Taking Personas Too Far

I don’t have to tell you that at Cooper, we love personas—how
could we not?—and we’re glad to see continued excitement
about them. That said, although personas are essential
design tools, we think some people may be losing sight
of the fact that they’re just tools, and tools with
a specific purpose, at that. Lately, we’ve been seeing
a lot of gold-plated hammers—unnecessarily elaborate
communication about personas—and some fundamental misunderstandings
about the relationships among research, personas, and
scenarios.

Be only as elaborate as you need to be

Recently we’ve been seeing people try new and entertaining
ways to communicate about their personas. Over the years,
we’ve seen our clients do everything from printing posters
and t-shirts to playing persona trivia. This kind of
internal marketing is important, and there’s no reason
it can’t be fun. However, it’s easy to overdo it to
the point that personas become an end in themselves,
rather than a favorite tool among several used to guide
product and design decisions. Before expending a lot
of effort and money on a novel communication method,
ask yourself what that method will accomplish that text,
photos, and illustrations won’t, and whether the gain
is really worth it. Also ask yourself whether that method
will obscure the most important aspects of the personas:
their behaviors and goals.

For example, I recently heard about a Web design agency
building "persona living rooms" that are furnished
and decorated according to the personas’ tastes and
filled with magazines the personas read. It’s an interesting
idea for helping people who don’t participate in the
research to get a feel for the personas’ environments
and attitudes. Understanding the personas’ experience
goals is particularly important for any situation where
brand is a central consideration, such as a corporate
Web site. Certainly, the novelty of the rooms will generate
some attention and excitement, which is always a good
thing.

In the long run, though, is this kind of three dimensional
mood board really worth the investment? Say you use
600 square feet of office space to build mini living
rooms for half a dozen personas. At San Francisco rates,
that’s about $20,000 a year just for space that could
be used by real employees. Even if you manage to furnish
them cheaply—and that’s a big if—it would
be easy to spend $30,000 or more on such an effort.
Physical representations of space are helpful for designing
physical products, but generally aren’t necessary for
software or Web sites. The exception is where the personas’
workspace is quite unusual; for example, if your persona
is a stock trader who keeps a dozen applications and
information sources open on half a dozen monitors, you’ll
want to see how your application fits into that environment
as you design it. However, most organizations are far
better off with a compelling (but far cheaper) print
or digital artifact. Cost aside, portable artifacts
are more effective because they can be shared by distributed
teams and go to the meetings where the decisions are
made. Also, a room is a lot of effort to expend on something
that focuses on just one aspect of the personas, without
conveying critical information about goals and specific
behaviors.

In using personas to design for a wide range of client
projects and cultures, we’ve generally found that three
types of persona-related communication are most effective.

  • Detailed descriptions
    First, each persona should have a detailed description
    that outlines current behavior and frustrations, goals,
    and so forth in narrative form, because stories are
    more compelling and memorable than lists. This detailed
    information helps people get to know the personas
    and serves as a lasting reference. Depending on the
    product you’re designing, it can be helpful to include
    compelling research photos, sketches of how physical
    space is laid out, workflow diagrams, and collages
    of images that convey visual impressions of attitudes,
    taste, or lifestyle. For example, on a recent project
    involving a medical device for seniors, we saw a tremendous
    difference between the attitude and motivation levels
    of some of the interviewees. To help our client’s
    team members share that research experience at a gut
    level, we included photos that emphasized the contrast
    between two of the personas. One was an active person
    with a positive outlook, so we included brightly-colored
    photos of a neat living space, an exercise class,
    and smiling people. The other was quite depressed
    and not at all sociable, so we used washed-out photos
    of a messy living space and no people.

  • Quick reference tools
    The second important item is some form of quick-reference
    tool that’s easy to use in meetings and keep available
    in offices. This might be a laminated placemat or
    table tent people can carry with them or a set of
    posters on the wall. In either case, it’s helpful
    if these items include photos, names, goals, and just
    a few key facts.

  • Meetings to introduce the personas
    Finally, it’s important to have a live meeting when
    introducing the personas so you can cheerlead, persuade,
    and address any concerns people have. Whether you
    make this a fairly serious meeting or have some fun
    with it depends on your corporate culture. It’s helpful
    to introduce the personas to a small group of stakeholders
    before sharing them with a larger team.

Beyond these methods, it’s a matter of finding simple
ways to keep the personas in everyone’s minds over time.

Get the basics right before you experiment

We hope designers will continue to experiment with personas
because that’s how methods evolve and improve. However,
it’s important to be sure that any experiment—whether
in creating, communicating, or using personas—gets
the fundamentals right. One type of experiment we’ve
heard about gets pretty far from the fundamentals: having
personas take on lives of their own, such as posting
photos and blogs in online communities. In other words,
someone posing as the persona is interacting with real
people and seeing how they respond. The first problem
with this is that personas are models that encapsulate
research findings, not research tools themselves. You
should already have this kind of information before
you create your personas. If you want to understand
how teenagers interact online, for example, you’ll learn
far more by observing them doing so and talking with
them about it. Also, most responsible researchers would
agree that when research participants are identifiable—as
opposed to anonymous aggregate data collection in healthcare,
for example—participation should be voluntary and
researchers should identify themselves as such, even
online. For these reasons, having someone pose as a
persona to interact with real people seems questionable
from an ethical standpoint.

Regardless of what you try with personas, keep these
things in mind:

  • To be effective, personas need to be based on sound
    field research, not derived from the functionality
    you’ve already decided to build

  • Personas should incorporate attitudes and experience
    goals when that’s useful, but are first and foremost
    about behavior and end goals

  • Keep personas and scenarios distinct. The term "personas"
    is derived from the Latin dramatis personae,
    the cast of characters in a play. A set of characters
    is only interesting in the context of a plot, which
    is why we use scenarios. Personas should focus on
    current behavior, not speculation about future behavior
    with a product. Scenarios describe the personas’ future
    behavior, first in an idealized and high-level fashion,
    and later in a somewhat more pragmatic and detailed
    way.

Personas are indispensable tools. If you make them
well and use them for their intended purpose, they’ll
continue to be useful for years to come. They’re just
tools, though, and I’ve never yet seen a hammer that
needed a room—or a life—of its own.

1 Comment

Personas and the five W’s: Developing Content and Reader Needs, Pt. 2
[...] Goodwin, K. 2006. Taking personas too far. [...]

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