Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Personas, Part 1

Holehan and I have been working on our own small QT/KDE app on and off for a while now. In the course of our (not terribly far advanced) progress we've found the so called "persona" technique very helpful to focus our design efforts on the target user audience. And since I've written an article about the very same technique for our previously mentioned usability course (which, sadly, was not meant to be), I decided to translate my article to english and adapt it a bit so it shouldn't go to waste. It's quite a bit longer than your usual blog entry, but I think it's well worth it, because it contains a lot of knowledge I've collected from all over the place and I've not yet found someone who put all this together and fleshed out all parts of the process and not just some of them. I decided to divide the article into several parts so there's not too much text to read at once and also so I won't have to finish the whole article tonight ;). Today I will say a bit about what personas are and why they are useful. If you like this introduction, read how to make and use them in a few days :).

What are personas?

The concept of personas was first widely popularized by Alan Cooper in his book "The inmates are running the asylum" in 1998.
Personas are ficticious users that represent the needs of a larger group of users regarding the goals and personal characteristics they have. They are used as a substitute for real users, helping to make decisions about the design of an application. Personas help you to keep the focus on real users and their goals instead of thinking only in terms of the fuzzy ghost of the "average user" (who doesn't really exist.
To make personas really come alive, they are given plenty of bibliographical information, including a name, age, gender and also, very importantly, a picture.
Personas may not be real people, but they are based on knowledge about them - usually you do a bit of research about the target audience for your app before making the personas. That also means personas can't be reused for another project - they are tailored to the application they are written for and most probably won't fit for another one.

So what's the deal, why are personas so great?

1) They put you into your users' shoes and and help you focus on their goals:

As a developer, you often have a great idea for a feature for your app, but then find out later that your users only see the new functionality as additional distraction and clutter because they don't need it. Personas help you to put yourself into the position of your users and recognize what their goals really are, instead of keeping you guessing and adding random features they'll propably never see or use. Which in turn makes your interfaces less complicated and saves you the time you would have spent implementing a mostly unused feature.

2) They can resolve disagreements among the team:

Often there are disagreements in the development team about which feature is needed and which is not. These can often easily be resolved by refering to your personas - for example when someone in the team says: "What if somebody wants to print this out?" you can argue with "Peter is not interested in printing anything." (It is very important not to say "our persona" in sentences like this, but to at all times use the persona's name, otherwise you will never take it seriously enough. Always talk about "Peter" and resist the urge to generalize him.)

Read on in a few days to find out how to use personas yourself - and don't forget to visit the OpenUsability booth at LinuxTag - read Ellen's blog entry to find out more!


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