Personas: The great misunderstanding

Reminder: What are personas ?

Personas were first described by Alan Cooper in his ground breaking book “The inmates are running the asylum”:

Our most effective tool is profoundly simple: Develop a precise description of our user and what he wishes to accomplish.

He goes on to define personas as “hypothetical archetypes of actual users” and states that personas “are defined by their goals”.
One of the key points here is that personas are never made up but are grounded in research. They are used to provide condensed information about the result of the user research. Another take away is that a persona description should include its goals.

The misunderstanding

In recent times some designers dumped personas because they are 1) imaginary and 2) defined by attributes that leave out causality. The problem here is that personas are often seen as a collection of mere demographic data (like age, job, income, …). But this only describes marketing personas not the personas imagined by Alan Cooper. As seen in his books the data of a persona is never made up but inferred from user research. Also demographics play only a minor role in creating personas, citing Mr. Cooper again:

Personas are segmented along ranges of user behaviour, not demographics or buying behaviour.

So the behaviour of our users defines the persona not any demographic trait.

The causality mentioned in the criticism misses a vital part of a persona: the scenario. Personas go hand-in-hand with scenarios (by Alan Cooper, About Face):

Persona-based scenarios are concise narrative descriptions of one or more personas using a product or service to achieve specific goals.


Scenario content and context are derived from information gathered during the Research phase and analyzed during the Modeling phase

So with these scenarios personas describe the context and the goals and behaviours of our users.

As we see with the criticism the context, goals and motivations of our users are important. Personas and scenarios should not be made up but condensed from research. They are used to say ‘no’ to decisions in the process of designing. A word of warning: do not abstract your persona too far away from your users. One goal of personas are to built empathy. If your personas are too artificial your empathy will suffer. Also I like how Jeff Patton uses research findings: for him they are like vacation photos, if you’ve been there they are reminder what happened.


The criticism largely comes from designers favoring the jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) methodology. Jobs-to-be-done is a framework to analyse and describe why a users hires a product or service to get something done. It provides a very useful perspective on the context and behaviour of users. Both approaches (personas and jobs) can be combined. Where personas provide a human connection, jobs provide a contextual one. Shahrzad Samadzadeh provides a sketch how both can be combined with the help of a journey map. All three methods help to balance each approach: the personas help to avoid making the jobs too analytic, the jobs help to ground and limit the personas in research valuable to the problem at hand and journeys can bring all together.

Mapping the user’s workflow

One of the most important things to understand before starting any design or development is the user’s workflow(s). A user uses your app to reach a goal. His starting point is the start of the workflow. His goal its end. He takes steps in order to get from the start to his goal.
The order and the type of steps he takes helps us to understand how he reaches his goals at the moment. Visualizing these steps, often called mapping, is a great way to see the system from the user’s perspective: what does he do with the system, how and when does he do it.
This workflow helps us to keep the big picture in mind and organise planning and execution around the important part of the project: the user goals.

How does a workflow look?

Use the visualization or tool that suits you most. A workflow can be a sketch of boxes and arrows. Or an excel sheet. You can use a diagramming software or a presentation software. The important point is that you see the start, the goals and the steps and can annotate each step with important details.

How can we create the workflow

A workflow describes a series of actions. When the system supports the user to get from his start to his goal our application does its job. The user experience is how efficient and pleasant it is for the user to take each step.
One way to find out about the steps the user takes is to observe him doing so. At first: try to only watch and listen. Take notes. Be open. Record each step as if you were a beginner knowing nothing about the system or how the software works or should work. Especially watch out for the struggles.
Struggles can be seen in:

  • mistakes
  • back steps
  • pauses
  • changing applications
  • repeated steps

The struggles give us a hint where to put our energy. In the second run keep an eye open for unusual steps. Unusual steps are actions which seem complicated or unnecessary from a beginner’s mind. Start with the notion that every step is needed but find out the reasons why it is. In subsequent observations look for variations and ask what information lead the user to decide differently this time.
Armed with your recordings you can now sketch the first version of what you understood about how the user reaches his goal using the current systems.

CSS 3D transforms

If you are like me when thinking about 3D in the browser you immediately speak of WebGL. But what most developers forget is that we use simple 3D mechanism in our web sites and applications already: the z-index.
While the z-index in only stacking flat containers above each other. Almost all modern browsers can use CSS to create simple 3D models.
Let’s start with a cuboid.

<div class="container">
  <div id="cuboid">
    <div class="front">1</div>
    <div class="back">2</div>
    <div class="right">3</div>
    <div class="left">4</div>
    <div class="top">5</div>
    <div class="bottom">6</div>

We have 6 sides and for easier recognizing each one each has a number on it. We make them bigger and give them a different background to distinguish them further.

.container {
  width: 300px;
  height: 300px;
  position: relative;
  margin: 0 auto 40px;
  padding-top: 100px;

#cuboid {
  width: 100%;
  height: 100%;
  position: absolute;

#cuboid div {
  display: block;
  position: absolute;
  border: 2px solid black;
  line-height: 196px;
  font-size: 120px;
  font-weight: bold;
  color: white;
  text-align: center;

Until now we didn’t use any 3D transformations. For ordering the sides we rotate and translate each side in its place.

