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Volume Analytics:
Don't Design for a Mob - Design for Personas

online columnist Guy Creese     Column published in DMReview.com
March 17, 2005
 
  By Guy Creese

When building an application, it is often difficult to make prudent design decisions amidst wildly conflicting demands. Some clients want the software to do everything for everybody, so that it does nothing well; others want their idiosyncratic views to crowd out others' requirements. As an IT manager, it's sometimes difficult to find the happy medium between "everything and the kitchen sink" and a narrow set of features for a single user type. The use of personas can be a pragmatic solution to this very real problem.

The Concept and its Recent Popularity

The concept of personas - the use of archetypical users to help clarify design decisions - has been around for a long time. Alan Cooper claims on his Web site (http://www.cooper.com/content/insights/newsletters/2003_08/Origin_of_Personas.asp) that he invented concept in 1998; others have pointed out that Geoffrey Moore discussed "target-customer characterization" in his groundbreaking book, Crossing the Chasm, seven years earlier. It doesn't really matter who came up with the idea; what does matter is that it clearly helps the design process.

The concept seems to have come out of the design closet with the increasing emphasis on effective Web site design. Poor Web design cannot only lead to frustrated users but - at e-commerce sites - lost sales as well. Ordered to optimize the site for the different segments of users, Web site developers have taken to personas with a vengeance.

Personas humanize and make specific the different segments of system users. I'm still often surprised when I ask a development manager, "Who is the target user for this new system?" (It's a bit of a trick question - I'm expecting a list of user roles.) Instead, I frequently get a "departmental" response: "marketing," for example, or "finance." Never mind that a CFO often has a very different attention span and set of skills than an accounts payable clerk.

The theory of personas is that, by shifting the design emphasis from satisfying a nameless crowd to building something that a certain person will use, developers become more empathetic to users' problems. In addition, "personalizing" the problem helps programmers break the shackles of building a system to a rigid set of written specs. By thinking about a user's day, by mulling over what's important to a user with a specific set of tasks and skills, developers can sometimes come up with solutions tht were never originally envisioned.

The Mechanics

The mechanics of personas come down to two points:

1.      Figure out the right set of personas.

2.      Personalizing them so they are not cardboard figures but very real.

Figuring out the right set of personas is not always easy. The number should probably be more than two and less than ten. Companies and IT departments typically have preconceptions about who their users are and the tasks they want to accomplish. Surprise! Such preconceptions are rarely correct. Test them by doing in-depth interviews with a lot of users; the true patterns will start to magically emerge after awhile.

Personalizing them is also important. They should have names and a context: what is their age, what do they do for a living, what is their education, where do they live, what is their daily life like? Their description should be a story, not just a set of statistics. Although market segments may be a place to start thinking about a possible set of personas, a market segmentation description - single women, aged 35-45 - is too devoid of feeling. Remember, you're designing the system for humans, with all their affiliated skills, foibles and fears.

Once you've designed a vivid set of personas, think through which features they'll use, what their vocabulary is, what they're trying to accomplish, where they'll get confused. If you were forced to design a system for both your grandmother (poor eyesight, convinced she'll start World War III if she presses the wrong button) and your son (quick reactions, beguiled by sharp graphics), you'd probably design two very different interfaces - and they'd yell at you if you didn't get it right for either one of them. The personas should be so real that, in your mind's eye, you can see them storming into your office if they're dissatisfied.

For More Information

This column, however, is just an overview. For a more in-depth discussion of personas, take a look at an excellent Microsoft Research paper by John Pruitt and Jonathan Grudin entitled, "Personas: Practice and Theory." http://research.microsoft.com/research/coet/Grudin/Personas/Pruitt-Grudin.pdf, The Cooper Interaction Design (www.cooper.com) and User Interface Engineering (www.uie.com) Web sites are also good resources.

As the Microsoft Research paper notes, using personas is a lot more work than coming up with persona names and stories. However, it's worthwhile work - developers become more engaged, it's easier to communicate design goals within the company and, ultimately, the software is the better for it. So if you haven't already, take a look at personas as a way to improve your software design process.

...............................................................................

For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Customer Acquisition/Retention, Data Analysis and Web Analytics.

Guy Creese is an analyst with the Burton Group, covering content management and search. Creese has worked in the high tech industry for 25 years, at both Fortune 500 companies and small startups, in positions ranging from programmer to product manager to customer support engineer.  He can be reached at gcreese@burtongroup.com.

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