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Making the Connection: User Personas as a \"Tool for Understanding\" for Product Designers and Information Developers

An introduction to user personas as a \"tool for understanding\" users and audiences. This paper introduces the concept of personas, explains the benefits and applications of personas, and discusses some pitfalls to avoid when implementing personas into design and development processes. The paper was presented at the 2008 Korea Technical Communication Association symposium in Seoul, South Korea.

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Making the Connection: User Personas as a \"Tool for Understanding\" for Product Designers and Information Developers

  1. 1. Making the Overcoming the Challenges of Designing for Users Connection: As Thomas Erickson explains, “Designers know too much and they know too little. Personas as a “Tool of Designers who know enough to incorporate Understanding” for Product a technology into a product know too much to understand how users will perceive it. Designers and Information At the same time, designers know too Developers little about the users’ lives to understand how the product will mesh with their work practices.” 1 Eddie Hollon October 20, 2008 What Mr. Erickson describes is a typical problem encountered in the design With all the focus on users today, why are phase—a misunderstanding of the real so many companies still failing to capture usage environments, motivations, and their customers’ attention and deliver the preferences of users. Because designers products and information that meet their often have a distorted or incomplete view of needs and ignite their passions? Simply put, their users, they are more likely to design too many efforts have resulted in designers products and information based on faulty and developers projecting their own ideas assumptions. As a result, users are often of what a user is, rather than taking the confronted with features that are counter- necessary steps to understand who the intuitive, difficult to learn, hard to use in product’s real customers are. particular environments, or integrated with unnecessary or undesired functions. And yet, a popular technique has existed for more than two decades that can describe Design choices that fail to meet users’ who the customers are in a detailed context expectations stem from a common flaw in that includes motivations, needs, desires, the development stage. That is, designers habits, and behaviors, as well as the work from a set of assumptions about what environmental pressures or situations that users want and need. Sometimes, these affect perceptions about the usefulness assumptions are formed from user data of a product or set of information. This collected by marketing and user research technique—developing personas—allows efforts; however, design assumptions are designers, planners, marketers, and others too often self-referential (reflecting the to develop a more complete picture of a designer’s own ideas, rather than users’ customer as a flesh-and-blood person with ideas), because the user is poorly described specific interests and goals. by limited demographic or statistical data. In this paper, I introduce personas as a What is needed in the design environment, tool for understanding customers and then, is a more robust and realistic way to explain how personas can help companies describe users. Perhaps, as Gerry McGovern develop a real understanding of what their asserts, designers need to move away from customers need and want out of their the idea of a generic user altogether: “‛User’ products and information—regardless is a catchall and ultimately a mean-nothing of whether the tool is used for design, word. It reflects a technology-centric, planning, sales, or even recruiting. In rather than a people-centric, view of the addition, I will describe how to construct Web. To call someone a user is largely personas and how to put them to use in an meaningless…”2 organization. Making the Connection: Personas as a “Tool of Understanding” for Product Designers and Information Developers 1 October 20, 2008
  2. 2. A Tool for Understanding will easily understand and immediately To overcome these challenges, design use. Because market research is often teams must confront the shortcomings overwhelming or quickly forgotten, personas in their current practices and embrace and scenarios may be the best way to mine techniques that will help them make more value from that research.”3 As a tool for informed decisions. John Pruitt and Tamar understanding, personas help design teams Adlin describe this focal shift in their book, make sense of user data and more fully The Persona Lifecycle: Keeping People in understand the people who will utilize their Mind Throughout Product Design: designs. Customers that produce consumer products must become user focused, Centering Design Efforts around in the sense that emergency rooms People are “injury focused.” In an emergency Personas are “clearly defined, memorable room, it is not enough to convey that representations of users that remain a person is injured. Doctors need to conspicuous in the minds of those who know the type of injury, the part of design and build products.”2 These the body injured, the severity of the representations are often drawn from injury and its effect on vital statistics, other types of user research, such as and so on before they can identify the demographic and statistical data, but critical cases and decide on a course personas are more than a collection of of treatment. Similarly, it is no longer facts and figures. Coupled with photos enough to proclaim that something of representative users and stories about is being built for the user. We need usage situations, personas create a much more information to make dynamic picture of users that can then fuel difficult decisions that result in effective discussions about design choices. products. 