    #cuboid .front  { transform: translateZ(100px); }
    #cuboid .back   { transform: rotateX(-180deg) translateZ(0px); }
    #cuboid .right  { transform: rotateY(90deg) translateZ(150px) translateX(-50px); }
    #cuboid .left   { transform: rotateY(-90deg) translateZ(50px) translateX(50px); }
    #cuboid .top    { transform: rotateX(90deg) translateZ(50px) translateY(50px); }
    #cuboid .bottom { transform: rotateX(-90deg) translateZ(200px) translateY(-50px); }

This brought the back side on top but no 3D visible yet. Further we tell the browser to use 3d on its children and move the scene a bit out.

#cuboid {
  transform-style: preserve-3d;
  transform: translateZ( -100px );

Still we are trapped in flatland. Ah we are looking straight onto the front. So we rotate the scene.

#cuboid {
  transform-style: preserve-3d;
  transform: translateZ( -100px ) rotateX(20deg) rotateY(20deg);

Now we have depth. Something is quite not right. If we remember one thing from our OpenGL days we need another ingredient to make it look 3D: a perspective.

.container {
  perspective: 1200px;

Last but not least we add animation to see it spinning.

#cuboid {
  transform-style: preserve-3d;
  transform: translateZ(-100px) rotateX(20deg) rotateY(20deg);
  animation: spinCuboid 5s infinite ease-out;
@keyframes spinCuboid {
  0% { transform: translateZ(-100px) rotateX(0deg) rotateY(0deg); }
  100% { transform: translateZ(-100px) rotateX(360deg) rotateY(360deg); }

What UX and sales have in common

In the past sales has often been disregarded. But modern sales is more like UX. The goal of modern sales is to bring a positive impact to both the seller and the buyer. This is called a win-win. Both parties win.
Shortcuts or favors result in one party losing which is not a sustainable strategy.
For the buying to be winning a seller has to care about the needs of the buyer. These needs range from jobs to be done to personal ones. As a seller you employ UX research methods like interviews and open questions targeting the thoughts and feelings of the buyer. The wins are always personal never something abstract like a company strategy or even KPIs. But: the wins are based upon result: measurable, objective things like conversion rates, efficiency improvements, closed sales. Together they are called win-results: an objective metric that has a personal benefit for the buyer.

Assumptions in UX can be dangerous and can doom a whole product. Assuming win-results or the wrong needs you can miss the buyer completely and lose the sale. In strategic sales every uncertain or missing information or contact is regarded as a red flag. UX should also mark its blind spots. The product kata is a great way to eliminate assumptions in a project.

But even if you know the needs you have to take into account the context. The personal and emotional situation a buyer is in has direct consequences for how you need to address him. The same with UX where context and the job to be done control your solutions – what works and what not.

If you are interested in a more person centered sales strategy I recommend reading strategic selling and following blogs like Seth Godin and Bernadette Jiwa

Discount UX

Creating a better user experience does not need to be expensive, you don’t need fancy tools like eye tracking or facial expression detection to make a difference. Here are some tools I use to get a better understanding of what users need.


The universal tool to communicate besides words are sketches. Whether I draw an idea for a user interface, use a state diagram to discuss transitions or draw boxes and arrows to show connections, sketches at the heart of everyday working and thinking. What you need for this? Paper and a pencil.


In order to understand a human using your system you not only need to talk to him but you have to observe him doing his work. This is not just playing the fly on the wall. These sessions are interactive in nature, resulting in a back and forth. The user shows you how he works, you ask questions, he goes into more detail, you wonder about certain points, he explain his reasoning (or sometimes has wonders himself). Again paper and pencil is great. Having the option to take screenshots or (permission provided) a photo is even better. The most crucial is an open mind. You need to go in with a beginner’s mind: do not assume anything and wonder about almost everything.

Card sort

Observation is a pretty direct way to learn about the user doing his work. But even then some part of the mental model is hidden. To dig deeper into what kind of concepts and words he uses and how these are interrelated, a card sorting session can be helpful. Together with him we draw those words onto cards and let him sort them into groups and give them priorities. Here often discussions arise about the exact words you write on the paper. Some words need to be in more than one group, two different words mean the same, another word means something different in a different context. Here you also can take a glimpse at (sub-)domain bounds. Again cards, a pencil and paper to take notes is all you need.

Design studio or crazy 8

Sketching is so helpful you can do it even in a group. If you need to brainstorm for a user interface you take a sheet of paper and divide into 8 sections. Then you draw 8 very simple sketchy version of the UI in 8 – 16 minutes. After that you evaluate them in the group against your goals. The first round produces divergent sketches after seeing each other drawings, you will see that the next round converges into a common direction. You probably guessed it already: paper and a pencil is all you need.

