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WEM: Three Important Benefits of Personas

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Jared M. Spool avatar

Next time you have a chance to watch someone reading a map, look forthe first thing they do. They'll likely do the exact same thing everyoneelse does: find themselves on the map.

It doesn't matter what kind of map it is, whether it's of theirneighborhood or an amusement park. They'll open the map and findsomething that is personally meaningful, such as their house or theirfavorite roller coaster.

Psychologists call this 'grounding'—the natural behavior of initiallyfinding a known reference point in a foreign information space. Oncethe person has grounded themselves, they can then use the starting pointto understand the rest of the space.

While grounding helps people adjust to complex situations, it can bedetrimental when it happens during the design process. If, whileconjuring up an interface, designers ground themselves in the design,they run the serious risk of creating an interface that only they canuse.

Separating You from Your Work

Creating an interface for yourself is great if you're going to be theonly user. When we decide how we'll arrange our kitchen cabinets—wherethe plates, glasses, pots, and pans will go—we want to put ourselvesinto the design. But, we don't expect other people to wander into ourkitchen and start grabbing things without help.

When we're creating online interfaces, it's a whole different story.Here we're designing for others, not for ourselves. We may know too muchabout the layout and structure. We'll understand the relationshipsbetween various design elements ("That button is only used with thisdropdown"). We are very familiar with the jargon and business rules.

Therefore, when a designer grounds themselves in their own design,they run the risk of designing an interface that only they can use. Anytools that help designersprevent the natural behavior of groundinghelps them attack the design more objectively, with their target user inmind.

Benefit #1: Preventing Grounding with Personas

We recently had the opportunity to talk with several design teamscurrently using personas to help create their designs. We discovered,while studying how they integrated their personas into their designwork, one major benefit was to prevent grounding.

Personas are model users that the team creates to help understand thegoals, motivations, and behaviors of the people who will use theinterface. The persona represents behavior patterns, helping thedesigner understand the flow of the user's day and how the interfacewill fit into it.

The teams we interviewed used personas as a way to avoid thegrounding problem. Instead of asking, "How would I use this system?"they asked, "How would Mary use the system?" They found their persona's(Mary) initial reference point instead of their own, making judgmentsabout the design from the persona's point of view.

Understanding Retirement

One team in our study was working on an investment tool, primarilyused by retirees. The team, who consisted of primarily 20-somethings,naturally assumed that, when they retire, they would have simpleinvestment and financial needs. As a result, they created the initialdesign for simple transactions.

Their subsequent field research produced a persona named Ron, anactive 76-year-old who had nine sources of income, three mortgages, andneeded to write 21 checks every month from his multiple accounts. In thefield, the team had seen many people similar to Ron and theirtransactions were anything but simple.

As soon as the team looked at their design from Ron's perspective,they realized that their simple transaction approach was going tocomplicate his life immensely. Putting Ron into the design, instead ofthemselves, made them realize that they needed to take a differentapproach.

It turns out that preventing grounding wasn't the only major benefitof personas we discovered during our research. Two others jumped out atus as well.

Benefit #2: The Oral Tradition Lives On

As we studied teams who made substantial use of personas, we noticedthat the personas were talked about frequently, almost in mythicalterms. The team members had made up lives for these people, usuallybased on the actual observations they made when they studied real users.They constantly used these imaginary lives to relate important storiesabout how these users would interact with the proposed designs.

Storytelling is an age-old tradition. Long before the written word,humans have used stories to teach their children values and preparepeople for the world ahead.

This tradition hasn't gone away. A few years ago, Xerox Corporationset about studying how field repair technicians learned to effectivelydeal with infrequent, yet complex problems.

The researchers originally assumed that it was a mix of training andmentoring that played the biggest role. They were shocked to discoverthat those technicians who were best prepared for the craziest problemsdidn't learn how to solve them in a classroom or by tagging along with amore senior technician.

Instead, they learned that the war stories exchanged when thetechnicians got togetherwere the biggest contributors to theireducation. In these informal get-togethers, technicians would brag abouttheir accomplishments and try and shock their peers with stories of woeand wonder. It was in the details of the stories that the fieldtechnicians attributed their best education.

Learning Opportunities

Communicating Details in a Meaningful Way

The teams we researched did the same thing. They got together andtold stories about how their personas would tackle some problem. In thedetails of these stories, team members would start to get a real senseof who these users were and the problems they might encounter.

Using just the oral tradition, the stories become distorted withevery new telling. Many of the teams prevented this distortion bycapturing the stories along with the persona descriptions. (One teamwent so far as to create a screensaver that would randomly display thepictures, backgrounds, and stories of each persona on the developmentteam's
machines when they were idle.)

Benefit #3: The Role Personas Play in Role Playing

Along with preventing grounding and encouraging story telling, wefound personas had a third benefit to the teams we studied: enhancingrole playing.

From an early age, we use role playing as a way to safely explore theworld around us. By pretending to be different people, we can trythings out from their perspective, seeing if their viewpoint isdifferent from our own.

Role playing has long been a part of design processes. For example,in the '80s, designers at Apple used comic strips and play acting tothink through the lives of their users and how they would integrate avariety of products, real and imaginary, into those users' lives.

One design team we studied, who was in charge of a major electronicretailer's e-commerce site, had an analyst role play each of fourpersonas, walking through the site as each character. For example, onepersona was a mom who wanted to buy educational software and technologyfor her children. She wasn't a technical wiz, but wasn't
completely ignorant of the technology either.

The analyst adopted her role to play the shopper on the site. Fromthat perspective, the analyst identified several issues with the designof the site that hadn't been discussed previously. As the analystadopted the other three personas, different issues surfaced.
(Interestingly, we were independently doing a usability study on thesite simultaneously and discovered many of the same issues as theanalyst found from the four personas.)

When we adopt a role, we can start to view the world around us fromthat person's perspective. Using the persona as the target role, we canidentify how that person will interact with the design and the issuesthat will arise. We start to see things we can't see any other way.

Taking Full Advantage

Personas don't automatically get the benefits of preventinggrounding, encouraging story telling, and enhancing role playing. Theyhave to be carefully crafted to get those benefits.

To get the benefits, the personas have to have rich, relevant detail.They need to accurately represent the users the team is aiming for. Andthey need to have a solid foundation in the experiences of real usersto be believable and meaningful.

Our research into the usage of personas has taught us that the mostsuccessful teams are those that are constantly feeding their personainformation. They conduct frequent field studies to understand who theusers are and what goals and motivations they have. The teams regularlyuse usability testing to expand their knowledge of their users. Theythink of their persona documents as living descriptions—constantlychanging as they learn new things from their ongoing research, studies,and design exercises.

Personas are becoming a regular staple in many of the developmentteams we talk to. The method helps teams make a smooth transitionbetween requirements and design, resulting with much cleaner designs.The benefits of preventing grounding, encouraging story telling, andenhancing role playing are rarely discussed, yet very present when yousee the method in full force. It's these benefits that guide our beliefthat personas will be a trusted method for many years to come.

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