Use of Personas

This summer I am also taking ICM 512de. This is paper was written for this week’s assignment in 512, but it serves both classes:

My mother just turned 60. Until this year, she never used a personal computer. She has never had a need to. She used to be a dog groomer and now works the deli counter in a grocery store. A neighbor of hers was in the process of moving out and he gave her his old computer. Through a few friends, she learned how to setup email and browse the web. It is a slow process. Whenever she calls me to ask questions, I instinctively talk to her as I would anyone who has always worked a computer. This is my mistake. I needed to go back in time to the point that I first learned how to work on a computer and see it through those eyes.

Due to her lack of technical experience, you could refer to my mother as the lowest common denominator, but she is just the person we should think of when making decisions for the mass audience. The government’s usability guidelines, chapter 1:11, states “Use Personas.” It comments “Personas are the hypothetical ‘stand-ins’ for actual users that drive the decision-making for interfaces.”

I would argue, use real people. Instead of designing fake people, find a real person who fits the persona you have in mind. Product testing that takes place down the line with a group of people, but why not start with real people who you are designing the persona around. Would this not save time in the long term? Steve Krug says in Chapter 2 of “Don’t Make Me Think,” It’s only natural to assume that everyone uses the web the same way we do, and –like everyone else- we tend to think that our own behavior is much more orderly and sensible than it really is.” If you design a persona, it’s designed off of what a group of technical minds are thinking this person would do. If you had a real life person to begin with, it would save time trying to decide what path the fake person would take and simply ask what the real person would do.

Krug mentions early on in chapter 2 “the thing that has struck me most is the difference between how we think people will use the web sites and how they actually use them.” Krug backs this up with an example of regular people opening Yahoo! and typing in the web address they are looking for, rather than typing the address in the web browser. Yes, this can be frustrating to some, but if it works for the user then what’s the problem? The anchor of my show is the type of man who could easily be created as a “persona.” He is very well educated, makes a good salary, and is easily considered to be the every-man. Yet he is among those who open up Google to type an address rather than typing it in his web browser. Would a group of engineers, or designers, see that action coming had they created him on paper?

We use the same idea in television. My show, “207” casts a wide net. We have every type of music, cooking or story on our show. Recently, a rapper named Spose was starting to make a big name for himself. We listened to his music and thought; it was not for our audience. A week later, my anchor’s 90-year-old father said, “Have you heard of this Spose kid?” To his amazement, his dad has been reading about him in the newspaper and thought he should be on our show. A week later, Spose was on our show. It has been the most popular segment of the year. His album went gold just last week. At the time of the broadcast, we got one or two complaints, but overall people found this rapper to be interesting.

While creating the idea of personas, Kim Goodwin of Cooper says In her research notes on personas, :

“Sometimes it’s easy to focus too much on a persona’s biography. Personal details can be the fun part, but if there are too many of them they just get in the way. To avoid this problem, focus first on the workflow and behavior patterns, goals, environment, and attitudes of the persona—the information that’s critical for design—without adding any personality.”

In our minds, we couldn’t conceive of our audience liking Spose, and yet they loved him. The personas that we used to base our decisions on let us down. Had we asked around and talked to a few real people, we would have made the right decision earlier.

As an editor, there is nothing more frustrating then crafting a masterpiece and having someone look at it and say “I don’t get it.” If that’s the answer you get, then it’s back to the drawing board. If I am working on something that I really care about, and have put a lot of work into, I grab a handful of various folks in the newsroom to look at it. The last thing I want to do is air something that will make people turn the channel. So it’s best that I get a range of feedback. A lot of times I will do this as I am tackling bits of the story. I will show off chunks to see if I am heading in the right direction. Here again, I don’t want to get too far in the work to find that I had it wrong from the start.

Personas are a great concept, but the human mind can be unpredictable. When my mother calls me on a Sunday afternoon with her latest computer crisis, I can’t begin to fathom the steps, or decisions, she made to get her to the issue she is now faced with. It takes a lot of detective work to trace back to where she made her initial mistake and how we can now set it right. Had an engineer or designer had someone like my mother in the room as they made their plans, perhaps it would have saved a lot of time and frustration.