Personas are for hippies… and transformation and focus

Thanks to London IA, I had the opportunity to share some thoughts on Strategic UX that have been starting to take shape into a book recently.

I happened across this twitter exchange this morning. This is a not surprising response to personas, I’ve shared this response at times and have empathy for both points of view.

Twitter conversation between Tom Coates and Martin Bellam

Here’s the thing… You don’t really want to use personas, do you? They are really a pretty cumbersome way of maintaining your customer’s active presence in the design & product management process.

What you really want is a small, tight team who get who your users are, what they value about your product/service and what is behaviourally significant about them. And you want regular access to them (if you or your boss are representative of your target audience this helps enormously).

Enter reality – the majority of us are not working in this kind of environment. We are working for large organisations who are focussing more on themselves than their users, with people who may not have seen or heard from a customer for years (if ever), whose attention is constantly being focussed on internal KPIs focussed on quantity not quality. Who resist making and decisions in preference to making a sub- optimal decision that can be traced back to them.

Sure, the likelihood of incredible design flourishing in this environment is significantly reduced, but what do we do? Give up?

We can’t all do that, can we? And neither we should.

Many of us have experienced that moment when a team transforms – when they realise what it is like to be their customer and how easy it would be to make that experience better. This most often happens during usability testing. (around the 3rd or 4th participant when the team acknowledges that perhaps we haven’t recruited a bunch of stupid users and maybe we do need to change the design a little).

Well made and well used personas are less able to create this transformation (watching real users will always trump personas) but they can help maintain that transformation and act as a tool to evangelise a customer focus through out the organisation and to create a common language around our users and – possibly my favourite thing – to allow us to reduce usage of the term ‘user’ (so abstract, inhuman and elastic) and replace it with our personas names.

Yes, this does make you feel like a bit of a hippy. I agree. But it helps, a lot, to transform focus from internal processes and priorities to what people actually do, need, want.

You don’t *have* to use personas to do good design. If you make bad personas (made up not researched, focused on demographics not relevant behaviours and attitudes), and if you use then poorly (make them and forget about them, or keep them hidden within the UX team) then you might as well not use them.

But well made personas in day to day use through out the organisation are incredibly useful when you need to gain and maintain focus on the (potential) customer.

Here’s the test:

  • do you have personas for your project/product?
  • are they made of data from real (potential) customers?
  • do they have real names not segment names?
  • do you have fewer than five personas?
  • can you remember all the names of your personas and describe them?
  • do you use them to guide, evaluate and/or explain design decisions?
  • can your boss name your personas?
  • can the developers on your team name your personas?

If you’re not answering yes to the majority of these, there are probably good reasons why personas aren’t really working out for you.

Don’t fret if you didn’t do so well here – most people don’t (out of a room of dozens of UXers last night only one lonely hand remained in the air at the end of this line of questioning last night).

I reckon personas are the best known but most misunderstood and misused tool in the UX toolkit. Don’t throw your personas out necessarily but see how you can incrementally improve how they’re made and communicated.

And if your fortunate enough to work in a project team who doesn’t need personas, well, lucky you – just don’t be too successful or you may find yourself large enough that you’ll windup needing personas after all! ;)

(For help on making good personas, two excellent resources are Designing for the Digital Age or About Face 3)

Strategic UX – Seeking examples of the good and not so good.

I’m busy writing about Strategic User Experience and I could really use your help.

Right now I’m looking for two things in particular:

  • the dark side: examples of things that are commonly called ‘our strategy’ but are not really strategy at all.

    I think there are plenty of these out there. Some examples:

    1. I’m often shown things that are called ‘our strategy’ but are usually a list of tasks in groups, like, say  ‘Our Social Media Strategy’ with a list of things we’re going to do (make a facebook app, make a twitter widget, etc.)

    2. Another one I often see is an incredibly vague product description something like, ‘we’re doing social mapping’ – again this is not a strategy.Do you have some other examples of things that are currently misconstrued as strategy?

  • the bright side: good ways to keep strategy alive (known, understood, attended to) in an organisation – communicating strategy

    These examples, I fear, may be a little more scarce, but I’d love your help to try to uncover as many good examples as possible. What have you seen/made/used to help an organisation maintain it’s focus on it’s purpose/strategy/mission? (where that purpose/strategy/mission is a real one and not just a marketing soundbite).

    This could be some kind of physical thing, an activity, a tattoo (just kidding… I think) – whatever works to help make sure that people in the organisation know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, who they’re doing it for.

I’d really appreciate your help compiling two sets of examples and, of course I’ll happily share them back with you here (wherever/however possible, taking commercial sensitivity into account of course).

Add yours to the comments below or email me.

Business savvy designers start with the customer

An excellent thing about writing a book is having the excuse to read. Until recently, I’ve read a lot of people writing about Peter Drucker (a pioneering management theorist), now I’m actually reading his work myself. I recommend you do too.

His book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices is going down as one of the best User Experience books I’ve read in a long time. He wrote it in 1974.

One of the issues that it is really clarifying for me is something I’ve had a gut feel about for a long time. The role of the commercially or business savvy designer.

