Product Guru Kevin Cheng on His New Company, His New Book, and Trojan Horses

Doodling may not sound productive, but done the right way, it can help energize, organize, and sell a startup’s mission.

So says Kevin Cheng, a well-regarded designer who spent years developing products at Yahoo; Raptr, the social network for gamers; and Twitter, and who more recently cofounded Incredible Labs. (The low-flying, 10-person, San Francisco-based startup introduces its first product – a “personal agent” iPhone app called Donna – early next year.)

In fact, Cheng has spoken so publicly and convincingly of the power of pictures to communicate product stories that he finally authored a just-released book on the subject titled “See What I Mean.”  In a conversation that’s been edited for length, we talked about what startups can learn from his scribblings.

How did you get into drawing comics in a serious way? 

Illustrating had always been a hobby of mine. Then, eight years ago, I started a master’s program in human computer interaction [at University College London] and decided I wanted to do a humorous Web comic strip on a regular basis, both because I was out of practice and I needed a mechanism to force me to draw every week.

This was 2003, and I thought I’d be making jokes that only two people in the world would understand [because the series was about design], but as it turned out, it spoke to a lot of designers frustrations in their workplace. [One reader was] Bill Buxton, a lead researcher at Microsoft and author of “Sketching the User” experience, who asked [me]: “Have you ever used the comics to tell the story of a product concept?”.

So where did you first try?

When I joined Yahoo, I worked on Maps and Local. And at one point, we were redesigning [a product] and working on new features and there was a miscommunication about the redesign and we realized we’d have to go back to square one.

I proposed we draw out the story of how people would use the product after it was built, so we drew three different stories around how users would interact with it, rather than focusing on the product as this standalone thing. And it gave us perspective about how realistic the scenarios were.

Why was creating a visual representation so important?

Because if you draw a story of what something’s going to be like for a person using the product, it forces you to think not of the product’s features or navigation but: when is this person using it? What’s going on in their lives at the time? Are they in the middle of a conversation? In a noisy bar? Waiting for a bus? Sitting in an office? [Drawing] forces you to think about the product as a whole in a person’s life. You can also better see the pain points and understand if they’re something your product aims to fix – and whether it’s possible to fix them.

How have you used comics in your new startup?

The thing we’re building is an assistant named Donna that anticipates what you need and gives you information before you need it. We’re particularly interested in meetings, for example. So we drew out a story of what it’s like when you’re meeting with someone and you then leave to go to another meeting somewhere else.

As we drew it, we realized just how many steps are involved between the first and second meeting, so we added more and more things. You know, you’re checking your time and no longer focusing on the first meeting, then there’s this whole process of looking up directions to the second meeting, along with obtaining information about who you’re meeting with. And often, you’re already late by the time you’re driving to that second place but don’t want to be dealing with a search and all these apps [in order to alert the people at the second meeting that you won’t be there on time]. It’s helped us figure out what [information] we want to provide, just before users need it.

Obviously,  those steps could be written out in bullet points, though.

But when you’ve created a comic for a product concept, you’ve often created marketing materials, too. Illustrations also offer big advantages over words, which can be misinterpreted and interpreted differently by different people. And when you know what you’re doing, you can create a lot with very little. Five or so panels can get a story across.

It’s also the case that people are really saturated with a lot of information. We skim a lot, whereas if something is in comic form, you’re more likely to read it because it’s different and potentially entertaining. Comics are sort of like Trojan Horses of information. It’s like oh, I’ve accidentally learned this information.

So how can someone start on a comic without it becoming too labor intensive?

The meat of my new book explains how to do it in pretty simple ways without needing to know how to draw. But one simple tip is to write out the story first — figure out what it is you’re trying to tell – then experiment with how you illustrate it. For example, you could zoom in on a smiley face instead of two stick figures talking to each other.

I imagine there are psychological hurdles to overcome first, like the fear or looking juvenile. True or not true?

Absolutely. People worry that comics are for kids, that they won’t be taken seriously. Even designers sometimes don’t feel comfortable sketching unless they enjoy a certain “level” of talent. It’s a social, societal thing that’s been put upon us. But it’s surprising how well illustrations are typically received.
In fact, since I began writing this book several years ago, I’ve seen the practice become much more prevalent. eBay, Google, the U.S. Navy, startups, design agencies: they’re all starting to use this method, not just to market ideas but to communicate ideas internally. eBay now has one or two people whose job it is to be a visual explainer.

Wow, that’s interesting. I definitely like that you can read quickly through a comic. It gets a little tiring, sitting through marketing videos whose narrators all sound like – and possibly are – John Corbett.

Reading a comic strip probably takes 20 seconds at most. I think that’s a huge advantage over video. Video can explain more in that time frame, but you have to be really interested to sit through a 90-second introduction video.

Photo: Image courtesy of Kevin Cheng.