in Personas and Scenarios

We’re All Out In The World

In Tekka, Cathy Marshall addresses a topic that’s been stirring in my mind lately…

…do scenarios and personas actually help, or do they just create a warm illusion of user-centered design?

She spends some time illustrating how products can drive personas…

Want to make personal security and encryption a necessary feature for [our persona’s] email application? Let’s just give her a secret life in which she’s rekindled a dormant college romance via email.’

But we know that’s not a problem with personas, that’s just people creating personas improperly (personas, unlike guns, don’t shoot unsuspecting children, it requires a designer to do that). Research drives personas, and personas drive design, and design leads to products. Reversing that is incorrect practice, not a flaw in the practice.

I’ve also seen a tendency to focus the scenario too much on how a persona uses the website to the exclusion of other activities. When Marshall writes, ‘Notice, for example, that people use other communication channels besides their computers‘ it reminds me that personas should capture how people arrived at the site, what other sites they’re looking at, and what they do when they leave.

We know that to do this work properly one needs empathy with the users. And yet, people are, as George Bernard Shaw observed, bloody apes. People, some of them, can be nasty, messy complainers and it’s easier to just not interact with them. And this is why user-centered design is such a hard sell, because business people don’t want to deal with their customers. It’s easier to keep them at arms length – or further – with surveys and other market research. Personas and scenarios too help us keep people at arms length. Of course, they assume we’ve done our contextual inquiry yada yada beforehand, but that shouldn’t stop with the personas. In the tradition of the best industrial design it doesn’t stop, designers are always working with users. Researching and testing is ingrained in the process, not separate steps in the project plan. Marshall says,

Don’t just use scenarios and personas. Pay attention. Observe. Reflect. We’re all out in the world we design for.

Which, to me, implies participatory design. It means working more closely with those bloody apes that drive us crazy. This is the hard work we have to do to arrive at a great product. It means I don’t believe personas can substitute for interacting with users during post-research project phases. I don’t know a lot about participatory design yet, but I think it’s time to learn.