Personas. Journey or destination?

After a personas workshop last week I came out feeling the process was actually more valuable than the personas themselves.

Along with eye tracking, personas are a frequently debated UX method, usually judged by the end product, rather than the process of defining these hypothetical characters.

I’m convinced that a set of personas based on user research can be a powerful design tool, but when a budget and time-starved internal team have only their collective knowledge to base personas on …how valuable can those personas be?

When you’ve got marketing, commercial and design staff all batting for their corner, a consensus must be reached on ‘what works best’ …for the business and the customer.

Going through this journey together, agreeing on this balance can change the way teams think about their product and the customer experience.

Building personas without qualitative user research is certainly a ‘poor cousin’, less insightful and less reliable …but enabling this change of mindset within the facets of a team can be a milestone towards taking a user centred design approach.

…a powerful outcome from creating a ‘budget’ set of personas.

5 thoughts on “Personas. Journey or destination?

  1. Mathew Sanders

    I don’t have a copy of Alan Cooper’s ‘About Face’ on hand, but I’m pretty sure he references some research that suggests that designing with personas – even if they have not been created based on qualitative research – still results in a better final result.

    Part of the magic of personas is the mind-switch that you make from designing for nobody in particular to actaully having real people in mind and building empathy and understanding for these people and their situations.

    For projects that don’t have the budget for full qualitative research I recommend that you build a bunch of what I call ‘stock personas’ that represent common patterns that people exhibit or represent different people.

    There are some notes on my post:

    I agree that the process is more important than the deliverable, but the process doesn’t have to stop with the workshop. A good tip is to make notes about each of your personas on card (6 x 4″ size is good) laminate them and bring them to meetings, design critiques or just leave them about. Making personas visible is an important step in making sure they are not forgotten, and having them as cards adds a tactile factor that I think helps encourage their use as well!

  2. Nick

    Hi Matthew. thanks for the comments and links.

    Stock Personas. eek ! …That’s a new one on me. Do you mean creating a set of generic personas that can be applied to any product/service based on stereotypes, ‘power user’ etc.?

    I’ve arrived at similar personas second time around when revising them for a client a year down the track when their service model had been tweaked, but my experience is that well crafted personas not only have a use-by date, but are specific to a product or service, so are not interchangeable.

    Would love to see an example of a stock persona? ..

    In terms of living beyond the initial workshop etc. the best example I’ve seen is at Expedia London where they have life sized cardboard cutouts of their personas around the office. …also useful as a coat rack it seemed.

  3. Zef

    For me it’s defintely a journey – a tool to point the client/design team roughly in the right direction. A way to get people out of their own heads and to try see the world from the perspective of someone else… Putting my hippy hat on you could liken it to an “out of body experience” 🙂

  4. Nick

    Hi Zef,

    If only it was as easy as putting on a hat.
    I suppose getting under the hat is one step closer to getting under the skin and into the mindset of the customer, so maybe is it an inner body experience you’re after.

    Now I’m off to crochet myself a hippy hat, man.


  5. Leanne Butler (UX Designer - Shift)

    Stock personas huh? I’m not too sure that you will ever convince me of using these across projects. Why? It is my feeling that personas should not only captures variations in the personal attributes unique to a user ‘sterotype’, but should also aim to clarify their goal(s), and context of use within space and time – and here I’m with Nick here in that these are very specific to a product.

    What the user is trying to achieve (goals), where and when they are accessing the system (context) are likely to vary greatly and consideration must be given to accommodating these variations when we try to craft the user experience.

    For example: I’m designing a system that allows a delivery driver to input the ongoing journey of the goods which they are tasked with transiting from warehouse to customer. On a personal level the delivery drivers will of course be very different people. I hate to get ‘stereotypical’ but for illustration: colour blind, poor computer knowledge etc…. Your ‘Stereotypical’ persona set will 9/10 capture these high level variations, but more often in not fail to capture context of use. Now if one were to tag along with this delivery driver we would note many things that change over space and time impacting the user experience. For example it may get dark during the course of his journey constituting a backlit screen and keyboard. He may have to take a phone call mid entry and completely forget where he was – no screen by screen entry then.

    So context of use matters – a lot – and this is why we need user research…

    However no matter how much you advocate the importance of this task, it is the first place when budget is tight to be trimmed out of the project. In this situation we need to draw on the people who have had some contact with those end users we are trying to design for. I get whoever I can in a workshop and brainstorm around these headings:

    Personal characteristics – eg student, +18yrs
    Computer/internet (or other) experience – computer novice etc
    Context of use – office (shared computer),
    Japan (another domain) etc
    Access Device – iPhone etc
    Accessibility – eg multi-lingual
    Arrival source – Tweet, search engine etc
    User goals – I want to set up an account etc

    For me this works a treat, and gives me another opportunity to try re-advocate user research to the client.

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