Faces in the crowd: Early persona history

A few days ago, Liz Bacon and Steve Calde presented their talk "Death to Personas! Long Live Personas!" to the Catalyze community. During the webinar, which addressed some common misconceptions about personas, Liz shared some early persona history from her time at Cooper. This got me thinking about how personas have evolved at Cooper during the time I've been here.

In his article "The Origin of Personas" Alan Cooper reviews his early use of personas back in 1995. By the time I joined Cooper in 1997, personas were in regular use as a design tool, but the way we presented them to our clients continued to evolve.

I recently had an e-mail conversation with Nate Myers, a former Cooperista, about his memory of the Sony Trans Com's P@ssport project. Here are Nate's recollections.

To my knowledge, Sony P@ssport was the first project to use pictures. There were no conversations about using photos; I just made the decision to include them in my draft document for several reasons:

During the first meetings I attended as a new employee, I noticed communication issues between Cooper and its clients, many of which revolved around the 'elastic user' problem. By using pictures of real people, who in some cases were dramatically different from the tech-savvy users imagined by clients, I hoped to curtail (or even eliminate) the frequent raucous arguments about 'the user.' We could all look at the same photo and quickly build up a set of shared assumptions that fit the face looking back at us.

In projects prior to Cooper, I noticed that sample users were often given whimsical names, usually based on Looney Tunes, Star Wars or Star Trek characters. However, I saw real business value in identifying user goals by personas, so why undermine that value with a silly name? This didn't mean some of our names couldn't have subtle humor: Clevis McCloud and Mel "Hoppy" Hopper had a touch of fun built in. But even this humor was by design; both names sounded earthy and pragmatic, helping us keep far away from conceptual power users who could easily negotiate software complexity. Since Cooper was already avoiding the silly name trap, matching a realistic photo with a realistic name would only help to enhance the business value of personas.

In our initial conversations with Sony, we had a lot of discussions about idioms and user expectations. Looking at the process of airline travel as a single experience, I asked myself what would happen if users came to P@ssport after interacting with several different procedures and systems during their total airport and flight time. Wanting to help communicate the idea that simpler is better, I included visual flight maps as part of our design document, showing travelers with direct and connecting flights. On paper it seemed just as important to show the passengers as it did the routes.

From previous freelance work, I had two Photodisc CDs filled with pictures of travel, leisure and industry. The pictures on the CDs lent themselves very well to our needs for Sony P@ssport. The most challenging picture was for a child traveling alone; we had specified a pre-teen boy, but the only picture close to it was of a 3-5 year-old girl with a pony tail. As I Photoshopped the pony tail out of the picture I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be interesting if this picture ended up in a book someday?"

The project team liked the draft with the photos included, so we went with it. I'm glad. It was a good idea.

If you'd like to read more about the Sony Trans Com P@ssport project, there's a case study in Alan Cooper's Book "The Inmates are Running the Asylum."