Photos help user personas succeed

If your user persona includes an image, which type of image helps the team produce designs that are more usable?

frank-long-style-user-persona-pic

The illustration on the left?  Or the photo on the right?

According to Frank Long’s research paper, Real or Imaginary: The effectiveness of using personas in product designphotos are better than illustrations. Teams whose user personas include a photograph of the persona produce designs that rate higher when assessed with Nielsen’s heuristics for UI design.

Frank Long compared the design output of three groups, drawn from his students at National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in Ireland, in a specific design project. Over the five-week project, two groups used user personas of different formats. One group was the control group, so they worked without user personas. The experiment looked for differences in the heuristic assessments of their designs.

Photos—versus illustrations—are one of the ways I’ve engaged project teams with the user personas that I researched and wrote for them. Here’s a teaser:

How many user personas?

If you’re creating user personas, How-To articles often tell you that you only need two or three personas at most. That’s fine for most web-design projects. However, if you are working on an enterprise-wide system that has modules for different types of professionals who each perform distinct and substantial tasks, then you will have a larger number of user profiles.

How big is the feature set? Imagine a product suite the size of Microsoft® Office that actually consists of very different pieces: Excel, Word, Access, PowerPoint, and more. Usually, the only persona who is involved with every module of a suite is someone like Ivan the IT administrator, whose tasks are very different from most users.

That may sound obvious, but I really struggled for a while with the notion that I was “doing it wrong” because I couldn’t squeeze the user roles and needs into a mere three user personas—or five, or seven, for that matter. When you have a dozen user personas, it’s challenging to keep them all apart, but most teams only need a few at a time. Likely, the only people who need to know all the user personas are on the user-experience and product-management teams. And the alternative—to have a catch-all user persona whose role is to “use the software”—is of no help at all.

If, by chance, you find you need many user personas, then beware once the projects wrap up and the teams turn to their next projects. They may have incorrectly learned to begin a project by creating user personas (“…well, that’s what we did last time…!”) instead of re-using and tweaking the existing user personas. [Not everyone agrees with re-use; see the comments.]

User personas will influence your product design and affect how people throughout Development and Marketing think, strategically and tactically, about their work. So you need to get the user personas right. Getting a series of user personas reviewed—not rubber-stamped but mindfully critiqued—is a challenge; nobody ever makes time to do it well. Here’s my solution: after you research users and then write your draft user personas, review them together with some subject-matter experts, Marketing staff, and developers, in a barn-raising exercise. Pack them all into one afternoon for the initial review. Then meet the first Friday of the month until you have agreement about each user persona. During one such meeting, one of my subject-matter experts said to another: “Oh, this user persona is just like [a customer named H—]!” The user persona was so on-target that that it reminded her of someone I had never met or researched. That was a nice way to learn that I got it right.

For detailed How-To advice on developing user personas, try these readings:

User mismatch: discard data?

When you’re researching users, every once in a while you come across one that’s an anomaly. You must decide whether to exclude their data points in the set or whether to adjust your model of the users.

Let me tell you about one such user. I’ll call him Bob (not his real name). I met Bob during a day of back-to-back usability tests of a specialised software package. The software has two categories of users:

  • What type of user is this?Professionals who interpret data and use it in their design work.
  • Technicians who mainly enter and check data. A senior technician may do some of the work of a professional user.

When Bob walked in, I went through the usual routine: welcome; sign this disclaimer; tell me about the work you do. Bob’s initial answers identified him as a professional user. Once on the computer, though, Bob was unable to complete the first step of the test scenario. Rather than try to solve the problem, he sat back, folded his hands, and said: “I don’t know how to use this.” Since Bob was unwilling to try the software, I instead had a conversation (actually an unstructured interview) with him. Here’s what I learned:

My observation For this product, this is…
Bob received no formal product training. He was taught by his colleagues. Typical of more than half the professionals. 
Bob has a university degree that is only indirectly related to his job.  Atypical of professionals.
He’s young (graduated 3 years ago). Atypical of professionals, but desirable because many of his peers are expected to retire in under a decade.
Bob moved to his current town because his spouse got a job there. He would be unwilling to move to another town for work. Atypical. Professionals in this industry typically often work in remote locations for high pay.
•  Bob is risk averse. Typical of the professionals.
•  He is easily discouraged, and isn’t inclined to troubleshoot. Atypical. Professionals take responsibility for driving their troubleshooting needs.
Bob completes the same task once or several times a day, with updated data each time. Atypical of professionals. This is typical of technicians. 

I decided to discard Bob’s data from the set.

The last two observations are characteristic of a rote user. Some professionals are rote users because they don’t know the language of the user interface, but this did not apply to Bob. There was a clear mismatch between the work that Bob said he does and both his lack of curiosity and non-performance in the usability lab. These usability tests took place before the 2008 economic downturn, when professionals in Bob’s industry were hard to find, so I quietly wondered whether hiring Bob had been a desperation move on the part of his employer.

If Bob had been an new/emerging type of user, discarding Bob’s data would have been a mistake. Imagine if Bob had been part of a new group of users:

  • What would be the design implications?
  • What would be the business implications?
  • Would we need another user persona to represent users like Bob?

From napkin to Five Sketches™

In 2007, a flash of insight hit me, which led to the development of the Five Sketches™ method for small groups who need to design usable software. Looking back, it was an interesting journey.

The setting. I was working on a two-person usability team faced with six major software- and web products to support. We were empowered to do usability, but not design. At the time, the team was in the early stages of Nielsen’s Corporate Usability Maturity model. Design, it was declared, would be the responsibility of the developers, not the usability team. I was faced with this challenge:

How to get usable products
from software- and web developers
by using a method that is
both reliable and repeatable.

The first attempt. I introduced each development team to the usability basics: user personas, requirements, paper prototyping, heuristics, and standards. Some developers went for usability training. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that none of this could work without a formal design process in place.

The second attempt. I continued to read, to listen, and to ask others for ideas. The answer came as separate pieces, from different sources. For several months, I was fumbling in the metaphorical dark, having no idea that the answer was within reach. Then, after a Microsoft product launch on Thursday, 18 October, 2007, the light went on. While sitting on a bar stool, the event’s guest speaker, GK Vanpatter, mapped out an idea for me on a cocktail napkin:

  1. Design requires three steps.
  2. Not everyone is comfortable with each of those steps.
  3. You have to help them.

The quadrants are the conative preferences or preferred problem-solving styles.

I recognised that I already had an answer to step 3, because I’d heard Bill Buxton speak at the 2007 UPA conference, four months earlier. I could help developers be comfortable designing by asking them to sketch.

It was more easily said than done. Everyone on that first team showed dedication and courage. We had help from a Vancouver-based process expert who skilfully debriefed each of us and then served us a summary of remaining problems to iron out. And, when we were done, we had the beginnings of an ideation-and-design method.

Since then, it’s been refined with additional teams of design participants, and it will be refined further—perhaps changed significantly to suit changing circumstances. But that’s the story of the first year.