Making Personas More Powerful: Details to Drive Strategic and Tactical Design

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“Alan Cooper popularized personas as a valuable design tool, but many people who adopted them failed to take into account the context of Cooper’s practice, which had fairly specific needs.”

How can something that feels so right be so wrong? Personas ought to be one of the defining techniques in user-focused design. Lots of professionals create them, yet too often the personas end up being too vague to guide a product’s focus. They often lack the detail to be useful in guiding low-level design trade-offs. And, as typically done, personas have been too narrowly focused. They often aren’t helpful in identifying the information a user needs or creates. Nor do they have much to say about the sensory and emotional aspects of user experience–the sorts of factors that cause consumers to lust after products like Apple’s iPod.

As a result, personas have unfortunately become more of a check-off item than a useful tool, and many personas get put on the shelf once they are written. So how did we get here?

Alan Cooper popularized personas as a valuable design tool, but many people who adopted them failed to take into account the context of Cooper’s practice, which had fairly specific needs. Cooper’s company most often dealt with enterprise clients who hadn’t yet bought into the value of user experience. As a consultant, he had a strong need to persuade internal development teams to pay attention to users, so, not surprisingly, he emphasized both the narrative and empathy-building aspects of personas.

Cooper’s goals for personas were to:

  • Allow the development team to live and breathe the user’s world.
  • Allow the team to filter out personal quirks and focus on motivations and behaviors typical of a broad range of users, while still relating to users as individuals.

These are good goals, but incomplete. Compounding the problem was that Cooper’s seminal The Inmates Are Running the Asylum talked at length about why personas were important, but didn’t provide many details about how create them. So people improvised, often with unsatisfying results.

My own frustrations with personas came as I tried to apply them to a different context. While Cooper mostly worked with enterprise clients, with developers and managers who were reluctant to consider users, I’ve usually had a hand in building the sites I design, even as an outside developer and consultant. Likewise, Cooper’s clients typically were developing internal applications where efficiency was main goal, so it’s not surprising that his approach was task-focused. But as I’ve argued previously, other types of projects are predominantly information-oriented and immersion-oriented–or some mix among the three.

Much of my own work has been on consumer-facing websites and interactive products where functionality was only part of the focus. When I was developing movie promotion sites, the studios obviously hoped the websites would “put butts in seats.” But people don’t visit movie promotion sites to find out where the film is playing. Nor–if they live outside Hollywood–to find out the name of the second assistant camera operator. People go to movie promotion websites to get a taste of the film.

The design challenges simply weren’t the same as Cooper’s. I needed a tool not just for creating empathy and filtering out quirks, but one that could:

  • Guide strategic decisions about a product’s focus,
  • Enable better tactical-level design decisions, and
  • Help make inevitable design trade-offs.

In a sense, trying to build personas with sufficient actionable detail is similar to the problem novelists and screenwriters face when trying to understand motivations, making sure plots are clear. Good editors constantly pose questions to the writer to force them to reach that clarity. My toolkit is built on the efforts of others from a wide variety of fields, from HCI to branding to filmmaking. To help develop more “three-dimensional” personas, the toolkit contains more than a dozen pages of questions about:

  • Biographic, geographic, demographic, psychographic background information
  • The business’ relationship to the persona
  • The persona’s relationship to product and business
  • The persona’s specific goals, needs and attitudes
  • The persona’s specific knowledge and proficiencies
  • The context of usage
  • Interaction, information, sensory, emotional aspects of the user experience
  • Accessibility issues
  • Relationships among personas

It also includes techniques for using personas to prioritize user interface components, as well as useful definitions for providing a common language to describe this prioritization.

“In a sense, trying to build personas with sufficient actionable detail is similar to the problem novelists and screenwriters face when trying to understand motivations, making sure plots are clear.”

My focus was on a tool for design rather than a tool for persuasion, so the questions– and resulting answers–are far too detailed for those outside the design team. But they’re necessary to enable a designer to not only make better tactical level decisions, but also to think more strategically about the product’s focus and help drive the product’s definition. The toolkit covers a wide variety of situations, so you should use the questions that are most appropriate to the context of your project. Similarly, not all the questions need to be–or should be–answered at once. The toolkit is designed to be used iteratively with questions being filled in over time as they become relevant to the design issues at hand. (However, it’s still a good idea at the start of the project, or at least at the start of each project phase, to identify the questions you think you’ll want to answer, so that you can begin gathering the necessary information.)

Let’s quickly review some of the basics of persona creation. When building personas, the first challenge is finding the information to build them. Obviously, it’s preferable to talk to and observe the users themselves, but that’s not always possible. In my opinion, any information is generally better than no information, and there are inevitably other sources of information. You can talk to user surrogates, such as domain experts, trainers, or immediate supervisors. There are “informants” who know about the users, such as people in the marketing, sales or customer support departments. For example, I once designed an extranet for a company’s board of directors. I couldn’t get access to the board, but their support staff was able to tell me all I needed about the directors’ behavior and computer skills. There are other indirect sources as well, such as manuals (especially those with notes written in them), site logs, customer feedback forms, surveys, etc. But one indirect source to be wary of is “ersatz” users–most commonly upper-level executives who think they understand their customers far more than they typically do.

After gathering information, I prioritize personas into the following types:

  • Focal–These are the primary users who are the product’s target.
  • Secondary–They also use the product and we’ll satisfy them when we can. But their needs can be sacrificed to meet the needs of focal users.
  • Unimportant–Infrequent, unauthorized, or otherwise low-priority users.
  • Affected–They don’t use the product but are affected by it. For example, one member of the family may do the research when buying a car, but the others–who are usually involved in the decision–will be affected by that person’s work.
  • Exclusionary–We’re not designing for them. Period.
  • Stakeholders–I’ve often found it useful to create mini-personas that represent their interests and involvement. These can range from advertisers to senior management to industry influencers to regulatory agencies. Stakeholders may–or may not–be something you want to put into writing. But stakeholder personas are often useful to formally create because they provide a good way of ensuring stakeholder issues get discussed openly. If you’re including a feature solely because it will get press coverage, it’s better to acknowledge this in the design process than to pretend that it’s there to satisfy a user need.

