out with a clear user need and a clear articulation of the problem we were trying to solve, but made sure we had thought of specific accessibility requirements too, such as adding subtitles, audio descriptions and transcripts to meet web accessibility requirements – WCAG AA, a new legal requirement for video on public sector websites, and is particularly important to us in our health context.

Over the past few months we began see some tangible improvements in projects by adopting a user-centred design approach, including working with charities with specialist knowledge of user experiences and individuals impacted by sensitive issues, which had a hugely positive impact on a piece we did on the topic of baby loss. By sharing ideas early, we managed to get input we wouldn’t have been aware of, enriching our ability to consider issues beyond policy and clinical safety.

A process of continuous improvement

We will continue to improve and iterate our process, but I know that applying user-centred design thinking will be core to my creative method as I develop video and animation projects for the NHS.

Listening to our users is the key to understanding their needs and developing products that will have a positive impact, and importantly respect the area we work in of health that is so often personal and sensitive.

Finally, on a personal note, as a creative who has often struggled to work openly for fear of ideas being rejected, this has helped me to open myself up to critique earlier, and enjoy it, so that I can create the best work possible.

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Related subjects

Tero Väänänen, Head of Design at NHS Digital, explains why user-centred design is strategic.


Last edited: 7 January 2022 2:24 pm