2 Personas Describe Real People With this analogy, the authors point out At the base of every organization is an that design teams not only need more attempt to satisfy a customer. Whether the information, but they need more vital customer is a retail shopper or a buyer for information about their users’ behaviors, another organization, they are all people. tendencies, and desires. Because the design Only through understanding how these decisions are critical to the success of a people function in their daily lives, what product, accurate and detailed information their needs are, and what is likely to gain is of the utmost importance. their interests, can organizations deliver The solution—user personas—was described products and services that will meet or and popularized by Alan Cooper in his exceed their expectations. 1999 book, The Inmates are Running the Personas fill this need by describing real Asylum. As he explained it, a user persona people, rather than simply defining a was a tool that allowed the design team faceless group of users based on their to understand a user as a flesh-and- shared characteristics. As two usability blood character with rich anecdotes and engineers explain, “Contrasted with the behavioral characteristics that affected the demographic approach that focuses on way he or she interacted with a product. graphically representing age, race, and Now, almost 20 years later, personas are ethnicities, the persona-based approach still touted as one of the most valuable speaks directly to the life situations and design tools available. As Angela Quail personalities of real users.”4 By getting points out, “Personas are a tool to to the heart of these “life situations and disseminate research in the form of fictional personalities,” personas provide the kind of but accurate stories that our colleagues Making the Connection: Personas as a “Tool of Understanding” for Product Designers and Information Developers 2 October 20, 2008
  3. 3. rich, multi-dimensional profile of a user that help focus design efforts by describing an mere demographic data cannot. archetypal user that narrows the scope of the project. In fact, many persona Personas Tell Useful Stories proponents have pointed out that limiting By incorporating rich, multi-faceted and shaping the design effort is one of the information, personas help promote best ways to create products that effectively story telling. Personas include anecdotal address the needs of your target user group information, scenarios, and other pieces or audience: of information that allow designers to describe a user’s environment, behaviors, Personas are helpful because they are and preferences through stories. These constraining. Personas clearly define stories can enrich the design team’s who is and who is not the target user understanding of a user in ways that no (or customer) for the product and other set of data can replicate. In addition, thereby make some of the decisions the stories provide other benefits in the for us… Every detail we include in our development process, such as team personas limit the number of choices building and communicating with high level we have to make. Personas define a management. tight domain within which the product needs to perform. Within that domain, “Team members can sit around and swap personas free us to explore all of the stories they’ve heard, noting similarities “marvelous possibilities” for the product and differences, and discussing possible we are designing.2 interpretations… It seems to be something that any member of a design team can The idea of constraint was one of the participate in, regardless of whether original bases of Alan Cooper’s argument they are trained in computer science, for introducing personas. Although it may psychology, graphic design, or some other seem counterintuitive, practitioners have discipline,” notes Angela Quail.3 The power since shown that designing for a single of storytelling not only helps ground the user persona (or a limited set of personas) design team around a common theme, but is much more productive than trying to also allows everyone to participate in the design a product with an overabundance of discussion, which leads to a broader, more options, which can often make users “feel productive design session. more trapped, less happy, and less able to make good decisions than they would if Stories also help the design team relay they had fewer options.”2 their plans to people outside of the team. Thomas Erickson points out that, “Design In addition, personas have the effect of teams may need to defend the validity of helping design teams focus their discussions their design in an effort to maintain their and debates around the idea of what is funding, or to make the case for moving useful to the customer, rather than focusing the design from a product investigation or on arguments that revolve around what a research track to a product development designer may want to add to the product for track. In both cases, many of the higher personal reasons. By clearly understanding level managers…need to quickly understand who the designers are attempting to satisfy, the gist of the design, why it makes sense, the design team will benefit from increased why people will want to buy it. Stories excel efficiency and the end user will benefit from at encapsulating this kind of information.”1 a more useful product. Personas Help Focus Design Efforts Creating Personas Many times, the problem that design and Personas often contain fictional details and development teams face is trying to meet anecdotes, but much of the information the needs of all users at once. Personas used to make up a persona can be drawn Making the Connection: Personas as a “Tool of Understanding” for Product Designers and Information Developers 3 October 20, 2008