You probably want no more than a dozen personas, with at least one focal persona. But if there are more than three focal personas, you’re trying to do too much, and you need to subdivide the product or interface–for example, separating the “user’s” user interface from the “administrator’s” user interface. This is probably familiar ground. But I mention it because it’s critical to get team consensus on the relative priority of each persona in order to later prioritize specific design decisions.

What is your persona’s background?
At the broadest level, persona development starts with the biographic background, including:

  • Geographic profile. Where do your personas live and work? What’s it like there? Why can this matter? It’s worth noting that some of the earliest non-U.S. internet adopters were the Scandinavian countries, Australia, and New Zealand. While geography may not be destiny, I suspect the rapid adoption was in part due to the long dark winters of the former and the geographical isolation of the latter.
  • Demographic profile, such as age, gender, family size, income, occupation, education, etc., information that’s available from the marketing team. It’s frequently less useful for understanding the behavioral aspects of your persona, but can useful in rounding out a persona’s character. Politically, it’s a good way to get Marketing to buy in.
  • Psychographics, which include social class, lifestyle traits and motivations, personality characteristics and attitudes. These can be important in understanding the proper tone and voice to give a product. For example, the PRIZM system developed by Claritas–based on the idea that people with similar tastes tend to live in the same neighborhoods–is eerily accurate in describing people’s likely interests based on their ZIP code (You can try it yourself here.) I’ve also found it to be a useful tool for adding in non-essential details that make personas feel more realistic.

What’s the relationship between persona, product and business?
Some of the key strategic questions are around the persona’s relationship with–and value to–the business.

  • Is the persona a customer, an employee, a partner? A company will likely want to communicate different messages for its external sites than its intranet. An extranet may display different content for a preferred vendor than for other vendors. Similarly, a website might restrict certain information to only paying customers, while leaving other content available to all users.
  • Conversely, what sort of relationship does your persona have with your product or business? Are they a heavy user or a non-user? If you’re trying to acquire customers from a competing product, then you need to understand the people who aren’t using your product. What’s your persona’s attitude toward your product, your brand and your company? What kind of relationship would your persona like to have–but doesn’t have now? Enterprise applications are often like arranged marriages–employees use them not out of love, but because they’ve been told to do so. Linux users have an undying “hate affair” with all things Microsoft, and Tivo users will tell you that it changed their lives. Where’s the relationship headed? If you’re MTV, you’d best recognize that your brand relationship is a passing fling; in a few years, today’s viewers will be wearing Dockers and watching VH-1. In contrast, you’d have to pry their Macs out of the cold, dead hands of many users with a lifelong commitment to Apple.
  • What’s the persona’s value to the business? More zealous advocates of user-centered design seem to think any user is valuable, but that simply isn’t true. The 80/20 rule was discovered by an economist’s extensive analysis of businesses that discovered 20 percent of customers did account to 80 percent of revenues. It can be useful to think about what percentage of overall users (or overall revenue) a persona represents. It may not the critical factor in a persona’s priority, but if nothing else prepares you to answer questions from the business side of the project.

Wave rolling ladder
What’s the context around the product’s usage?
Focusing on the product being offered, what are the specific goals, needs and attitudes surrounding the context in which your personas will use the product? Crown Equipment Corporation realized that even warehouse workers want to be “cool,” which was the inspiration for the stylish exterior of its Wave rolling ladder replacement. The product has been a hit. Not only did it create significant jumps in efficiency because it allows one person to do the job of two, but companies using it saw big increases in job satisfaction and morale.

After thinking about what your personas are trying to accomplish, then look at what specific knowledge and proficiencies your personas have related to achieving that goal. A safe rule of thumb is that most users never pass the “advanced beginner” stage of expertise–nor do they really want to. This question also applies to more fundamental issues than computer skills. For example, there’s a company that provided computer-based HR training (sexual harassment policies, etc.) to hotel maids. Not all the maids spoke English, nor were all of them literate in their native languages. Needless to say, their language skills had a significant affect on the design.

It’s useful to get specific about the context in which the persona is using your product. For example:

  • When and where do users perform a task? With whom?
  • What’s the surrounding environment? Global navigation positioning systems for sailing are used at any hour of the day or night, in any weather condition.
  • Are there device constraints? For example, designing for a mobile phone.
  • Are there confidentiality needs? Accuracy needs? Audit needs?
  • What are the operational and/or safety risks? Designing a hospital billing system has big risks–but far smaller than designing the hospital’s pill-dispensing system.
  • Is there assistance and training available? Many of us work on websites where training is impractical, but in designing an air traffic control system it may be preferable to prioritize other concerns over learnability, since the users will be formally trained in its use.
  • Are there legal and/or regulatory restrictions? If you’ve ever worked in financial services or other regulatory industries, you know how much these issues can affect the design.

What does the interaction look like?
Now that we’ve looked at the context around your persona’s usage of the product, let’s take a close look at the interaction with the product itself. How frequently does the interaction take place? Is it on a regular basis? Is it continuous or interrupted? Is it so intense that it requires the persona’s full attention, or is one of several interactions that your persona is doing at once? How quickly must the persona act? How complex and how predictable is the action? Who’s driving the interaction–your personas or outside factors? If you’re designing an air traffic control system, the interactions are highly complex, but generally predictable. The controllers are the ones driving the interaction with the pilots, but it involves continuous high-intensity focus with split-second reactions for hours on end. That’s a little different than the interaction with your average website. Admittedly, these questions overlap with task analysis, but answering them for each persona can help identify important similarities and/or differences in behavior among your personas.

