Yes, you should be using personas

Personas seem to go in and out of fashion. Not long ago, people were advocating hyper-researched personas done in painstaking detail, these days designers seem more inclined to leave them out of the process.

So, are personas actually useful or should we stop wasting time and ditch them?

I first came into contact with personas in an academic context. They seemed like a nice idea but I tended to use them to justify my design rather than to guide design, which seemed kind of back to front.

Since then, I’ve worked in places where personas are more or less embraced as part of the process, and then longer I use them, the more I’ve come to the opinion that personas are incredibly valuable, but not for the reasons that many people think they are.

If I’m working on a UCD project (and thankfully, these days that is pretty much every project I do), then I would much prefer to include persona development in the process than not.

But, having said that – I find personas virtually useless when it comes to design, and I very rarely reference them in making design decisions. For me, personas aren’t about design, but that doesn’t mean they’re not incredibly powerful in other ways.

Personas communicate the user centred process like no other method

Having your clients view user research and testing is incredibly powerful in helping them realise that there is a problem in the way they’ve been approaching things to date (if you’re not encouraging stakeholders to actively participate in observing research and testing you’re missing out on a lot). But to get them to actually understand what user centred design is about – you need personas.

Personas should always be developed collaboratively with key stakeholders – as many as possible. They can often be derived from existing marketing personas or profiles (but, don’t be mistaken that personas that the marketing department gives you are personas you can use without any work). You should try to validate your personas with some kind of user research if at all possible – this can be in the form of some contextual interviews, lab based studies, or by talking to people in the company who interact with user directly on a regular basis (I’ve found people who work in call centres can often provide invaluable insight to what users are really like).

Personas should define the boundaries for which you will design. It’s a common misconception that personas are about creating a set of ‘typical’ or ‘stereotypical’ users. Much more useful is to use personas which incorporate edge cases behaviour or requirements. Including these kinds of personas means that you actually end up catering for a much greater portion of your user base, and it also offers the potential for ‘limiting’ personas (think Clevis McCloud if you’ve read Inmates – if he can use it, anyone can.)

Creating ‘edge case inclusive’ personas and then prioritising personas and their goals is much more useful in helping decide what functionality goes in and what doesn’t. And which of the tasks or outcomes are most common, or more important. Decisions which are critical foundations to allowing good design work.

Personas are powerful in guiding requirements definition.

Even before you start designing you need to know what the product is and what it does. What are it’s core feature and what are it’s advanced functions. Personas really help guide discussion and decision making on requirements.

It’s generally agreed that one of the biggest factors for bad user experience is featuritis. Products that do too many things, or that prioritise advanced functionality over core functionality.

Putting each function to the test using personas before letting it in the door is very helpful. Then giving features relative priority using the number and importance of personas who are using them helps guides the overall application or site’s design priorities.

Using this evaluation process makes putting the user at the centre of the design process habitual and natural, and is also very helpful in reaching concensus within a project team.

Personas kill the ‘elastic user’

If I’m managing to inspire you to use personas more or differently, and you haven’t read it recently, let me encourage you to take the time to read Allan Cooper’s ‘The Inmates Are Running The Asylum‘. It’s a classic text that is renown for making programmers angry because Allan isn’t particularly flattering to them, but it gives real insight into the original ideas behind personas and I think you’ll find yourself even more inclined to use personas regularly.

I re-read it earlier this year and I particularly took away the idea of the Elastic User. This is where stakeholders make statements about what ‘users’ want, what ‘users’ do, what ‘users’ prefer, and because the ‘user’ in that context is so undefined and broad, they are able to say almost anything they like and there is no real way to contradict that opinion.

The creation of personas means that user groups are much more defined, so broad sweeping statements about what users want can actually be tested against something. Rather than having a free pass to do anything to the requirements or design by just using the word ‘user’, these assertions can now be tested and validated against more closely defined user characteristics and goals.

Use what you’ve got to build personas

Sometimes you’ll have a whole lot of research, sometimes you’ll have practically nothing. Either way, personas can be useful. Obviously the more you know the better, but even just a quick verbal sketch can be extremely powerful.

Not long ago I used the following persona in a design workshop:

‘Betty is a pensioner who lives in suburban Newcastle and is in charge of the local Neighbourhood Watch chapter’

That’s it. But it made a huge difference because it created an edge case persona for a site that was originally targeted at statisticians. ‘Creating’ Betty allowed the team to see that designs would work perfectly well for people who understood the language of statistics would be completely useless for Betty. And we found that pages that were really *for* Betty hadn’t actually be designed appropriately for her at all.

Sometimes, a pencil sketch persona can provide massive bang for buck.

