There are three ways to design a website or piece of software. One, you can just code it up and throw it out there. Or, before you throw it out there, you can run it past some real users. Or, if you really want to do this user-centered design thing, you can do some user research upfront.
That last piece, in my mind, is what really separates the men from the boys (the women from the girls, the adults from the children – you know what I mean). It allows you to bake in usability from the very beginning. That said, I’m often surprised at how little it’s done.
So, what does that actually involve? It might be as simple as interviews, or as complex as a field or diary study, or something in between, like a focus group. It’s what you do with that data, though, that’s really crucial.
And that’s where personas come in. Upfront research can generate a ton of information. What the researcher’s real task becomes is how to take that fire hose of data and turn it into a nice, quick, refreshing drink. And, for that, personas really can’t be beat.
I think we all know what personas are by now. You take all that information you uncovered, then distill it into several user types. What really makes the persona, though, is how we can turn each one into a real person – with a name, a picture, a place where they live, a job they go to, a family …
Humans are social animals. They also love a good story. What personas do is take those two very important human characteristics and turn them to your advantage. Instead of designing for a complete abstraction (or, worse, with no one or yourself in mind), how much easier it can be to keep the user in mind by thinking of Phyllis with her fear of technology, or Bill with his impatience, or Julie who is trying to juggle family and job and caring for her elderly parents.
Over the years, I have gotten some resistance to using personas. It’s often a little too touchy-feely for computer science or MBA types. What’s gratifying to see, though, is how readily personas are adapted, when given just half a chance. It’s so nice when developers start talking about Ben or Carol or Leah. To me, though, that’s just human nature.
Kim Goodwin has a pretty good background in personas, having worked for Alan Cooper, the creator of personas, for 12 years. She’s also the author of Designing for the Digital Age.