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.

Learning UX from your clients

One of our web apps is based around many lists of different domain specific things like special pdf documents with metadata, affiliations and users. In most places you need pagination and different filter options to effiecently work with the data. Since the whole development process is highly incremental these features are only added when needed. That way we learned something about user experience from our clients:

One day we did a large import of users and with around 2K user accounts our user management looked ugly because we had around 160 pages with default settings. Our client rightfully told us he will not use the pagination featureall-users-pagination. Our brains immediately thought about technical solutions to the problem when the client came up with a super-simple dramatic improvement: Instead of preselecting the "all" filter just preselect the "a" filter to only show the users starting with the letter 'a'.  This solution fixed 95% of the clients problems and was implemented in like 10 minutes.

In another place we were dealing with similar amounts of affiliations which consist of several lines of address information and the like. Again we immediately thought about pagination, better layouting to save space and various performance improvements to help the usability. The dead-simple solution here was using the context information available and pre-filling a filter text box to reduce the number of entries in the list to a handful of relevant items. No other changes were needed because an important thing was implemented already: The controls for the list were either at the top of the list or integrated with each item making selection and scrolling down unnecessary.


It often helps to listen to your client/users to learn about the workflows and the information/options really needed to accomplish the most relevant tasks. They might come up with really simple solutions to problems where it is easy to put days of thought into. Using available context information and sensible preselections may help immensly because you display the informations the users most likely needs first and above while still allowing him to navigate to less important or more seldom needed things.

Another take-away is that pagination does not scale well. In most applications with large amounts of user visible items you will need more modern features like filters, type-ahead search and tags to narrow down the results and let the users focus at the currently needed items.

SSD and (One)-touch Backup solution

As explained a while ago we (developers) get an annual creativity budget. This time I decided to improve my notebook working experience and reliability by introducing two new items:

  1. A fast SSD replacing the conventional relatively slow 2,5″ hard disk
  2. An one-touch backup solution which in fact is a no touch solution

The SSD is a X25-m from Intel with 160Gb and the backup solution is a Seagate Replica with 500Gb disk space. Although there are recurring problems with the firmware and toolbox software the Intel SSD seemed to be the best choice price/performance/reliability wise. To be on a safer side data wise we paired it with the backup solution. Let me first explain the migration which went really smooth and was the first stress test for the backup system. The steps were the following:

  1. Backup the existing system with the replica which does not require any user interaction after the client backup software is automatically installed
  2. replace the original harddisk with the SSD
  3. reboot the system with the recovery CD of the replica solution and restore the backed up system
  4. reboot the recovered system from the SSD

The whole process went really smooth and only took some hours of data copying. There were no hickups whatsoever. After booting from the SSD my system was exactly like before, so the replica already proved that it really works even in the worst case of a complete drive loss.

The performance of the whole system is noticable better especially at system and application startup as you would expect.


The backup solution is so damn easy to use that I would recommend it to all people running Windows and caring about the data on their system. To keep your backup up to date just plug the external hard drive in a free USB port and continue working. You don’t have to do any configuration and other hassles which often end any effort of deploying a working backup solution. This is even more true for private people who do not have the knowledge to fiddle with system details. So go for a “one touch backup” if you do not have some working solution in use already!

A modern SSD can really improve your working experience especially on notebooks where hard disk performance is far worse than in an workstation environment. So older hardware can get new life and make your life easier and more productive.

On developer workplace ergonomics

workplace_failMost developers don’t care much about their working equipment. The company they work in typically provides them a rather powerful computer with a mediocre monitor and a low-cost pair of keyboard and mouse. They’ll be given a regular chair at a regular desk in a regular office cubicle. And then they are expected (and expect themselves) to achieve outstanding results.

The broken triple

First of all, most developers are never asked about their favorite immediate work equipment: keyboard, mouse and monitor.

With today’s digitally driven flat-screens, the monitor quality is mostly sufficient for programming. It’s rather a question of screen real estate, device quantity and possibility of adjustments. Monitors get cheaper continuously.

The mouse is the second relevant input device for developers. But most developers spend more money on their daily travel than their employer spent for their mices. A good mouse has an optimal grip, a low monthly mouse mile count, enough buttons and wheels for your tasks, your favorite color and is still dirt cheap compared to the shirt you wear.

