I have enjoyed watching the maturity of the UX field over the years. When I went from curious observer to Usability Engineer, the only tools I had were PowerPoint for design and a Usability Study template to test those designs. Over ten years later there are a wealth of applications and research techniques available in the UX Designer’s toolbox. As exciting as it is to see this growth, it can be be overwhelming as well. Like a plumber or carpenter, it takes years of practice to know what to grab out of the toolbox for the task at hand. Through my years of experience I have found my favorite to pull out of the UX toolbox are Personas.
It may seem interesting to some that I would pick a deliverable which causes debate on how much value it truly adds. I believe when created well and utilized appropriately, Personas are a key factor to building a successful User Centered Design process. In a way, it is logical: Personas are representations of actual users. And User Centered Design is…well, design that is centered around the users and their needs.
I have had a lot of success using Personas as a way to train my teammates on our users. When I present a new one to my teammates, I make sure I explain who provided the inspiration behind them. Their goals, their frustrations, and why they are using our product are all highlighted. A well presented Persona can save everyone a lot of tedious usability study recordings, and yet still get a feel for what makes the users tick.
Not only are Personas great for raising user awareness on the development team, but I have seen them used successfully in other departments. Service and Support managers utilize Personas I have written as part of their new employee training. One of the coolest and most bizarre moments of my career was watching a Product Manager put on a wig and act like one of our Personas as part of a Sales Training course (he nailed it). Admittedly, watching one of our salesmen sweat during this exercise while painfully losing "the deal" with one of our more sassy Personas was kind of fun.
I am not going to spend a lot of time on the basics of writing Personas. There are plenty of templates out there that serve as a good starting point (just Google Persona templates). I will provide 4 tips on how to make your Personas great:
Make sure your Personas are based on people you have met:
This may seem obvious, but it can be obvious when a Persona is based on assumptions and second hand information. Using only secondary research and assumptions will lead to a generalized Persona that is hard to relate too. A big part of the reason to use Personas is to help the team identify and empathize with the users. There is no need to make the difficult climb to a User Centered Design environment that much harder. It is also difficult to identify and prioritize user needs around a Persona that is too general. Generalized Personas are usually a sign of a lack of focus on priorities.
Get out there and talk to the people living and breathing your product on a day to day basis. I actually believe you can create a great Persona just talking to 1 or 2 people. Some will say you need to talk to 5-7 people, but I would suggest creating a second Persona so you can capture some of the differences in personalities of your user base. Face to face interviews are ideal, because it is easier to pick up on the personality quirks that make each and every one of us unique…and thus making your Personas unique.
Capture the Emotions:
To quote Amy Cueva, “Emotions matter”. None of us are robots, and neither are any of your users. (Although, it might be cool if we re-check this statement in about 10-20 years.) Sticking to the facts about a job does not really capture the reality of the situation. People get frustrated when things do not work well, and get a great feeling of satisfaction when they accomplish a difficult task. Avoiding the negative emotions and finding ways to trigger the positive emotions are part of the goal of good Experience Design.
Capture these emotions as part of the Persona write up. Tie them to their work goals. Write a narrative about their daily life. What makes this person get out of bed in the morning? What are their aspirations? How can the experience you are designing make their day better? A great story captures the attention of your audience and helps get better buy in for a design. The most powerful healthcare presentations I have attended usually involve a story of how a medical error damaged someone’s life.
Now you have some Experience Goals to focus on along with your prioritized user needs.
Do not let your Personas get stale:
People change and so should Personas. As a product matures and changes, so will the use of the product. A mistake I have made is putting up Persona posters in my office, and then leaving them there. If it appears that I forgot that I put them there, why should I have expected my teammates to remember them as well?
Ideally, Personas are called out in requirements and user stories so they cannot be forgotten. Regular check-ins with teammates to make sure they understand which users and their needs they are addressing helps as well. I recently started writing, “what am I thinking today” thoughts for my Personas as a way to share recent feedback from User Research Interviews. If you have a Persona named Beth, then start a “WWBD” campaign to raise awareness.
Personas are not a Primary Research replacement:
The interviews have been conducted, the Personas are written, and the development team is buying into them. No need to keep up the User Research, right? Wrong! User Research never stops, and nothing can replace the power of interacting directly with your users. The market is always changing, meaning the goals of your users are probably evolving as well. Getting complacent can cause a big miss in learning about new user needs and requirements. Get out of the office!
Following these steps can help create a very powerful tool to pull out of the UX toolbox. My favorite aspect of Personas: they are a great empathy builder. Telling a good story, capturing emotions, and even role playing have made this a very fun way to help my teammates realize there are real people out there relying on us. And ultimately for UX, it is about the people we’re designing for.