What does it mean to be ‘business savvy’ when you’re a designer? For some, it means you have an MBA, you take pleasure in doing SWOT analysis, and you love to spend your afternoon doing some double entry book keeping. For most of us, I think it means that we’re willing to ask for or define and then design for measurable outcomes that the business cares about. Increases in sales, page impressions, things that accountants and managers care about.

While I’m all for helping my client/employer be profitable so that they can continue to pay me and so we can work on more and better projects together, the description above doesn’t really fit well with most of the other aspects of User Experience. All too often, we find ourselves making compromises, or doing things that don’t really make sense, because of these clearly defined business objectives or ‘commercial reality’.

Reading Drucker has helped me to better articulate why this feels so wrong. It’s because it is wrong.

Most of the business people we’re taking orders from are actually doing business wrong. And if anyone can help them, it’s a User Experience person who has a firm grip on how business should be.

Actually, if you read Drucker (and I’ll post you some snippets in a moment), I think you’ll be amazed at how – if business is done the way he advocates – business people and UX people are actually coming from precisely the same place. Working together, doing things the right way, we can actually be firm allies rather than – as is so often the case – being mildly suspicious of each others motives and usefulness to the organisation.

There is so much of the first part of my copy of Drucker’s book highlighted I can hardly choose which bit to share with you. Here are a few pieces I had to underline then make a big highlighter star in the margin about:

To know what a business is we have to start with its purpose. Its purpose must lie outside of the business itself. In fact, it must lie in society, since business enterprise is an organ of society. There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.

It is the customer who determines what a business is. it is the customer alone whose willingness to pay for a good or for a service converts economic resources into wealth, things into goods. Whatever the business thinks it produces is not of first importance – especially not to the future of the business and to its success…

What the customer thinks he or she is buying, what he or she considers value is decisive – it determines what a business is, what it produces, and whether it will prosper. And what the customer buys and considers value is never a product. It is always a utility – that is, what a product or service does for him or her. And what is value for the customer is anything but obvious. (pp 56-57)

We really need a value measurement. What economic value does innovation give the customer? The customer is the only judge; he or she alone knows the economic reality. (pp60)

Profit is not a cause but a result – the results of the performance of the business in marketing, innovation, productivity. It is a needed result, serving essential economic functions.Profit is, first, the test of performance – the only effective test… Indeed, profit is a beautiful example of what engineers mean when they talk of feedback, or the self-regulation of a process by it’s own results. (pp65)

With respect to the definition of business purpose and business mission, there is only one such focus, one starting point. It is the customer. The customer defines the business.

Management always, and understandably, considers its product or its service to be important. If it did not, it could not do a good job. Yet to the customer, no product or service, and certainly no company, is of much importance. The executives of a company always tend to believe that the customer spends hours discussing their products. But how many housewives, for instance, ever talk to each other about the whiteness of their laundry? If something is badly wrong with one brand of detergent, they switch to another. Customers only want to know what the product or service will do for them tomorrow. All they are interested in are their own values and wants. Any serious attempt to state ‘what our business is’ must start with these truths about the customers. (pp 72)

The customer never buys a product. By definition the customer buys the satisfaction of a want. The customer buys value. Yet, the manufacturer, by definition, cannot produce a value, but can only make and sell a product. What the manufacturer considers quality may, therefore, be irrelevant and nothing but a waste and useless expense. (p 76)

Maybe I’m unlucky but all too many projects that I come into contact with seem to start with the sales figures. They have noisy shareholders demanding dollar value results in the next three months. They focus on traffic, page impressions, ad revenue, numbers of customers. Yet ask them what the purpose of the business is, what the value to the customer is, and often the response you get is a sigh and a look that makes you feel like you’ve drifted off into touchy-feely-designerland.

Well, no more. Forget ‘design thinking’ and any new-fashioned mumbo-jumbo. And forget being an order taker for sales figures and page impressions. By not focusing properly on customer value, defining their business in relation to customer value, our business people are doing business wrong. Putting the cart before the horse, focusing on the feedback and not the system. And it’s not me that says it, it’s the guys who defined what management is.

(And, for the record, Drucker kept saying pretty much the same thing for the next 20yrs until he died, in 1995 – you reckon you’re frustrated, try being him. He ended up giving up on business and working with non-profits instead).

Yes, its going to be a tough job turning some businesses around. Yes, sometimes you’ll need to give up and go somewhere where people actually want to listen. Working out this customer thing is much harder than setting some sales figures and then pressuring everyone around you to try to meet them… somehow.

But that’s our job, right. The customer thing. Let’s stop feeling bad that we don’t understand all those complicated tables in Excel and how to read a profit and loss table. Let’s focus on what we know – gaining customer insight and designing products and services that deliver value to customers – because more than anything, that’s what business needs.

Do this confidently, and that’s the best way you can ever be a business savvy designer.

It’s a tough mission. Let’s do it together.

I’ve added this book as an idea for London UX Bookclub – vote it up if you’re local and you’d like to talk about this more.

