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The Essence of a Successful Persona Project

7 minute read
Jared M. Spool avatar

Personas are a flexible and powerful tool for user researchers. They're also one of the most misunderstood. When done well, they ensure the team focuses on the needs and delights of their users.

Like other effective user research techniques, personas deliverconfidence and insights to the team. Personas help the team makeimportant design decisions with a thorough understanding of who theusers are, what they need, and when they need it.

For the last few years, we've studied how a variety of design teamshave tried to harvest the benefits of persona projects. We've exploredseveral wildly successful persona projects and many that fell far shortof their goals. We now better understand where the magic lies withpersonas -- what the essence of a successful project is.

An Advanced Technique

You don't get the benefits of personas for free. While we saw manyteams reap new insights within the first few hours, the teams that sawthe most out of it made a long-term investment.

Our research showed timing is a critical element in the success ofpersona projects. The team has to be in a place where they canproactively tackle design challenges. If the team is dealing with afirehose-stream of feature requests and enhancements, the project won'tget much traction.

At the same time, the organization needs to be ready to make theusers' overall experience a priority. We noticed this often comes afteran experience disaster -- some external issue that brings the overallexperience, not just the features and technology, into the limelight.

For example, when a major e-commerce web site suffered a failedredesign launch, reducing sales by 35%, their senior management finallyunderstood the need to know more about how their customers shopped.Before the devastating launch, the management's focus was all aboutfeatures and slick visual design, but because of the revenue decrease,customer experience was now on everyone's mind. Personas were now apriority.

Because personas take time to develop and integrate into the culture,they require involvement at all organizational levels to be effective.Like any important endeavor, if the organization can't give the team thetime and resources, then the persona project will probably fail. Whenthat happens, it's likely the organization is just not ready.

[Editor's Note: For a related article see Selecting a CMS: Developing Usage Scenarios.]

Starting With Information You Already Have

We were surprised by how easy it was to jumpstart a persona project.We came into the research thinking successful projects had to start withan intensive research effort, costing big bucks and eating up thecalendar. We couldn't have been more wrong.

Many successful teams started by culling information the organizationalready had in their heads. Using techniques that collect thisinformation, such as Tamara Adlin's Ad-Hoc Persona workshop, these teamsget working personas very quickly.

These quick-start methods are often fun and inspiring, as they focusthe team on users’ needs from the very beginning of the project. A keyelement is involving senior management and stakeholders from the get-go.Their participation sanctions the work, helps everyone think from auser experience vantage point, and simplifies the persona rankingprocess.

At first, we were wary about constructing personas from existingviewpoints instead of from fresh research of real users doing realthings. We thought it would create a design trying to solve problemsthat don’t encompass real users needs.

However, almost every team that used the jumpstart method went off todo more robust, formal field research, visiting users and observingreal issues. As the new information came in, they changed their personasalong the way, showing management where the internal beliefs differfrom the real world. And, because the team involved senior management inthe first pass, it was easier to sell the more rigorous research.

Our big surprise was discovering this: A team using the same,incorrect personas is better than each member designing for a differentuser, where some hit the mark and some don't.

Learning Opportunities

Having the same personas to work with, even if they're off the mark,gives the team a common language. Since the successful projects ensuredtheir teams had subsequent exposure to real users, correcting any wrongbeliefs was easy. When everyone started on the same page, they found iteasy to talk about how new information needed to change theirunderstanding.

How Do You Know You've Succeeded?

A common fixation amongst the failed persona projects we studied wasthe look and feel of the description document. The teams believed theyneeded a great looking description for each persona for its adoption.These teams invested hundreds of dollars (sometimes thousands) toproduce slick posters, screensavers, and slideshows, describing theintricacies of each persona.

Studying the successful projects, we learned these descriptiondocuments aren't important at all. These teams often had very bland,non-descript documents describing each persona. Instead, we found foursuccess criteria: internalizing the personas, creating rich scenarios,prioritizing the most important personas, and involving all thestakeholders and influencers.

Internalizing the Personas: Each team member had the same personas intheir head. As we talked with each person, they could describe thepersonas as if they were their favorite story characters. They hadinternalized the details -- making them real.

Creating Rich Scenarios: The team members could talk through thepersonas' scenarios in detail. They could share each persona's context,the desired scenario outcome, and the approach the persona took to getthere. It was clear the team had talked about these scenarios often,because everyone would tell us the same details, much like when peopleshare their favorite fairytales.

Prioritizing: Interestingly, the successful projects also hadsomething we hadn't originally looked for: a clear understanding of eachpersona's priority. We'd always thought the importance of a personawould shift depending on the designer's current focus. However, amongstthe successful teams, they knew which personas were most important andwhich they could sacrifice when compromises had to happen.

Stakeholder Involvement: The most successful projects made sure thisknowledge extended beyond the primary design team members, to all thepeople who could influence the design. When we talked with stakeholdersand influencers outside the core project team, such as business linemanagers and the company's lawyers, it was clear they were also wellversed in the personas, their scenarios, and their priority. They toldus of frequent meetings and memos where an in-depth analysis of apersona's scenario influenced important business decisions.

We've found there's a simple test to measure whether a personaproject will be a success: Walk up to any team member, stakeholder, orinfluencer and ask who the most important personas are. If they can givethe same story as everyone else on the team, you have a winning projecton your hands. Slick posters and screensavers aren't spreading thisunderstanding -- it's frequent, in-depth discussions at practicallyevery point in the project.

The Essence of Successful Persona Projects

We've long believed personas were a valuable design tool. We wereinitially disheartened by the many failures we'd seen, but now thatwe've had a chance to study some successes in-depth, we can see teamsrealizing the promised benefits.

The trick is to not rush into it. Ensuring the organization is at theright place in their user experience maturity is critical. Using ajump-start technique works, but the team needs to follow up with robustresearch. Finally, keeping the personas alive through frequentdiscussions, especially around key decisions and trade-offconversations, makes them a valuable design asset.

About the author

Jared M. Spool

I've run one of the foremost think tanks in design and user experience. Specialties: Design, User experience, Usability, user interface design, think tank management