The keyboard is the most relevant device on a programmer’s desk. Your typing speed directly relies on your ability to make friends with your keyboard. Amazingly, every serious developer has her own favorite layout, keystroke behavior and general equipment. But most developers still stick to a bulk keyboard they were never asked about and would never use at home. A good keyboard matches your fingertips perfectly and won’t be much more expensive than the mouse.

Missed opportunities

The failure is two-fold: The employer misses the opportunity to increase developer productivtiy with very little financial investment and the developer misses the opportunity to clearly state her personal preferences concerning her closest implements.

Most employers will argue that it would place a heavy burden on the technical administration and the buying department to fit everybody with her personal devices. That’s probably true, but it’s nearly a one-time effort multiplied by your employee count, as most devices last several years. But it’s an ongoing effort for every developer to deliver top-notch results with cumbersome equipment. Most developers will last several years, too.

Some developers will state that they are happy with their devices. It really might be optimal, but it’s likely that the developer just hasn’t tried out alternatives yet.

Perhaps your organizational culture treats uniformity as professionality. Then why are you allowed to have different haircuts and individual ties?

Room for improvement

Our way to improve our workplaces was to introduce an annual “Creativity Budget” for every employee. It’s a fair amount of money destined to use one’s own creativity to improve productivity. It could also have been named “Productivity Budget”, but that would miss the very important part about creative solutions. There is no formal measurement of productivity and only loose rules on what not to do with the money. Above all, it’s a sign to the developer that she’s expected to personally care for her work environment, her equipment and her productivity. And that she’s not expected to do that without budget.

The Creativity Budget outcome

The most surprising fact about our budgets was that nearly none got fully spent. Most developers had very clear ideas on what to improve and just realized them – without further budget considerations. On top of that, everybody dared to express their preferences, without fear of overbearance. It’s not a big investment, but a very worthwile one.

An highly profitable investment

coinsWhen it comes to workplace ergonomics, oftentimes money matters most. And money is always short, except for a really good investment. A profitable investment is what every businessman will understand. Here is an investment that boosts both, ergonomics and finance.

The goal

In my definition, an highly profitable investment is money you get a return of an additional 25% in just a year. After that year, the investment does not vanish, but continues to pay off. The investment is socially acceptable at best: Everyone involved will feel happy as long as the investment runs. And the investment can be explained to every developer at your shop with just two words: dual monitors.

The maths

Ok, lets have some hard calculus about it. Here are some modest assumptions about the investment:

You already own a decent monitor, as you are a screen worker. Buying another one of the same type will cost you about 300 EUR, with 25% return on our investment, it needs to earn us about 400 EUR. A monitor that earns money?

Your income, without any additional costs for your employer, is at 40.000 EUR per year. If you happen to have an higher income, the investment just gets more profitable. You work for 200 days a year, according to the usual employment. If you look at the numbers, you see that you earn 200 EUR per day. The new monitor needs to earn two days worth of your work or one percent of your yearly working time.

If the monitor speeds you up by just one percent of your time, it’s a highly profitable investment.

A productivity boost by one percent

How much is one percent of your daily working time? If you work for eight hours a day, it’s about five minutes. You need to accelerate your work by using the second monitor by five minutes or one percent every day, that’s all. All the other goodies come for free: Better mood, higher motivation, lower defect rate, improved code quality.

Some minor limitations

We experimented with setups of N monitors, with N being a natural number. Three or more monitors do not pay off as much as the second one does. Hardware issues rear their ugly heads and generally, overview decreases. This might not be true with rapid context switching tasks like customer support, but with focussed software development, it is.

When using dual monitors, it’s crucial to get used to them and really utilize all their possibilities. Perhaps you might need additional software to fully drive your dual power home. You might have to rethink your application window layout habits.

Assigning a second monitor to a developer is an irreversible action. If you take it away again, the developer will feel jailed with too less screen real estate and might even suffer a mild form of claustrophobia. Morale and motivation will plummet, too.


Introducing dual monitoring to developers is a win-win situation for both the company and the developers. It’s a highly profitable investment while boosting staff morale and productivity. If there is one reason not to do it, it’s because of the irreversibility of the step. But a last word of secret to the management: You can even use it to raise employee loyalty, as nobody wants to work in a single monitor environment anymore.