Paper Journey Mapping

The last one in this group is more of an analyzing and communicating results tool. A journey map is a way to show the user (his thoughts, feelings and actions) along the steps he takes in his daily work. This map can highlight different aspects of your findings: the many applications he has to use to get his job done, the critical parts which mostly affect his mood, the frustrations, the many points for failure, the different people involved and so on. A large (DIN A3 or bigger) piece of paper is helpful and different colors of pencils help to highlight aspects.


All these methods use (almost only) pen and paper but are very helpful in getting to a better user understanding and therefore a better user experience. What are your tools for understanding?
If you have any questions or need more details please feel free to comment. I am at the starting point of the user experience journey and like to learn from others.

Modern developer Issue 4: My SQL toolbox

SQL is such a basic and useful language but the underlying thinking is non-intuitive when you come from imperative languages like Java, Ruby and similar.
SQL is centered around sets and operations on them. The straight forward solution might not be the best one.


Let’s say we need the maximum value in a certain set. Easy:

select max(value) from table

But what if we need the row with the maximum value? Just adding the other columns won’t work since aggregations only work with other aggregations and group bys. Joining with the same table may be straight forward but better is to not do any joins:

select * from (select * from table order by value desc) where rownum<=1

Group by and having

Even duplicate values can be found without joining:

select value from table group by value having count(*) > 1

Grouping is a powerful operation in SQL land:

select max(value), TO_CHAR(time, 'YYYY-MM') from table group by TO_CHAR(time, 'YYYY-MM')

Finding us the maximum value in each month.

Mapping with outer joins

SQL is also good for calculations. Say we have one table with values and one with a mapping like a precalculated log table. Joining both gets the log of each of your values:

select t.value, log.y from table t left outer join log_table log on t.value=log.x

Simple calculations

We can even use a linear interpolation between two values. Say we have only the function values stored for integers but we values between them and these values between them can be interpolated linearly.

select t.value, (t.value-floor(t.value))*f.y + (ceil(t.value)-t.value)*g.y from table t left outer join function_table f on floor(t.value)=f.x left outer join function_table g on ceil(t.value)=g.x

When you need to calculate for large sets of values and insert them into another table it might be better to calculate in SQL and insert in one step without all the conversion and wrapping stuff present in programming languages.


Another often overlooked feature is to use a condition:

select case when MOD(t.value, 2) = 0 then 'divisible by 2' else 'not divisible by 2' end from table t

These handful operations are my basic toolbox when working with SQL, almost all queries I need can be formulated with them.

Dates and timestamps

One last reminder: when you work with time always specify the wanted time zone in your query.

Modern developer #3: Framework independent JavaScript architecture

Usually small JavaScript projects start with simple wiring of callbacks onto DOM elements. This works fine when it the project is in its initial state. But in a short time it gets out of hand. Now we have spaghetti wiring and callback hell. Often at this point we try to get help by looking at adopting a framework, hoping to that its coded best practices draw us out of the mud. But now our project is tied to the new framework.
In search of another, framework independent way I stumbled upon scalable architecture by Nicholas Zakas.
It starts by defining modules as independent units. This means:

  • separate JavaScript and DOM elements from the rest of the application
  • Modules must not reference other modules
  • Modules may not register callbacks or even reference DOM elements outside their DOM tree
  • To communicate with the outside world, modules can only call the sandbox

The sandbox is a central hub. We use a pub/sub system:

sandbox.publish({type: 'event_type', data: {}});

sandbox.subscribe('event_type', this.callback.bind(this));

Besides being an event bus, the sandbox is responsible for access control and provides the modules with a consistent interface.
Modules are started and stopped (in case of misbehaving) in the application core. You could also use the core as an anti corruption layer for third party libraries.
This architecture gives a frame for implementation. But implementing it raises other questions:

  • how do the modules update their state?
  • where do we call the backend?

Handling state

A global model would reside or be referenced by the application core. In addition every module has its own model. Updates are always done in application event handlers, not directly in the DOM event handlers.
Let me illustrate. Say we have a module with keeps track of selected entries:

function Module(sandbox) {
  this.sandbox = sandbox;
  this.selectedEntries = [];

Traditionally our DOM event handler would update our model:

button.on('click', function(e) {

A better way would be to publish an application event, subscribe the module to this event and handle it in the application event handler:

this.sandbox.subscribe('entry_selected', this.entrySelected.bind(this));

Module.prototype.entrySelected = function(event) {

button.on('click', function(e) {
  this.sandbox.publish({type: 'entry_selected', entry: entry});

Other modules can now listen on selecting entries. The module itself does not need to know who selected the entry. All the internal communication of selection is visible. This makes it possible to use event sourcing.

Calling the backend

No module should directly call the backend. For this a special module called extension is used. Extensions encapsulate cross cutting concerns and shield communication with other systems.


This architecture keeps UI parts together with their corresponding code, flattens callbacks and centralizes the communication with the help of application events and encapsulates outside communication. On top of that it is simple and small.