Your New Excuse to Get an Xbox

Written by: Mia Northrop

Games are fun, addictive, beautiful, and immersive. Websites, for the most part, are not. Take a moment and think about what video games look like, what they sound like, the way you can move on the screen, what “you” can be. Think of how you feel when you play and who you play with. Consider the launch of Halo 3 on Xbox 360, with unprecedented graphics, sound, and interactivity that Time.com called “refined to the point where it delivers only pure unadulterated gaming bliss.”

People gaming on computers and consoles are having a blast and spending big. The result: elements of the game medium are drifting into other digital experiences. Video games have become sophisticated creations that can take years to develop, weeks to play, and days to go platinum. The $12.5 billion dollar market (NPD Group 2006) continues to grow as game franchises have extended into books, graphic novels, films, merchandise, and communities of devotees. The televised Video Game Awards is in its sixth year and the influence of gaming culture is increasingly appearing in the mainstream.

Jeopardy screen

World of Warcraft featured on the Jeopardy game show

Companies should create rich and immersive website experiences, drawing from some of the techniques for game design to build brand affinity and differentiate their sites.

Where did those three hours just go?

When considering whether elements of video game design could apply to a site, you might think the category of your site is your first question. At first glance, advertising sites, RIAs, and some transactional sites seem obvious candidates for engrossing their visitors in the world of the brand; enterprise solutions, not so much. As John Ferrara has demonstrated, games tackle similar tasks as web applications and the HCI considerations still apply. No category of site is therefore inappropriate for “game think.”

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you looking to build brand affinity?
  • Do you have universal corporate messages that you would like to communicate to all visitors?
  • Do you need to create strong incentives for your users to complete a certain task or contribute in a certain way?
  • Do you want your informational site to be more compelling than a brochure?
  • Do you have a significant set of features that might overwhelm first-time users?
  • Does your brand welcome customer contributions and self-expression rather than requiring that all content and experiences be curated?
  • Are you leveraging a marketing campaign that already has audio, animation, and transition styles and a narrative associated with it?
  • Is social media and building an online community part of your strategy?

If you said “yes” to most of these questions, then “game think” could be applied to your site.

Successful video games get users to suspend disbelief, form a visceral connection, and invest themselves in the game world. