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Personas and Storytelling
Personas work because they tell stories. Stories are part of every community. They communicate culture, organize and transmit information. Most importantly, they spark the imagination as you explore new ideas. They can ignite action.
Like many people in usability or user experience, this is a second career. I started as a theatrical lighting designer, working in dance, theatre and even the occasional opera. Instead of wireframes, I worked with cue sheets, I programmed lighting boards instead of web sites, but most of all, I was part of creating a story. For an hour or two, our goal was to create an experience that would leave the audience just a little bit changed.
Then, I started working on an early hypertext program, and left theatre behind. I went from a forty foot wide stage, to a fourteen inch wide screen.
One of my frustrations with user profiles was that they were often mostly lists of demographic data. It was hard to see how to use this information to make good design decisions. What do we really learn about users when we know that the average user for the product we are designing is:
What if, instead, we learned about a prototypical user, Elizabeth. She is 35 years old, married to Joe, has a 5 year-old son, Mike. She attended State College and manages her class alumni site. She uses Google as her home page, and last used the web to find the name of a local official. It's the same information, but given some specificity and context. We can begin to think about Elizabeth as a real person, someone we can design for.
That's the heart of a persona. There are lots of formats and guidelines for doing the analysis to create them. We can argue about whether a picture is important or not, and how many personal details are needed to make a good portrait. But the germ of the idea is that personas bring users into the design team and make them as real and compelling as the technical details and our own design concepts.
Personas need stories to make them complete
When we started making personas, I noticed that we all started telling stories about them. The stories came from user research, from usability testing and from our own observations. I think personas need stories to make them complete, because the stories are how they go from a picture to an "action figure."
Stories have a lot going for them. For one thing, they are a very concise way to communicate. Think about this little fragment of a story. How many different things do they tell us about Tanner and his context?
How many of us write like this, using empty words that barely communicate:
This is from an episode of the TV show "The West Wing," and the speech above was written for President Bartlett by a bad writer. Here's how his staff transformed this introduction into something that sets a context and catapults you right into the moment.
Many kinds of stories
There are many ways to tell a story. In fact, many of our design deliverables are really stories of one form or another. They are used throughout the design process, moving from evocative stories as the design concept is forming to prescriptive stories that describe the details of the design.
From the most evocative to the most prescriptive, we have:
Springboard stories are short and compelling, both illustrating a dilemma and hinting at the way out. They may be the spark of a new innovation, or based on an anecdote from user research.
Points of pain create a vivid view of the problem from the point of view of the persona. They point forward to possible solutions that could be part of the new design.
Key scenarios lay out a more complex scenario that the design must include, beginning to move into concrete illustrations of how the personas will interact with the product.
These stories are all in words, but stories can also be told with pictures, as in this storyboard:
Stories are easy to create
Some people are nervous about writing, and avoid personas because of it. They shouldn't be. This is not creative writing, but a form of clear communication. Like most things, it gets easier with practice.
Here's three simple steps to get you started:
Focus on storytelling, and don’t try to represent complete task analysis. As you write, imagine the new design and how it will solve specific problems, remove barriers, or minimize risk. Your stories will be more compelling if you use the persona’s “voice.” Quotes from user research are a good way to connect to the details of the persona’s personality and show them in how the story is told.
Putting Personas to Work
Personas - Bringing Users Alive
Storytelling: Using Narrative to Communicate Design Ideas
When the Show Must Go On, It's Time to Collaborate or Die!
Designing Theatre, Designing User Experience
The Research Triangle
If you want to learn about personas, I teach a one-day or two-day class, or can come work with your team on your personas.
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|whitneyq at wqusability dot com||www.WQusability.com||908-617-1122|
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