What information is involved?
Many interactions also involve information–something that traditional task analysis can overlook in its focus on actions. So the next step is to look specifically at the characteristics of the information that your persona needs and/or manipulates as part of the interaction with the product. For example, at one extreme are call centers, where the operators are listening and talking with customers, while simultaneously reading and typing on their computer screens. If you were designing the call center’s software, you’d want to think about the volume and complexity of the information being used, how it flows to and from the operators, and what level of detail is needed at what times.

What makes the user experience memorable?
While interaction and informational aspects of user experience can be analyzed logically, the sensory and immersive characteristics of a user experience are inherently more subjective–but no less important. Products can survive in the marketplace initially despite being crude, ugly or dangerous if they provide enough value. But over time, as competitors match quality, style becomes the differentiator. (Or price–but only one product can ever be the lowest-priced.) What’s the mood or feeling, style or genre that’s appealing to your persona? What’s appealing? What’s pleasurable? What’s memorable?

Geek Squad ad
Geek Squad–a boutique high-end computer-support company–is the master of the memorable experience. Does its black-and-white “Geekmobiles” and Men In Black-meets-computer nerd schtick affect the actual technical troubleshooting skills of its services? Nope. Does it make an impression? You bet. So much so that the company amassed a celebrity client list and was subsequently acquired by Best Buy, who is now launching the service in all its stores.

The Geek Squad experience was no accident. It was consciously created to overcome people’s adverse reactions to arrogant tech support workers. Not surprisingly, brand researchers have paid much attention to the emotional aspects of an experience. One researcher argues that aspects of five major personality characteristics:

  • Sincerity
  • Excitement
  • Competence
  • Sophistication
  • Ruggedness

account for roughly 90 percent of brand differentiation. Regardless of whether the list is as specifically effective as claimed, it is worth thinking about what personality your product conveys and whether it’s something that’s attractive to your personas.

Likewise, what is your personas’ perceived experience of using your product? Does the product convey:

  • Sense of adventure?
  • Feeling of independence?
  • Sense of security?
  • Sensuality?
  • Confidence?
  • Power?

Strengths in many of these areas are what prompt Harley-Davidson’s customers to literally brand themselves with tattoos and jackets–and what kept the company afloat during the 1970s when the motorcycles themselves suffered severe quality problems.

With this level of detail in your personas, it becomes far easier to prioritize them. The toolkit provides three approaches for doing so.

This approach seems to pose numerous questions–and it does. As I mentioned previously, you only need to answer the ones that are most relevant, and not all at once. But it’s the details that will make your personas powerful.

George Olsen is senior interaction designer for Yahoo! Search. He has done award-winning work for a variety of companies, from dotcom start-ups to Hollywood studios to Fortune 500 companies.

Expanding the Approaches to User Experience

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“I’m looking beyond the web to a model that handles a broader context, including software, interactive CD-ROMs (for those who remember them from the early 1990s), video games, and other interactive products. But even within the web alone, ignoring the “experiential” elements of user experience seems to be a serious omission.”Jesse James Garrett’s “The Elements of User Experience” diagram (17kb PDF) has become rightly famous as a clear and simple model for the sorts of things that user experience professionals do. But as a model of user experience it presents an incomplete picture with some serious omissions—omissions I’ll try address with a more holistic model.

The two weaknesses I see in Garrett’s model are:

  • Garrett sees the web as having two dimensions: “web as software interface” and “web as hypertext system.” But there’s also the “web as interactive multimedia,” which focuses on sensory richness and immersiveness.
  • The “surface” layer of his model—the “look” in the “look-and-feel” of the actual interface as Garrett puts it—only involves visual design. But that ignores the possibility of involving additional senses, from Microsoft Entourage’s audio feedback to the force-feedback joysticks used by video-gamers.

To be fair, I’m looking beyond the web to a model that handles a broader context, including software, interactive CD-ROMs (for those who remember them from the early 1990s), video games, and other interactive products. But even within the web alone, ignoring the “experiential” elements of user experience seems to be a serious omission.

Before walking through my expansion (80kb PDF) of Garrett’s model, let’s first take a more extensive look at the critiques I’ve summarized above.

Why interactive multimedia?
As Garrett accurately points out, the web is a convergent medium, and that convergence has caused much confusion among user experience professionals.

Originally conceived of as a hypertextual information space, the web quickly added functionality, drawing in those from a software background. But just as quickly, the web also drew those using it to provide rich experiences reminiscent of the “new media” of the early 1990s—interactive multimedia CD-ROMs.

Needless to say, bandwidth constraints quickly posed difficulties, but as early as 1996, I was designing movie promotion sites for which the primary goal wasn’t to enable online ticket purchases, nor to provide detailed information about the movie, but rather to give visitors a taste (or an “experience” as it were) of the movie in an effort to inspire them to go to theaters to see it. This is just as true of recent, highly visited movie sites, such as “The Mummy Returns” or “Shanghai Knights.” So while usability puritans may shudder, these sites are clearly fulfilling the interests of the visitors and of the studios building these sites.

Likewise, while the number of interaction designers and information architects have grown, so have the numbers of “interactive designers,” people like top-rated Flash/multimedia designer Hillman Curtis, and the readers of eDesign. Is it really sensible to exclude them from the field of user experience?

Much of the argument over what the “right” kind of website is, stems from people’s failure to appreciate that, as a medium, the web encompasses more than just the specific aspect they’re most comfortable with—and a failure to appreciate that users might be interested in more than one type of experience. It’s a question of finding an appropriate balance between these three types of experiences.

Too often sensory richness is seen as fluff that distracts from functionality and understanding—witness the distain expressed toward Flash by some. But this misses the point about how sensorial design1, when used well, can be used to expand the palette of tools used in task-oriented and information-oriented design.

For example, public radio’s “Marketplace” uses musical cues when reporting the day’s stock market results. When the market’s down, listeners hear a glum version of “Stormy Weather.” When the market’s up, it’s a jaunty “We’re in the Money.” Back in the heady days of the late 1990s, new stock market records were accompanied by an additional sonic overlay of cheering. Regular listeners can instantly know the day’s results before the announcer delivers the specific figures.

