Personas work because they tell stories. Stories how to write a storytelling essay part of every community. They communicate culture, organize and transmit information. Most importantly, they spark the imagination as you explore new ideas.
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 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. 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? Tanner was deep into a game – all the way up to level 12 – when he got a buddy message from his friend Steve with a question about his homework. He looked up with a start. Almost bedtime and his homework still not done. I’m speaking to you live from the West Wing of the White House.
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. Eleven months ago a 12-hundred pound spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Eighteen hours ago it landed on the planet Mars.
You, me, and 60 thousand of your fellow students across the country along with astro-scientists and engineers from the Jet Propulsion Lab in Southern California, NASA Houston, and right here, at the White House, are going to be the first to see what it sees, and to chronicle an extraordinary voyage of an unmanned ship called Galileo 5. 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. 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. When Tanner comes home from school, he logs on to G4k and collects the essay he began during study period in school.
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. That’s Tanner’s opinion about the time limits on using the computer at school. Last Friday, he started working on a geography assignment.
He used the school encyclopedia program to look up some information about the animals in Africa. He had just gotten started when his turn on the computer was up. He’d like to work on it over the weekend, but he doesn’t have the same things on his computer at home. 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. Tanner has been a member of G4K for a few months. They are thinking about doing a science project that shows all the different kinds of animals that live in their back yards, just like the program shows animals living in different parts of the world.
He wants to save some of the cool pages he’s been finding and then go back and look at them again later. His mother, Laura, discovers that she can create a personal folder for him to save pages that he finds. They talk about it and decide that this will be better than just using the browser bookmarks or printing out the pages. Laura uses her parent password to create the folder and the next time Tanner signs on to G4K, the folder is waiting for him in the corner of the screen. The next day, at school, Tanner collects some great pictures of animals while his friend starts to draw out the chart of their backyard environment.