  4. 4. from user research and factual data complete with photos, names, and quotes. gathered by other departments within the Personas do not have to follow a set organization, such as marketing, sales, formula; rather, they can be adapted to customer service, and user experience. meet the needs and level of detail required Creating a useful persona requires gathering by the project. However, each persona factual information and marrying that data should contain enough data and detail to with the scenarios, attitudes, and fictional facilitate discussion about how the product details that bring the persona to life. or information can address the needs represented by the persona. Gathering Information In the information gathering stage, any data The two images in Figure 2 show sample about users is welcome. However, the focus personas created by a consulting agency of this stage should revolve around the type for an online investing tool. Each persona of information that will help the persona tell includes a personal profile with anecdotes, a story about the target user. Alison Head demographic data (background), attributes offers this advice: that describe the type of user, needs, and scenarios that explain how this user might Developing personas usually starts with interact with the product. collecting some demographic data, such as age, education, and job title. Crafting a persona is much like creating a But the goal is to collect qualitative— character for a novel or screenplay. To avoid not quantitative—information. a flat persona that conveys little useful Interviewers need to gather stories, information, details must be added about quotes, and anecdotes from interview the user’s life, including his or her habits, subjects that pertain to their likes, dislikes, and so on. Persona guru Kim environment and behaviors and reveal Goodwin describes how these personal their attitudes, Web usage habits, and touches add life to a persona: “For example, goals.5 if someone tends to be incredibly busy at work, don’t just say he’s incredibly busy; As Ms. Head suggests, the information instead, say that there’s a sandwich on his gathering stage will definitely include desk that he’s been trying to find time to an analysis of the current user research eat for three hours.”6 data held by an organization. However, it should focus primarily on interviewing When building up a persona, the personal and customer feedback that allow the user details not only breathe life into the to provide emotive, free-form responses. character, but also set the stage for the These techniques should incorporate open- all-important storytelling that will guide the ended questions that prompt prospective or design process. These “actionable details” current users to share their feelings, ideas, are what allow the design team to interact and anecdotes. with the persona, describe how elements of the design meet the persona’s needs, and Whitney Quesenbery, a usability understand real-life usage scenarios.7 professional who lectures on the value of personas, provides this checklist of Putting Personas to Use information to gather to help define personas (Figure 1). This list illustrates that Personas tend to take on a life of their own both statistical and qualitative information once they are put into use. In addition to are important. helping focus design efforts, personas can prompt dialogues about users at all levels of Building a Representation of the User an organization. Over time, well-developed In their finished form, personas are personas can even grow and may be composite sketches of user archetypes, adapted for other purposes. Making the Connection: Personas as a “Tool of Understanding” for Product Designers and Information Developers 4 October 20, 2008
  5. 5. Personal Characteristics Goals and Tasks Demographics What • Age • Most frequent tasks; most difficult; easiest • Sex • Order and relationships • Education level • Degree of freedom to choose tasks, and to work • Income within a task • Family composition Where Personal Goals • Where, and in how many different places, do they use the product • Career or life hobbies With Whom • Hobbies or leisure activities • People they work with Job information or domain knowledge • Information needed from, or given to, others • Current position, previous positions or roles When and Why • Years in position, with company, in industry • How often and under what circumstances • Level of knowledge • Frequency and duration of use Web or Technology Experience • What triggers the use • Level of comfort Motivations • Similar products Influencers or advisors • When, where and how • Collaborators or interferers Attitude and Needs • People who influence actions or give advice Information needs Decision factors • Favorite ways to learn or teach • Details of the context or reasons for actions • Preferences for ways to get help • People who influence actions or give advice Attitudes Barriers • Patience and tolerance for problems • What makes them change their plans? • Proficiency or comfort with similar tools or experiences • Dislikes or pet peeves • Trust in company or systems • Level of tolerance for efficiency, effectiveness, ease of learning Expectations • How do they describe “success”? Figure 1: A Checklist of Information to Gather to Define Personas (from “Usability and Accessibility: User Research, Design, and Evaluation”)11 Designing for a User Persona archetypes who are important for the When putting a persona to use in a design design but not as ‘high maintenance’ as the process, it is important to remember that primary persona.”5 the purpose of the persona is to limit and focus efforts to meet key objectives. To Once a primary persona has been selected, achieve this purpose, a limited number of the design team is free to discuss how this personas should be used to represent target user archetype defines the requirements users and one persona in particular should for the product, interface, or information be the focus of the design and development it is developing. Teams who focus on a process. limited number of personas are more likely to focus on the issues that are relevant Alison Head explains that “There is a to the project, rather than quibbling definite pecking order. One persona needs over unnecessary features or becoming to become the primary persona, or the entangled in conceptual debates. In the primary focus of the design. The other end, the focus on the primary persona (or key personas are secondary personas, Making the Connection: Personas as a “Tool of Understanding” for Product Designers and Information Developers 5 October 20, 2008
  6. 6. Figure 2: Razorfish Personas (from a small set of personas) can increase the personas increases the likelihood that overall usefulness of the product: many people will love your product.2 From the very beginning of a product In addition, the stories that arise from these development cycle, personas can be discussions about the user personas can there to provide data in the form of spark a variety of dialogues about the needs the “voice” of the user, which can to target users, including discussions by reduce feature debates and refocus high-level managers and other departments projects. In this regard, personas offer in the organization. Rather than trying a consistent target-audience vision. to validate design decisions based on Perhaps this is why, paradoxically, impersonal statistical details, design teams designing for just a few well-defined can use stories to illustrate how target users will interact with the product. Making the Connection: Personas as a “Tool of Understanding” for Product Designers and Information Developers 6 October 20, 2008
  7. 7. Growing Personas ever read a book or watched a movie with John Pruitt and Tamara Adlin advocate the an enormous cast of characters, you may extended use of personas when they write, have found it hard to remember who was “We believe that successful personas and related to whom, who said what, and so on. persona efforts are built progressively. Just You probably didn’t feel like you knew any as we get to know people in our lives, we of the characters very well.” must get to know personas (and the data they contain) by developing a relationship What Mr. Spool warns against is one of the with them.”2 problems that personas are intended to overcome—that is, the attempt to solve all As they suggest, personas can have the needs of every type of user imaginable. additional utility outside of the original When designers take this approach, the discussions about design. In fact, personas usual result is a product that does not that are used over time tend to become meet the needs of anyone in particular. By more robust and can grow to portray a user focusing on too many personas, designers archetype in greater detail. can end up creating products for edge cases (eventualities that could happen, In order to “grow” a persona, additional but probably won’t) and trying to satisfy user research and data must be “fed” to the product reviewers or internal personnel persona. Rather than seeing the persona rather than end users.9 as a static tool with a limited shelf life, the persona must be viewed as something To avoid reintroducing this mentality in that evolves in relation to the attention it the development process, Tina Calabria is given. By incorporating new information suggests a limit for the number of personas: learned from usability testing and “Four or five personas work as effective interviews, organizations may find that their design tools, whilst over ten personas may personas can become even more useful introduce that same confusion as a large tools for understanding users.8 user requirements document.”10 Each design team will have to determine the Avoiding Common Pitfalls ideal number of personas for a particular Despite the benefits that personas can project, but the basic rule of thumb—less is offer, they must be used according to more—should be the guiding principle. a few sensible guidelines. For one, the set of personas must be fairly limited in Personas are Not About You order to focus the design efforts. Also, When developing and implementing personas must be created objectively to personas, design teams must also avoid ensure that they represent actual users and the tendency to distort the persona with are not merely another reflection of the their own ideas. Cooper and Reimann assumptions and ideas of people close to propose that properly crafted personas help the project. eliminate some common design issues, such as: Too Many Personas is a Crowd As I mentioned previously, design teams • The elastic user—that is, the should choose a primary persona and definition of the user in the mind focus their efforts on meeting the needs of the designer, developer, or of that archetype. In some cases, it will other project team member that be necessary to have additional personas allows the member to design the that represent different types of users, interface and claim he is serving but a large set of personas can be highly the user. problematic. Jared Spool explains this problem with a fitting analogy: “If you’ve • Self-referential design involves Making the Connection: Personas as a “Tool of Understanding” for Product Designers and Information Developers 7 October 20, 2008