Obviously with a radio program, such audio cues are unsurprising. But they can also be useful in interfaces. Microsoft’s Entourage uses a set of different chimes to indicate when it’s checking a mail account and if any mail has been received. Such “ambient feedback” is extremely useful when Entourage is left running in the background, checking mail periodically throughout the day.

Sometimes sensory richness is an appropriate goal in its own right. Most video-gamers invested in speakers to enhance their experience and force-feedback joysticks are not uncommon. Hardcore devotees of auto racing and flight simulation games are known to use full wheel and pedal systems and gaming chairs that use low-frequency sounds to create gut-thumping tactile sensations. Now the latest cutting-edge gaming technology involves 3D glasses. Is all this necessary to play the game? Certainly not, but gamers spend the money on the gear to enhance the immersive aspect of their experience.

A similar example of the appeal of immersiveness as an end unto itself was shown in the original Myst, which was enormously popular with people who’d never played video games before, nor were particularly interested in solving Myst’s puzzles. Rather they were content to wander through an entrancing environment.

But more sensory richness doesn’t necessarily mean better. Zen gardens provide rich experiences with subtlety and minimalism. As with all design, appropriateness to the context is the key. For example, much of the Flash on the web today is is being used inappropriately, which is precisely the problem.

Expanding the model into the third dimension
So how do we approach the creation of this third dimension of user experience? Garrett’s five-layer “strategy to surface” model (described in this sample book chapter, 220kb PDF) holds up quite well. To quickly summarize (at the risk of oversimplification):

  • The visible components of a site, software, or product make up its “surface.”
  • The “skeleton” organizes these visible components.
  • The skeleton is the concrete implementation of the underlying conceptual “structure” that organizes the overall features and functionality.
  • The features and functionality to be included the conceptual structure are determined by the “scope” of the product.
  • The “strategy,” which incorporates both the creator’s goals and users’ needs, determines what’s in scope and what’s not.

But in extending this model, the difficulty is that unlike the other two dimensions, sensory richness involves a wide variety of fields, including writing, graphic design, filmmaking, animation, motion graphics, sound design, and musical scoring. These fields don’t always have descriptive terms to neatly separate their design processes into layers, and the terms that do exist vary widely. Consequently, I’ve had to adapt terms in an effort to find descriptions that fit the equivalent stages of the design process across these various fields. In both cases, since these terms may be used differently in a specific field, I’ll try to be clear about how I’m using them.

(A final note, several of the examples mentioned are drawn from non-interactive mediums. I’ve done this because they’re more familiar and more clearly articulated within their traditional contexts.)

At this stage, the approach isn’t much different from task- or information-oriented design processes. Business, creative, and other goals of the creators are combined and balanced with the needs and desires of the users/audience.

Since sensory richness often involves the “creative” fields, this stage is often referred to as developing the “artistic vision.” But despite that name, creators are often keenly aware of their audiences, especially in commercial endeavors.

For example, advertising agencies often employ “account planners,” whose methods are similar to user researchers, and whose goal is to get inside the head of targeted audiences so that the agency can craft an advertisement that resonates. Account planning was essential to the creators of the famous—and highly effective—“Got Milk?” advertising campaign because they discovered that consumers only really thought about milk when they ran out of it.2 That insight became the foundation of the campaign.

This is not that different from developing the strategic direction of a site, software, or product by doing task analysis to determine what users are trying to accomplish and/or research to understand their mental models of tasks or content.

With the strategic goals in mind, the creative brief defines the intended experiential and/or emotional aspects to be evoked. While “creative brief” is often used by those with a graphic design background as being somewhat synonymous with a project definition document, I’m using it in a narrower sense: as the sensory equivalent to what the functional specification does for spelling out supported tasks and what the content requirements do for the informational needs of a project.

This is the point where fundamental choices are made about which particular medium to use—i.e., whether it is best conveyed by visuals, by sound, by motion, etc.

Likewise, there are often decisions about the conceptual approach, genres, metaphors, and imagery to be used. For example, the “Got Milk?” team decided to use a comic touch, highlighting characters who are stuck with a mouthful of food and no milk, to make the ads more memorable.

For sites, software, and interactive products, this is where brand strategy intersects with user experience to ensure that both reinforce each other. Just as a functional specification may be constrained by technology choices, or content requirements may be affected by available information, the creative brief may also need to work within existing branding strategies and corporate identity guidelines.

As the rough idea comes into focus, the choreography of interactive multimedia elements coincides with the interaction design and information architecture. Borrowed from dance, choreography seemed an apt term to describe the activities involving the design and structuring of the overall elements so that they create a seamless and unified whole that supports the effect they are intended to create.

At this stage, graphic designers will often create “mood boards”—a collage of images illustrating the sentiments, feelings, or emotions that the product should evoke. Typically, the first thumbnail sketches outlining potential ideas for specific design directions are also developed.

Likewise, filmmakers, animators, and motion graphic artists often use storyboarding as a way to map out sequences to ensure that they flow together.

For writers, this stage involves the basic structuring of a story, whether it’s the nonfiction outline or the story arc of fiction. Or in video-gaming, it may be the creation of the environment in which the game player’s “story” will occur. Needless to say, these activities can overlap with those of an information architect.

All involve designing at the conceptual level, just as the interaction designer structures task flows or the information architecture arranges content into top-level sections.

The work at this stage is similar to the previous one, but the focus now shifts to a finer level of detail – typically the design of individual screens or sequences. It’s similar to the shift from the more conceptual interaction design and information architecture to the more concrete interface design and navigation design.

The theatrical term, mise-en-scene—usually translated as the “arranging of the scene”—captures this sense of arranging specific elements to evoke expressive qualities such as mood, style, and feeling.

For example, this is where composers make choices about specific instrumentation, which can greatly affect how listeners will react to the basic melody and harmony. Imagine Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” played on the tuba instead of the traditional clarinet.

