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.

and

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.

Consensus

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.

Requirements should not drive development

For more than a decade I develop software for engineers. The software they use is coined by vendor lock-ins, terrible interfaces and dowdy technology. In the last years I am struggling to find a better way to make tools that help them to get their jobs done. In a more pleasant and efficient way. My journey started with trying to make the internal quality of the software better through practices like clean code, TDD and the like. Maybe the software got more robust but the benefit on the user side of things was negligible.
So I turned to learning user experience design (UX). A vast land of new unknown concepts, theories and practices lays before me. So big that even practitioners in the field cannot agree what UX is.
The label isn’t important to me.

I want to make the work of engineers better.

To make the work better I have to learn more about the people and the work. The importance of domain knowledge is undisputed in the software development world. And collaboration is a pillar of modern software projects. But after reading and practicing several methods to uncover information about people and their work (read: user research) I found the traditional way of communicating inside a software project lacking.
Normally a software project starts with gathering requirements. Requirements describe what the software should do in an abstract way. For example: the software should calculate the balance of the user’s bank account. How did we found out that this is a requirement? We interviewed a stakeholder.
At first sight this might sound reasonable. Looking closer we find many problems with this approach.
First in the context of enterprise software where I work the user and the stakeholder are often different people. Even more alarming is that we talk about the wants of the solution. We have no indicator what problems does this requirement try to solve. Without knowing what we want to solve we are doomed. We are imaging an illusion.
Now even if the one who made all research and wrote the requirements knows the problems he wants the software to address the requirement is a very poor communicator. We need to spread the knowledge about the problems throughout the team. The agile approach to include roles (as a), actions (I want to) and outcomes (so that) in so called user stories is not much help.
In order to know what properties a solution must have we need to understand the user and his work. For this we need to see his context, the situation he is in. In different situations he might want to do different things. So we need to capture his motivation and of course his goals.

Jobs to be done – job stories

In the search for a better way to communicate what we find out during research I stumbled across the jobs to be done methodology. Coming originally from marketing several teams adapted this way of thinking to product development. I think Paul Adams mentioned and Alan Klement developed the idea of the job story and several others have had a great success implementing it.
What’s in a job story? A job story take the form: When (situation), I want to (motivation), so I can (expected outcome).
Now the first part captures one of the most important concepts of UX: the context.

The situation

Context is so much more than I naively imagined: it is not location and surroundings. Context or better the situation is what happened before in the environment, in the system and for the user. Developers might call it the state of these. For example: When I am about to buy a car, when I start a measurement, when I am leading the race, when my application crashed, …
The situation and what happened just before is crucial to get a sense of what the user is struggling with.

The motivation

The user wants to move from the current situation to his goal. Why? And what is important for him? What might hinder him to do so? The jobs to be done framework calls this forces. We have 4 forces:

  • push of the current situation: what is bad now
  • pull of the future: what is good then
  • habits: business as usual might hinder progress
  • anxiety: the fear of the new might bring hesitation

These forces help us to document needs of the user in the current situation. If we want to better support the user we need to care about him as a person, not just as a machine going from one state to the next. Forces help us to communicate needs. Again a property the current solutions of documenting requirements lack.

The outcome

What benefit does the user get from his actions? He has a goal. We need to know his goals in his current situation to help him get there. Beware: this is not just a feature of the system, it is an understanding the user gets, an accomplishment, a symbol of status. The benefit is the value the user gets.

Conclusion

Describing situations in which people struggle to get to the wanted outcomes and goals helps us relating to them. It helps us documenting findings and communicate them to other team members. When evaluating different solutions we can lean on the job stories to determine if they fit. Requirements and user stories are just too solution focused and miss important details to drive any software development effort which wants to help people doing a better job.