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Thoughts on product design + user experience

Tracking the elusive “user” in user experience design

Written by bbb on February 27, 2013

It’s pretty tough to design a great user experience if you don’t know the target audience. When faced with this problem, well-equipped UX designers commonly reach into their toolboxes and pull out: the persona.

Personas draw upon the power of narrative and storytelling to shine a bright light on the elusive “user.” They’re especially effective when based upon primary research methods such as ethnography and in-context interviews. Done poorly, personas are little more than a futile exercise in creative writing. But done properly, they become powerful representations of your users’ goals, motivations, and behaviours — and can act as the “north star” for your design decisions.

Yesterday, I discussed this topic with a group of students and faculty at Conestoga College here in Kitchener, Ontario as part of their UX Guest Lecture Series. Thanks to Dalibor Dvorski for the invitation — it was a good time! I’ve posted the slides below, with some additional notes so you know what we talked about during the discussion.

Slide 2: The user can be a slippery little devil

Person A: “CEOs will love this ability to get a quick glance of all their shipping activities.”

Person B: “Perhaps, but what about a grandmother who simply wants to send cookies to her grandson?”

Slide 4: Common ingredients

Use this as a checklist to identify general topic areas you’ll probably want to explore in almost every project. You will also need to add a few domain-specific topics relevant to what you’re studying.

  • Life goals: Very high level. “Make a difference in the world.” Generally don’t go here!
  • Domain goals: Why the person is using your product. “Stay in control.” Most of your persona’s goals will be at this level.
  • Tasks & processes: How the person is trying to achieve their goals.
  • Inputs & outputs: Information they require or provide to other people.
  • Tools: What hardware and software do they use? Manual tools?
  • Relationships: Who do they rely on? Who relies on them?
  • Environment: Physical and social context.
  • Past experience: Skills and history in the domain.
  • Burning needs: What they find most frustrating.

Slide 5: Ah, aren’t those personas cute!

You will encounter objections that personas are simply TOO CUTE. Don’t be surprised, it’s a normal response for many people.

Personas are an effective format because they leverage the power of character and narrative/story. Our brains are hard-wired to consume information this way. It’s far easier to internalize, remember, and consequently empathize with a cast of characters than with a report that simply dumps data in your lap.

Slide 6: Curious George in the lab

A useful side-effect of personas is that it’s possible to imagine them in new contexts you hadn’t considered. When questions arise during the course of a project, teams can pretty easily agree upon how their personas will feel and behave — and thus on how to approach the design.

Slide 7: Persona best practices (ClickDox case study)

Story of a project in which we had to imagine a new product or service that would allow you to “courier” documents electronically, instead of in airplanes.

For a deep-dive into this case study, see my chapter in the book User-Centered Design Stories: Real-World UCD Case Studies by Righi and James.

Slide 8: ClickDox assumption

Start every persona initiative by interviewing project participants and stakeholder. Get all your existing assumptions out on the table! In this case study, the main assumption is that people would courier documents electronically when they are concerned about security.

Slide 9: Check your assumptions

Now get into the field to test your assumptions.

Create a segmentation model of your market (ping your marketing folks for help with this), and plan to visit 4-6 people in each segment. You will probably have to choose some strategically valuable or representative segments. Visiting every possible user is not typically viable due to time and budget constraints. It’s common for these projects to visit a range of 20-50 people.

Slide 10: Photos from the field

Perform a combination of interview, demonstration, and observation with each person. Duration will vary depending on your research domain. 60-90 minutes is common. Dig deep into what people DO, not what they SAY.

In the ClickDox case study, we learned that people didn’t actually care about security — despite the results of focus groups. Their in-context behaviors indicated otherwise.

Slide 11: Prepare to be surprised

I have yet to encounter a project in which we DIDN’T learn something surprising and important! Why? Market research commonly talks to people about the product. In this research, you talk to people about them.

Slide 12: The right mindset for analysis

You will observe patterns as you conduct your research. That’s normal, because it’s how our brains work. And we’re really good at it! The following process suggests a more rigorous approach to analyzing what you’ve learned, to make sure you’re not fooling yourself. (It happens; we see patterns everywhere.)

Slide 13: Compile a master list

For each interview, pull out a list of salient findings. 60-120 is common for every 1-hour interview. Mark the source of each observation (e.g., Participant #9) and print them onto cards that you can independently sort.

Slide 14: Arrange the observations

Across all your interviews, cluster them into “observations about the same thing.” Give each group a topic name, such as “Demands on time and attention”.

Slide 15: Identify specific findings

Repeat the process INSIDE each cluster. E.g., For demands on time and attention, you might notice common themes such as “a slave to their phone because of high call volume” and “must send update emails at least once/hour”.

Slide 16: Cluster findings

Now look for patterns at a high level. Which of the themes always occur together? Which never occur together?

Slide 17: This provides the basic frameworks…

Skeletons of your basic personas will begin to emerge from this exercise.

Slide 18: …which you develop into full personas

Then add meat to the bones of your personas by drawing up other data from your research. Make each persona a rich, believable character.

Slide 19: Prioritize your personas

If you have more than 1 primary persona, that means you probably need more than 1 product (or in software, >1 UI framework).

Slide 21: Understand

If you’re unfamiliar with the product domain, personas are a fantastic tool for getting up to speed.

Slide 22: Empathize

Personas help you to feel the pain of your users. As a result, it’s easier to identify and prioritize the high-value investments in your product.

Slide 23: Imagine

Personas are generative. Brainstorm for ways to help each persona, and you’ll find the ideas keep flowing.

Slide 24: Focus

Personas help you to set design objectives for your product. What are the most important things to achieve?

Slide 25: Innovate

Personas will help you sell “crazy” ideas that are outside normal practices for the business — because their value is more clear. Example of documentation team getting the go-ahead to produce a series of short videos instead of assuming that everyone will read their 200 pounds of documentation.

Slide 26: Design

When you have a clear picture of WHO you’re designing for, it’s easier to know WHAT to build and HOW to design it.

Posted Under: Design, Personas, User Experience

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About bbb

2 responses to “Tracking the elusive “user” in user experience design”

  1. Meyer Tanuan (@kwmobidev) says:

    Robert, Thanks for sharing these slides about Personas. You had a great example of how UX can help add and prioritize features (e.g., Slide 22 Docs Set Aside feature). I enjoyed your presentation.

  2. bbb says:

    @kwmobidev Thanks for the comment, Meyer. Glad you enjoyed the discussion too. That example of the “set aside” feature is a good one for sure. With the right data, it sure becomes easier to make the right design decisions!