Likewise, filmmakers and animators will plan out specific camera angles and lighting, costuming, and set decoration to reinforce the script’s intended effect for a scene. A masterful example comes from the climatic scene in the film noir, “The Third Man,” in which the protagonist, Holly Martins, finally catches up to the monstrous black marketer, Harry Lime (Martins’ oldest friend), who is on the run from the police. So far Martins has refused to believe the charges against Lime, who arrives wearing a black overcoat as they board the gigantic Vienna Ferris Wheel. As Lime dissembles, nearly convincing Martins, he doffs the coat revealing a gray suit. Outside, the ferris wheel’s spinning structure, further distorted by the tilted camera angles, mirrors Martin’s inner turmoil. But as Lime reveals his true colors, he puts on the black overcoat again while threatening to kill Martins. When pointed out, these cues sound a bit heavy-handed, but when watching the movie, one is only subconsciously aware of their effect.

While it is obvious that movies are one of the most highly controlled experiences, similar techniques are used on sites, software, and products as well to strike the right tone in support of brand personality, subtly direct a user’s attention to help reinforce content hierarchies, or highlightuser interface components relevant to the task at hand.

Graphic designers traditionally use “comps,” ranging from rough sketches to almost-finished dummy layouts, to work out these arrangements on a specific screen. Since this overlaps with information design (in the broad Tuftean sense of designing the presentation of information for understanding) as well as user interface design—both which also occur at this stage—there’s often been tension in this area. It’s the classic “who owns the wireframe” argument among visual designers, information architects, and user interface designers.

Finally all the beneath-the-surface work becomes expressed in the tangible interface of the site, software, or product – in essence its skin. “Skin” is, in fact, the term used by products that allow users to substitute their customized skins over the interface’s skeleton, which itself doesn’t change.

Most commonly, this skin primarily involves visual design, but as I’ve discussed previously it’s better to think more broadly about sensorial design as part of the overall lookandfeel.

And yes, looks do count. A recent study on website credibility found 46.1 percent of those surveyed mentioned the site’s appearance in assessing it—far more than any other factor. (The next closest factor, information design/structure, was mentioned only 28.5 percent of the time.)

This actually isn’t surprising. The service industry has long recognized that consumers often use “tangibles” (neatness, friendliness, etc.) to make a shorthand evaluation of the service itself, particularly when the quality of the service is difficult to evaluate. (For example, can you really tell how good a job your accountant did on your taxes?) Astute businesses make use of surface qualities. For example, in a bit of real-world theater, Avis has supervisors at its car rental counter wear little headsets. Not because they are needed, but rather because Avis found customers were reassured to see someone was in charge with the headsets providing the cue that a supervisor was present.

This concern with appearances is true even with a site as starkly utilitarian as Google, which uses its playful—and often played with—logo and its “I’m Feeling Lucky” search button to reinforce its friendly, slightly quirky, brand personality.

Toward a holistic view of user experience
Garrett provides a useful foundation for trying to bring some order to the various concepts being used to describe the user experience development process. I hope my expanded model will do the same for an important dimension that has been overlooked. I welcome suggestions on how to improve this model.

End Notes

  1. Thanks to Nathan Shedroff, who to my knowledge, first used the term in regards to digital media.
  2. Jon Steel, one of the creators of the “Got Milk?” campaign provides a case study in his book “Truth, Lies and AdvertisingGeorge Olsen is principal of Interaction by Design. He has done award-winning work for a variety of companies, from dotcom start-ups, to Hollywood studios to Fortune 500 companies. He’s taught at UCLA Extension, and written about and spoken at numerous conferences about user experience design issues.

The New R&D: Relevant & Desirable

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“I’ve heard people argue we don’t know anything about designing for users except that which we learn through usability testing.”Somewhere in the process of evangelizing user-centered design, user experience professionals seem to have forgotten the value of vision-driven design.

User-centered design has been a useful antidote to prevailing software and web development attitudes, which are reminiscent of early 20th century production-driven marketing approaches. As Henry Ford put it, you could buy a Model T in any color as long as it was black. Likewise, the dot-bomb implosion showed the risks of basing the success of your business on a wild (and often bad) idea.

But it’s an equally big mistake to focus our attention solely on users (which is one reason I’ve never particularly liked the term “user-centered design”). At worst, I’ve heard people argue we don’t know anything about designing for users except that which we learn through usability testing.

Focusing exclusively on users like this is just plain wrong — it’s the equivalent of software development’s discredited “build and fix” approach. But more importantly, it’s indicative of dangerous tunnel vision, and it hurts our profession, our businesses and clients, and, yes, our users.

First, this perspective ignores reality. Businesses will continue to develop new products (including websites and software) based primarily on someone’s vision. Telling them that’s the wrong way to do it just leads to UX professionals being dismissed as out of touch. This is a bad move at any time, but particularly when our professions are seeking to gain a permanent role in the development process.

Second, solutions in search of a problem occasionally do result in break-through products that are wildly successful. After all, who asked for the Sony Walkman, mini-vans with dual sliding doors, or the Internet? By focusing exclusively on users we risk becoming optimizers, not innovators. Granted, there’s a huge amount of work in bringing sites and software up to the level of good (or even good enough), but that doesn’t mean we should lose sight of building great ones.

Third, sometimes vision-based design is the most appropriate approach when aspects of a product are driven by questions of style and aesthetics. House of Dior once had a fashion show hit with a dress made from newspaper. Translated into a newsprint-look fabric, the dress proved to be a huge commercial success. Could user-centered design have predicted that? I sincerely doubt it.

That said, user experience actually has a lot to offer vision-driven design, especially in areas overlooked by conventional marketing research, which focuses on discovering expressed needs. Our user research techniques are effective at discovering needs people didn’t even realize they had. These unexpected bonuses are among the most powerful selling points for a product, and often become must-haves — think of the cup holders in your car. By uncovering such latent needs, we help make the ground more fertile for wild ideas to spring forth.