  8. 8. designers or developers projecting affect product design. These stories provide their ideas onto the project and a common language and allow people from claiming that this is what the all backgrounds to join the discussions user wants. In other words, the about users. Because the stories are designer or developer thinks he is engaging, they can also be used to validate a typical user.9 design decisions for upper-level managers and other personnel who are outside of the Both of these cases stem from the same design and development team. problem, which is a projection of the designer’s ideas onto the user. Although Despite the benefits offered by personas, some details about the user may be organizations must be cautious to avoid fictional, it is important to remember that tainting the persona by projecting their even these fictional details should represent own ideas onto the user. However, by actual users if the design effort is to remaining true to the user data and limiting successfully meet the expectations of the the number of personas involved in a target audience. By tainting the persona project, organizations will benefit from more with “self-referential” information, the efficient and more fruitful discussions about design team not only jeopardizes the design how to meet the needs of their customers. effort, but undermines the efforts of those who performed research, gathered data, and compiled information to develop the References personas. 1. Erickson, Thomas. “Notes on Design Practice: Stories and Prototypes as Summary Catalysts for Communication.” Online: In 1999, Allen Cooper introduced the world Tom_Erickson/Stories.html. Originally of usability and user experience to a simple, published in Scenario-Based Design: but effective tool that helps designers, Envisioning Work and Technology in content developers, planners, and others System Development, J. Carroll, ed. gain a deeper understanding of the actual New York: Wiley & Sons, 1995. people who use products and consume information.13 This tool—user personas—is 2. Pruitt, John and Tamara Adlin. The a composite sketch of an archetypal user, Persona Lifecycle: Keeping People complete with a detailed context and in Mind Throughout Product Design. anecdotal information. Boston: Morgan Kaufman, 2008. Personas are built from traditional data, 3. Quail, Angela. “Tell Me a Story,” Persona such as demographic and statistical Creation: Getting Personas Right, June information gathered through user research 30, 2008. http://www.personacreation. and marketing efforts. However, it is the com/persona_creation/2008/06/tell-me qualitative information that brings a user -a-story.html persona to life. Armed with these multi- faceted diagrams of a user’s motivations, 4. Zhou, Yun and Cliff Anderson. “Personas needs, desires, habits, and behaviors, and Diversity,” The UPA Voice, April designers and developers can develop 2008. http://www.usabilityprofessionals. stories about users to better understand org/upa_publications/upa_voice/ how they are likely to interact with a volumes/2008/april/personas-diversity. product. html In addition to providing a focus for design 5. Head, Alison J. “Personas: Setting the efforts, personas allow much simpler and Stage for Building Usable Information more memorable representations of the Sites,” Information Today, Vol. 27, No. 4, usage scenarios and environments that Making the Connection: Personas as a “Tool of Understanding” for Product Designers and Information Developers 8 October 20, 2008
  9. 9. July/August 2003. http://www.infotoday. EDDIE HOLLON is a Senior Technical com/online/jul03/head.shtml Communicator at Hansem EZUserGuides, Inc. in Suwon, South Korea. He holds 6. Goodwin, Kim. “Perfecting Your a Master’s of English with Emphasis in Personas,” Cooper Journal, August Technical Writing from the University of 1, 2001. North Texas and professional certificates journal/2001/08/perfecting_your in Content Management and Usability _personas.html and Accessibility. He is a member of the Society for Technical Communication and 7. Olsen, George. “Making Personas More the Usability Professional’s Association Powerful: Details to Drive Strategic and and presents at international symposiums Tactical Design,” Boxes and Arrows, hosted by the fledgling Korea Technical September 14, 2004. http://www. Communication Association. He writes technology articles for a corporate blog, personas_more_powerful_details_to provides training for technical writing _drive_strategic_and_tactical_design professionals, and develops research and whitepapers to promote the emerging 8. Spool, Jared M. “Three Important technical communication field in South Benefits of Personas,” User Interface Korea. Engineering. May 22, 2007. http://www. Contact information: ehollon@ 9. Butow, Eric. User Interface for Design for Mere Mortals. Upper Saddle River, ©2008. The author reserves all rights to NJ: Pearson Education, 2007. reproduction or distribution of this work. No part of this work may be reproduced or 10. Calabria, Tina. “An Introduction to distributed without written consent of the Personas and How to Create Them,” author. Step Two Designs, March 2, 2004. kmc_personas 11. Quesenbery, Whitney. “Usability and Accessibility: User Research, Design, and Evaluation.” Workshop presented at the STC Technical Communication Summit, Philadelphia, PA, May 31-June 1, 2008. 12. “Razorfish personas.” Located online: http://bobulate. com/documents/scenarios.pdf. Accessed via Dey Alexander Resources online ( uxd/personas.html). 13. Cooper, Alan. “The Origin of Personas,” Cooper Journal, August 1, 2003. http:// the_origin_of_personas.html Making the Connection: Personas as a “Tool of Understanding” for Product Designers and Information Developers 9 October 20, 2008