Dear UKUPA, pls UXify yourself.

Seeking feedback on how to get more members to vote in #ukupaelections - 300+ members and only ~30 voted so far.
There are 8 ukupa committee members, 11 ppl standing for election, 281 other ukupa members, only 30 in total have voted have voted? That's crazy!

Having been a relatively vocal critic of the UK-UPA and some of their current activities, I would hate for it to be said that all I do is snipe from the sidelines. I do have some suggestions as to how the UPA can address this issue, but it will take significantly more than 140 characters.

I think that focussing on the lack of members voting in these committee elections might be totally missing the point. Here is a classis situation where we’re focussing on tactical problems when, actually the issue is strategic.

What does the UKUPA do? A quick scan of their current website tells you this

UKUPA brings together UK professionals from the design, technology and research communities who share a vision of creating compelling technology that meets users’ needs and abilities.’

UKUPA website

Blah blah blah – what on earth does that actually mean? According to the predominant content on their current website it seems to mean they do job listings. And very little design.

But wait – the UKUPA are in the process of (very slowly) launching a new website. Perhaps it will give us more information about what they do?

Why, yes it does – it tells us that they have a committee, and they vote.

And, yes they certainly do vote. A lot.

UKUPA 'Beta' website

A quick scan of the discussion on twitter involving UKUPA will show you that pretty much all they’ve been talking about for the past few months is voting for committee positions.

Now, clearly *some* people are interested in the committee and who is on it but I think the (surprisingly small) membership may be sending a big message – shut up about your committee already. For every one person that’s on the committee there are dozens who are not. Making such a big deal of your committee is not really a particularly inclusive strategy. It certainly doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy about the UPA. It makes me feel like Not A Committee Member.

The very fact that it *has* a committee, to my mind at least, makes the UKUPA seem dated – many of the great things happening on the UX scene at the moment are grass roots initiatives that are so busy getting stuff done that the idea of a committee is ludicrous. Let alone a committee of 8 people!

That, combined with the fact that the name of the organisation centres on the term ‘usability’ I think is indicative of the problem you’re facing – relevance. What are you offering the UX profession that is worth handing over a membership fee? Do you really need a committee? If so, what are they actually doing?

You may well have good answers to all of these questions but these are not being well communicated. Spend time answering these questions and less time dreaming up prizes to coerce people to vote for a committee they probably don’t really want.

As I write this I am conscious of four things:

  1. the committee is very much a part of the UPA’s culture
  2. The UK UPA is part of a global UPA machine
  3. the UK UPA does provide valuable services to the UX community in the UK – in particular, the events they run each month are generally very relevant and well attended and provide a great service to the community.
  4. the UK UPA currently has 300+ members.

If we were running the UKUPA, what could we do with this information?

Here’s what I’d be doing.

Firstly, look at your member data, talk to your members. Find out from people:

  • how long have they been members? Are lots of new people joining up or are most people long term members?
  • why are people joining? are they looking to validate themselves in the profession by showing they are ‘members of the Usability Professionals Association’ or do they want discounts at events?
  • why are people not leaving? Can they not be bothered cancelling the standing order or do they feel that they are getting value from their membership? if so, what do they value?
  • why are people leaving? what are you not delivering that they want?
  • what do the members think the UPA could be doing better? What do they want the UPA to do for them?

Do NOT do this in a survey.

Secondly, look at your value proposition, branding and positioning

  • find out what image the UK UPA is projecting and ask whether it’s the right one. Talk to people who aren’t in the UPA, let them be critical (stop being so defensive)
  • think seriously about changing your name. ‘Usability’ isn’t helping you now and it’s not going to get any better as time goes on. (Yes, of course I know you’re part of the global UPA – that’s a whole other issue)
  • think about what value you’re providing to the UX profession and communicate that clearly. Talk much more about that on your website/twitter etc. and much less about the committee
  • re-think the whole committee thing – why do you have so many committee positions? really – why? who is it really serving?
  • spend less time organising elections and more time organising mentoring (not that I want to pre-suppose what you might find out when you’re doing your customer research)

Finally, deliver content and communications that match with an updated value proposition and update the website design so that it communicates those values effectively- both in content and quality of design.

As a general rule, the events that the UKUPA runs are excellent examples of content that is desired by the UX profession – that’s why the people vote with their feet and attend these events. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels the disconnect between the success and relevance of these events and the rest of the UK UPA machine?

As friends and colleagues of mine have put themselves up for committee positions in the UPA I’ve been tempted to become a member and support them with a vote but every time I consider it, I opt out.

From where I’m sitting, there’s no value to me professionally to align myself with an organisation that feels generally out of touch with the UX profession as a whole.

As a fellow event organiser, I know that UXers are crying out for more opportunities to come together and learn from each other – there are UX events every other week and every event seems to go to a waiting list – the need is there and the community is there.

I hope the UPA is willing to firstly admit there’s a problem and then be brave enough to UXify themselves. Then perhaps we ‘ll all become proud and active members. And then, when appropriate, respond to your calls to vote.

Until then, I’m out.