Likewise, we can provide guidance about which wild ideas are worth nurturing. By some estimates, nine out of ten product launches fail in the marketplace. (In that context, the dot-bomb era doesn’t look so bad…) Our knowledge and skills can make a valuable contribution to business: risk reduction. Marketing typically focuses on getting customers to buy or use a product. We focus on making that product something that they want to buy or use again.

Not only that, we can provide a few ideas of our own. In a sense, UX professionals can be like doctors to users: Users know their pain, but they don’t necessarily know what’s causing it (is it stomach cramps or appendicitis?), nor do they know the cure. But we do. As Darrel Rhea, principal of Cheskin aptly puts it, creating critical insights is what professional designers do.

In other words, we provide the new R&D: we make sure products are relevant and desirable.

So the next time you’re fighting over development proposals, ask yourself: does it really matter if the marketing people, the techies, or the office receptionist came up with the idea in question? Arguably, we provide better insights, but we don’t provide the only ones, and if a product is relevant and desirable, users will love it regardless of whose bright idea it was.

George Olsen is principal of Interaction by Design. He has done award-winning work for a variety of companies, from dotcom start-ups, to Hollywood studios to Fortune 500 companies. He’s taught at UCLA Extension, and written about and spoken at numerous conferences about user experience design issues.

Building the Beast: Talking with Peter Morville

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Back in 1998 Peter Morville and co-author Louis Rosenfeld wrote what many considered to be the book on the subject “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web,” which helped make information architect into a new job title. Morville and Rosenfeld also helped spearhead the field during the seven years they headed Argus Associates, one of the leading IA consultancies. As the “Polar Bear” book, as it’s affectionately known, goes into its second edition, Boxes and Arrows asked Morville about the making of the new release and his thoughts about how the field has changed since the book was first published.

B&A: So why a second edition?

Morville: Last April, after the agonizing process of closing Argus, I managed to escape into the wilderness of Yosemite National Park for a few days. I liked the romantic notion of figuring out what to do with the rest of my life while hiking alone in the Sierra Nevada mountains. So, armed with a bottle of water and some beef jerky, I headed for the snowy peaks in search of transcendental moments and healing visions.

When we wrote the first edition, we had relatively little experience. Most of our massive IA projects at Argus came afterwards.

Now, I’d like to tell you that when I arrived at the summit, a disembodied voice thundered “Thou Shalt Write the Second Edition” or that while walking through the valley, I glimpsed a polar bear flitting gracefully through the forest, but those things didn’t actually happen.

However, I did come down from the mountain with a strong desire to write the second edition and a whole bunch of brilliant entrepreneurial ideas. I wrote them all down on a couple of airplane barf bags on the trip home. I’ve still got them. Really.

B&A: So why a second edition, really?

Morville: When we wrote the first edition, we had relatively little experience. Most of our massive IA projects at Argus came afterwards. Between 1997 and 2001, we learned so much by working with our clients and our world-class consulting team. Lou and I wanted to capture it all before we forgot it.

B&A: What are some of the things you learned from these projects that you didn’t know when you wrote the first edition?

Morville: Our biggest area of learning was bottom-up information architecture. The first edition was grounded in the type of top-down processes that come with building a new site from scratch. In the second edition, we were able to draw upon an understanding of how to redesign sites that already contain huge amounts of content and applications. Our bottom-up approaches begin with lots of user testing and content analysis and lead into the design of metadata schema, controlled vocabularies, thesauri, taxonomies and so forth. This requires close integration of software and information architectures, drawing upon content management systems, metadata repositories, and search engines to provide powerful, flexible searching and browsing solutions.

B&A: What’s different about this edition vs. the first edition?

Morville: It’s much fatter. The polar bear put on some weight, growing from 202 to 461 pages. We pretty much did a complete rewrite and added lots of new chapters too. Major additions include chapters on thesaurus design, business strategy and selling IA, as well as a couple of in-depth case studies.

B&A: Were these broader additions prompted by of your experiences at Argus?

Morville: Absolutely. We didn’t set out to write a longer book, but we couldn’t help it.

B&A: What’s the best idea that didn’t make it into the book?

Morville: We both got interested in social computing and social network analysis in the past year, but we didn’t have a chance to integrate our ideas on these topics. We’ll have to save that for the 3rd edition.

B&A: What did you and Lou disagree over the most while writing it?

Morville: That’s easy. We haggled over process. Lou liked to constantly re-architect the book. I can’t tell you how many times he “tweaked” the table of contents. I preferred to just write the damn thing and organize it later. Fortunately, this collaborative tension resulted in a better product, and we’re still talking to each other.

B&A: I’m sure plenty of people have wanted to know why O’Reilly ended up chosing a polar bear for the cover?

Morville: Edie Freeman, O’Reilly’s cover designer, is the only person in the world who knows the answer to that question. But I can make up an answer. Polar bears are excellent architects. Their dens can house a mother and her cubs for many months, allowing air to circulate while trapping in warmth to protect them from the hostile Arctic climate. Where do you think Eskimos got the idea for igloos anyway?

B&A: How has the field changed in the four years since the first edition?

Morville: The field has matured a tremendous amount in the intervening four years.
From 1998 to 2000, lots of companies hired their first information architects. This explosive growth created the right conditions for the first ASIS&T Information Architecture summit, which was truly a memorable event. It was so exciting to see the emergence of an information architecture community. Then, from 2000 to 2002, many companies fired their first information architects. There’s no question our field has been hit hard by the economic downturn. While it’s been a very painful process for many of us, this period has forced information architects to be creative and to find new ways to market our skills and add value to our organizations. I’ve personally been really pleased by how well we’ve stuck together as a community through this period.

B&A: You helped inflict the “big” vs. “little” IA debate that seems to be debated at length on the mailing lists. How do you define IA?

Morville: It’s funny how seriously people take that big architect, little architect debate. I received an email message a few months ago from a woman in England who accused me of demeaning bottom-up specialists by using the word “little” to describe them. I explained to her that the inspiration for that article’s title was a book I read as a child called “Big Dog, Little Dog.” I then told her the English really need to develop a sense of humor.

