Thursday, January 18, 2007

Personas Help Develop Better Applications

A post from last week on the topic of selecting users for usability tests briefly touched on the use of personas to help develop usability case studies or test scenarios. In reality, it goes much more beyond that. Personas are used in the beginning stages of software or web application development, during the user-centered design process and carried on through to usability testing. Personas are even used in the development of large scale websites or for products like household appliances.

If you don't know what a persona is, think of it as a detailed description of an end-user. It's much more than demographics such as age, gender or occupation. It's the basis for design and provides the context and rationale an end-user has when using a proposed product all told in story form. Whitney Queensbury, a usability expert, demonstrates the range personas can represent themselves using the following chart:

Notice how it flows from Evocative to Perspective. Essentially, it illustrates what evokes the need for the application or product to the why to the how it can help accomplish goals and tasks for the end-user from their perspective.

I had mentioned in another posting how if you don't know who you are developing for, much of your work will be in vain. Personas give you a firm idea of who your end-users are, better than if you did not use them at all or just relied on demographic data. An article from the Usability Professionals' Association (UPA) provides many points as to how personas are useful in making design decisions that ultimately tie to development. Also, a blog posting I found on this topic makes a pretty strong case for personas, namely when you should use them.

As you can tell, I'm pretty high on using personas in user-centered design and usability testing. While they may seem kind of phony, I've always found the best way to overcome the feeling that they are made up is to use actual people to represent the persona. By the very definition of persona we shouldn't be able to do that, but if we had a name and a face to connect with the profile, it makes it more personal. Imagine that person getting upset and giving you a piece of their mind because you didn't provide them with a needed feature in the application.

If persona is not the word we can use, perhaps profile is better?

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