Originally published: Sep 21, 2011
The best designs come from everyone on the team having a deep understanding of what it's like to be a user. When they all share that same understanding, it's easy to create designs that meet the users' needs.
Our research shows that creating personas and scenarios is a brilliantly effective way to create that shared understanding. A well-executed persona project captures your research, encapsulates your design requirements, and helps you prioritize your innovative ideas and insights.
Yet many persona and scenario projects aren't well executed. These projects don't see the benefits of putting the personas together and, as a result, have significantly more trouble keeping the entire team on the same page.
Frankly, we're surprised at how many different ways there are to suck all the value away from your persona project, making them practically worthless. Here are five of our favorites:
Every design has a large group of folks, beyond its designers, who influence its outcome. Developers may change the design's outcome when they're translating the design into the code and screens. Project managers change the priorities of features as they lay out the schedule. Even the corporate lawyers change the flow and content when they're ensuring compliance.
Teams that include these influencers in their research efforts get more persuasive personas and better designs. As the design project goes on, the influencers tend to be more considerate of user needs. They consistently demonstrate a willingness to create a great user experience that still meets their business goals.
A great way to suck value away from your persona project is to disenfranchise these influencers during the persona project's research phase. By excluding them from research, they don't get to see the origins of the ideas directly, only hearing it second hand. When it comes time to make a tough decision, they don't take the research into account, often forcing their own agenda above your users' needs.
Good research is what makes or breaks a persona project. Give the team solid research to base their personas on and they'll see real value. Take away the research and the personas become just a shell for opinions, which only lead to arguments down the road.
We're blown away with the creative ways people shortcut their research. They declare it too expensive or time consuming. They decide to use old data or repurpose old personas.
Focused research isn't difficult, expensive, or time consuming. Sure, like anything, it takes a little longer the first time, but there are plenty of experienced experts who can help you through the process. For most projects, the research only need take a few days.
When teams craft their personas from outdated or fake data, they diminish the value. Down the road, when the team has to make tough decisions - exactly the point solid personas and scenarios strut their stuff - nobody can trust the personas to guide them.
(Even worse is when the team believes the fake data is real, making decisions using pure fiction as a basis.)
Every research session provides a wealth of raw material to work from. What your participants say, what they do, their environments, and how they experience your design all contributes to a rich landscape that will feed into your personas.
Yet we've seen many teams try to keep every session in their head. They make no effort to record what they saw and ensure they'll retain the details later.
It's not hard to build a routine into your research process to record each session. It can be as simple as a quick get together after the session to brain dump the details into a document, along with any pictures or artifacts you collected.
If you try to keep it all in your head, when you sit down to craft your personas, you'll run the risk of putting too much weight on the most recent sessions, since they will be the most fresh in your mind. There are likely to be disagreements on what you actually saw where. All this makes the personas less representative of real users and is therefore another way to suck the value out.
Maybe they fear they'll only get one chance to create personas? Maybe the persona project was the brainchild of some high-level executive who doesn't want to be mired in the details of a specific project? Whatever the reason, creating general-purpose all-things-for-all-people personas and scenarios is another great way to suck the value out.
Personas and especially scenarios contribute the most when they are detailed and matched up with specific projects. If you're working on how your users will print their photos, then understanding the needs and desired behaviors around printing is where the payoff will be. Keeping it very specific gives the best guidance to the team.
Trying to create a small number of personas that will guide every project for the next two years is a recipe for failure. Trying to create a handful of scenarios that could guide every requirement of every new feature is a complete waste.
We noticed that the best teams focus their personas and scenarios on the next round of functionality. When they do this, the research is easier, the persona and scenario creation goes quick, and the results are more valuable. They instantly discover new insights because of how close the scenarios are to their work.
A persona project isn't finished once the team creates their personas. In fact, it's just starting.
Personas and scenarios really get going once the team starts using them in every stage of the design and development. They become a tool for extracting the design's requirements. They're essential in determining which of several design variations will best meet the users (and organization's) needs.
You can also use them for creating Agile user stories and use cases for the developers. QA teams find them helpful in understanding how to determine when a design is done. They are super useful for figuring out any instructional or marketing copy.
The problem is that many teams bury their personas the moment they are done creating them. They create pretty documents, maybe a poster or PowerPoint deck, and then promptly forget about the poor fellows. Once they check off "Personas created" and move on, they never come back to take advantage of their hard work.
One team we worked with started each design meeting by reading the related personas and scenario descriptions out loud, like reciting a pledge of allegiance. This helped remind everyone who they were designing for and why, focusing the meeting on meeting those needs. That's such a great way to keep their users front-and-center that we're now recommending it to each team we work with.
Creating great, useful personas takes effort, time, and resources. When done well, which is not that difficult, the process yields benefits for the entire duration of the project, touching every aspect of the design.
In our research, the teams that saw the most value involved the entire team in the research and persona creation. They kept their scenarios very close to the functionality they were working on, and they made sure the personas were alive through the entire project.
The teams found that everyone had a solid, shared understanding of what their users were all about. That resulted in better designs overall. You've got to love that.
At the User Interface 17 Conference, we'll be exploring ways to get the most from your design projects, including persona techniques. Kim Goodwin will show us how to get huge value from creating great scenarios to drive our designs. Check out UI17.
Have you worked on a persona project that didn't work out? What technique did your team use to suck the value out? Share your own experiences on our UIE Brain Sparks blog.
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