Seriously, the demand for both user experience generalists and information architecture specialists will only grow. It’s silly to debate which is more important. We need them all! And by the way, I was born in Manchester, England.

B&A: Yeah, but how do you define IA? Are IAs just focused on findability?

Morville: Believe it or not, we do actually define information architecture in the
second edition. Here are our formal definitions:

  1. The combination of organization, labeling, and navigation schemes within an information system.
  2. The structural design of an information space to facilitate task completion and intuitive access to content.
  3. The art and science of structuring and classifying web sites and intranets to help people find and manage information.
  4. An emerging discipline and community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape.

And no, not all information architects are fanatical about findability. Some may be driven by marketing and merchandising goals, utilizing see also links to enable cross-sell and up-sell opportunities, and making sure users always end up in the online shopping cart. Others may focus on creating a pleasurable or entertaining or educational experience.

B&A: How do IAs fit into the spectrum of user experience professionals and how do they play nicely with others where there are overlaps?

Morville: It’s impossible to provide a generic answer, as I’ve seen so many different team configurations. Some information architects are members of a content management or knowledge management group. Others belong to marketing or corporate communications or the corporate library. Where they sit in the organization influences who surrounds them, which in turn influences which of their skills are most important.

If an IA is in a large, user experience team that includes professional interaction designers, business analysts and usability engineers, they’ll do well to focus on core information architecture elements like taxonomies and controlled vocabularies. But if one or more of those areas of expertise aren’t represented, which is often the case, information architects are often good at helping to fill the void, or at least to build bridges between related disciplines.

B&A: Do you think that IA will become less of a profession and more of a skill set?

Morville: IA will become more of a skill set but not less of a profession. It’s
absolutely true that most information architecture design is done by people who don’t consider themselves to be information architects. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need a core community of professional information architects who can tackle the toughest challenges and share their experiences with others. The truth is, most medical and legal decisions are made without doctors or lawyers, but I don’t hear many people seriously questioning whether we need those professions. There are far more practicing information architects today than there were in 1990, and there will be even more in 2010.

B&A: So where does IA fit into the large picture of user experience?

Morville: I strongly encourage a faceted approach to answering this question. Information architecture is a subset of user experience. It’s also a subset of usability, content management, knowledge management, technical communication and so on. And many of those fields are subsets of information architecture. I don’t believe in trying to come up with a single taxonomy for the user experience or web design professions.

B&A: Library and information science programs have moved aggressively to offer IA degrees. What are the pros and cons of this?

Morville: I’m not sure that’s true. Which ones? I feel that library and information science programs have moved far too slowly to embrace information architecture.

B&A: How so? What should they be doing that they’re not?

Morville: A few of the top-ranked library and information science programs offer a course or two on “information architecture.” To my knowledge, none of them offer a formal information architecture degree. And very few researchers in these schools are focused on exploring the kinds of problems we face as practicing information architects. I feel we are missing out on opportunities to build bridges between research and practice and between academia and business. I hope we see progress in this area over the coming years.

B&A: What other departments should have a hand in offering IA degrees?

Morville: Some HCI programs may want to embrace the IA degree, but for the most part I think it’s more realistic right now to focus on getting lots of different programs to offer one or more IA courses. I found more than 60 college courses that used our first edition as a textbook. I hope more than 600 use the second edition. We can always dream.

B&A: How is being an independent consultant different than working at Argus?

Morville: There are three main things I miss about Argus. First, I miss the wonderful team of smart, dedicated, kind people we had the good fortune to assemble. Second, I miss the excitement and sense of mission involved in managing a 40-person company. Third, I miss the fancy robotic coffee machine that delivered cafe mocha on demand.

On the other hand, I have really enjoyed the opportunity to slow down this past year. I’ve worked with some great clients, been to a number of great conferences, and have still had lots of time to play with my kids. We like to visit the Toledo Zoo. It’s got a great polar bear exhibit.

B&A: How do you sell IA to a potential client.

Morville: I’m not very aggressive in the sales department. I write books and articles and give conference presentations, where I explain the concepts and value of information architecture. Then I wait for clients to call me. They’re usually already convinced by the time I talk with them. I’ve always preferred pull to push.

B&A: When’s the next edition coming out?

Morville: When the polar bear sees his shadow.

George Olsen is principal of Interaction by Design. He has done award-winning work for a variety of companies, from dotcom start-ups, to Hollywood studios to Fortune 500 companies. He’s taught at UCLA Extension, and written about and spoken at numerous conferences about user experience design issues.

Lessons to be Learned

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Ivy-covered halls are filling up again with eager students of the user experience fields ready to change the world (or at least to study out the recession). But are these programs really teaching them what they need to know?

There are serious problems with the way user experience-related programs are being taught. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against academic degrees. My father was a professor and I’ve been an instructor myself. But that experience makes me worry that current academic programs aren’t well-suited to serving the needs of their students, nor our professions. Let me count the ways…

Research vs. practice—To be fair, academia, especially at the graduate level, has a two-headed mission: to train future professionals and to advance the discipline. Unfortunately, academic culture is heavily weighted toward research at the expense of teaching. No one gets tenure for being a great teacher; getting tenure means publishing or perishing.

The problem is that no one seems to pay attention to whether the published articles are meaningful. Dr. Bob Bailey of Human Factors International estimates only 5 percent of the roughly 1,000 usability-related articles published each year have any practical, long-term value to working professionals. These are the professors who are teaching our future colleagues? And this is only one arm of the user experience collection of disciplines.