You should care what car your persona drives

One of the things that make personas easy to criticise is that sometimes they feel like an exercise in creative writing.

‘Clare is 28 and lives in Primrose Hill. She drives a Prius but only on the weekends and she has a puppy that she takes walking twice a day. Clare is single but dates frequently and likes to travel.’

For as long as you think personas are about design you’re right – what does this have to do with design? When you use personas predominantly as a communication tool, then these small details become all important. After all – what you are trying to do is humanise the ‘target audience’. As humans, it is exactly these little details we care about, it’s what helps us to relate to other people and what makes them real. Does it really *matter* what car Clare drives? Well… kind of. People choose things like cars to drive and places to live as a means of communicating who they are. It adds depth to Clare’s personality. But, I’d never advocate actually *researching* those details. They’re communication devices, if people don’t know what Prius *means* then there’s no point using it. Make sense?

Don’t design for personas

As I mentioned before – personas should include observed edge case behaviour and requirements. From your personas you can work out what functionality is included and what is the core functionality. Once you’ve got that information – and you’ve immersed yourself in understanding the users through the creation of the personas – put them away and use your skill as a designer.

If you use the personas to closely guide your design you will end up supporting a series of edge cases. This will invariably mean that your CORE functionality is compromised. That’s bad design.

Once you’ve designed the product, you can then use the personas to evaluate the design, and to help communicate to your stakeholders how and why your design supports the goals and tasks of your personas.

Don’t be tempted to use the goals and task lists you generate for your personas as a jigsaw puzzle to layout on a page. That way failure lies.

So. Personas. I’m a fan, but you have to know where their power lies and use them appropriately, and don’t get too caught up in the process of their creation – do what you can with what you’ve got, bring your stakeholders on board and teach them how to be user centred, and get on with the important business of designing great user experience.

(Need more background on personas. Austin Govella has collected a bunch of useful links)

Note: this post was edited on 30 April 07 to better clarify my position on ‘edge case’ personas in response to come of the comments received :)

links for 20 April 2007 – Dopplr is the new 2.0 darling

Four kinds of failure (for Richard Branson)

I’ve been experiencing some pretty average customer service lately but it really all came to a head when I moved house recently. As I spent hours and hours repeatly calling VirginMedia, who were supposed to supply us with an internet connection, cable TV and a phone line, I had plenty of time to contemplate the ways that companies fail us. By my calculation there are about four types of failure. And, perhaps surprisingly, they’re not all bad.

  1. Might as well set a trap. This is the worst kind of failure (and the one I experienced – continue to experience – repeatedly from VirginMedia. You know this kind of failure, because you can feel the blatant disregard for your experience as a customer. These companies seem to go out of their way to avoid or ignore customer feedback. THis is clear in both their service design and any UI design you come across. It’s typified by long waits on hold, little and/or contradictory information provided, a strong sense that you (the customer) are being a pain in the butt and causing the company and it’s representatives unending trouble, user interfaces that are so poorly designed that it is inevitable you will not get to the end successfully, a sense of loneliness and hopelessness as a customer. Mistakes happen often. The company couldn’t care less.
  2. Could try harder. Obviously some effort is being made. Most of the information you need is available and reasonable (sometimes good) design is in evidence, but there are still major customer experience failures and no obvious feedback channels. Often the solutions to these experience failures are quite simple. Frequently they’re as simple as building in more feedback or simple error prevention. But often… these easy fixes don’t happen. Contextual research is required to identify the pain points to enable these simple fixes to be designed and applied. There is a lot of potential for improvement here.
  3. Thoughtful and Responsive.  Things still go wrong from time to time but you don’t mind so much because it doesn’t happen often and when it does, it is clear that an effort is being made to be responsive and supportive and to take responsibility for the failure. Failure is still frustrating, but it is no longer necessarily a negative exchange between the company and the customer.
  4. Surprise and Delight. For some, failure is actually an opportunity to make contact with a customer and learn from them – and having the chance to surprise and delight them. Kathy Sierra wrote of screaming users:

    “As Henry Petroski writes in To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, we learn more from our failures than our successes.  But only if we pay attention to the failures and figure out what to do right the next time.” 

    Every now and then I fire off an email in annoyance, and every now and then, an actual human emails me back much more quickly than I expected and resolved my failure. Jeff Turner of Blogbeat (now Feedburner) did this all the time. Even when the server was down and I annoyingly couldn’t get access to the data I wanted, his quick and helpful response would always make me smile and think well of his company.

So, what’s the moral?

Failure happens, but through contextual research and good service and interface design you can minimise the negative impact of these failures and actually turn them into positive points of contacts with your customers.

Oh, and think really seriously before you sign a contract with VirginMedia.