November 15th, 2007
The always intriguing Christopher Fahey commented on yesterday’s post about Crappy Personas vs. Robust Personas:
Personas provide a fabulous way for people who understand their audience/users to communicate their understanding to people who do not understand that audience in a rapid and meaningful way. They are also a great way for people who have different understandings of their target audience (users, customers, etc) to reach common ground on who they are designing for, particularly if the objective is to expand into new audiences rather than simply to serve an existing audience. Neither of these uses of personas requires any original actual hard field research to be done. All it takes is a few good conversations and collaborations around a white board, and a little running around to gather existing documentation.
In my mind, Christopher is clearly confusing Personas with User Descriptions. User descriptions are what-we-think-we-know-now writeups of who uses our design and why. Personas, on the other hand, are carefully researched and crafted personalities we create to focus the design energy.
I believe both are very useful in the design process. User descriptions help us see where our thinking is, help new team members come up to speed, and help us identify where we may have made assumptions that could turn out false. Personas helps us get past the this-design-is-for-every-breathing-being problem and help us focus our attention on the needs of three to seven specific individuals. Many teams regularly do both.
That said, I think confusing them would be a bad idea. It’s akin to using the term apple when talking about a tomato. They both are fruits, round, red, and have seeds in the middle. Yet, someone thinking they are getting an apple is going to be very disappointed on that first bite if they received a tomato instead (and vice versa).
A few years back, in a project studying the work of master wood craftsmen, we learned there are dozens of types of saws. All of them cut things (mostly wood, but not always). Interestingly, the best craftsmen knew the individual names of each type of saw they owned and were really miffed when you called a tool by the wrong name. To them, the subtle distinctions were very important, since knowing to use the right tool at the right time in the right way was a big part of what distinguished them from other, less capable, craftsmen.
So, I recommend we call things by their names and not try and bunch different types of design activities and deliverables under one name. (And don’t even get me started with the folks who often refer to usability tests as focus groups.)Tweet