Granted, Bailey has an ax to grind because he wants you to sign up for HFI’s seminar where they present their “best of” summary of the latest research. But having read a decade’s worth of SIG-CHI papers and a couple years of ASIS&T journals, I can tell you that the amount of useful research is far too small. (And unfortunately, the good research that exists is hidden in academic jargon, a less than user-friendly format for practitioners—particularly ironic given our field.) Much of it’s been simply irrelevant. Some of it has been laughably bad, where it was obvious the researchers were venturing into territory where they hadn’t a clue—nor bothered to involve someone from that field who could’ve prevented them from making basic mistakes. Which brings us to the next problem…

Specialties vs. convergence—Too often academia fetishizes specialization. This is compounded by the departmental turfwars that seem as much a part of colleges as the ivy covering the halls. The Computer Science department doesn’t talk to the Design department, which doesn’t talk to the Library and Information Sciences department…

The problem here is that user experience is a new and convergent field, although the lines of its individual roots may run deep. It requires skill in a variety of disciplines to integrate content, presentation and functionality. In the past these were typically separate—for example, no one thought about the information architecture of a software product, or the branding implications of a categorization scheme—but first interactive multimedia and then the web caused these once-separate concerns to begin overlapping and blurring. Even if you choose to specialize as an information architect, an interaction designer, or a usability engineer, it’s essential you understand the wider context if you want to be effective.

Universities have developed innovative cross-disciplinary programs in other disciplines. For example, the University of Southern California recently overhauled it’s journalism program to require a “core curriculum” of reporting, writing, and producing for the three primary media formats—print, broadcast, and online—before students can specialize in one area, rather than the traditional educational format in which each medium is an independent track. Students aren’t realistically expected to excel in all mediums, but the program is intended to make them comfortable when asked to do something outside their normal specialty.

There is some hope in our fields. Last year the University of Baltimore created a Master’s Degree in information architecture and interaction design. Even better, the program was designed to allow students take their elective courses in four focus areas: technical, arts and culture, cognitive and ethnographic, and management and entrepreneurship. Likewise, for several years, AIGA has been trying to develop an appropriate broad-based curriculum for “experience design.” Both of these are the sort of forward thinking we need. The problem is…

Time vs. breadth—Back in March, Jess McMullin asked for help in compiling a list of what professionals in the field should know so he could talk to a local college about creating user experience certificate program. As you can imagine it was long, long list.

The problem, of course, is that having a decade-long degree program just isn’t realistic, even though that’s what it would probably take to combine classes from all the fields that are relevant and cover them in-depth. Most programs are only two years, some like Carnegie Mellon’s Master’s Degree in HCI are only a year. Carnegie Mellon is highly regarded, but how much can you really teach in a year? Other programs may be longer, but often there’s even less time devoted to relevant topics, since information architecture or interaction design is only a recent (and smaller) add-on to a larger traditional program.

There’s no good solution, so students just need to be mindful about how much they’re really learning—and not learning—in amount of time they’ve got. Focus can be a substitute for time, but many programs aren’t focused well enough, especially in a rapidly changing field, because few experienced professionals have a hand in their creation. Why, you ask?

Degrees vs. experience—Without an advanced degree—doctorate definitely preferred—it’s nearly impossible to become a tenured faculty member. Lecturers are at the bottom of the departmental hierarchy and consequently aren’t involved in setting the direction.

The problem is that those who’ve spent years in the trenches—nurturing these disciplines, building websites and software, making mistakes along the way and learning from them—just aren’t likely to go back to get an advanced degree in something they can probably teach, and arguably teach better than someone who’s only experience has been theory and research. But in academia—no degree, no tenure.

To their credit, a number of professors I’ve talked with recognize this problem. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to be resolved without an overhaul in the way academia works so that masters of the crafts are valued as much as a master’s (or doctoral) degree.

Education vs. experience—This lack of real-world experience also has other side-effects. One professor complained to me about how a number of his usability students come to him expecting to be “saviors,” protecting users from ambiguity and other horrors.

Such, ah, enthusiasm, is the nature of students and school should provide a hothouse for them to explore ideas. But ultimately it’s healthier for students to be exposed to the cold winds of reality, in measured doses, before they graduate. The instructor of my final design class began the course by saying, “For the next 12 weeks, I’m going to act like a client and you’re not going to like it.” She was right. But I learned some my most valuable lessons then, and learned them in an environment where the worst consequence was a bad grade, not getting fired.

However, being able to impart those lessons requires experience outside the ivory tower. A professor who’s never had to work effectively in a team, who’s never had to balance competing demands, who’s never had to make the hard trade-offs to keep a project on schedule and within budget just isn’t equipped to convince students that life is a bit more complicated than theory. While I disagree with Jakob Nielsen on a number of things, I do agree with him that it often takes a decade’s experience in the field to really master a discipline. The question is how to get those who do to also be those who teach.

Business schools offer a potential model for how academics and professionals can work together. They’re far from perfect, but from what I’ve seen they take a much more balanced approach between the competing demands of the research world and the professional world. The papers may still be in academic form, but I’ve seen far higher percentage address real-world concerns. The professors still teach, but working professionals are frequently invited as guest speakers to complement theory with practice. In an even more radical departure, USC’s journalism program intentionally now relies primarily on adjunct faculty, who are working professionals, to do most of its teaching.

But unfortunately the wheels of academic bureaucracy move slowly, so don’t expect to see these sorts of changes spread through academia soon. In the meantime though, there are things we can each do:

  • If you’re a student, insist on getting practical hands-on experience in addition to classroom lessons. With the current job market, getting internships may be tough, but there are almost always departments on campus who could use help. And remember, while you’re getting an education, you’ll still be lacking experience when you graduate. So it’s wise to show a little humility. Recent grads who claim to be the “expert” only undercut their own credibility.
  • If you’re an educator, reach out to the professional community to act as guest speakers and to talk with them about what kinds of research might be useful for them. Likewise, ask professionals what skills are really necessary and make sure your students get out of the lab and into the field. Encourage students to think about the bigger picture beyond just their particular specialization.
  • If you’re a working professional take some time to start talking to academia to ensure students get the sort of education that’s going to be useful for them after they graduate. If you can, bring on interns. Volunteer to guest lecture. You’ll probably learn something yourself by dealing with students who don’t have preconceptions and/or interesting in pushing the boundaries of new ideas.

After all, we can only benefit by having practitioners who are better prepared to meet today’s challenges.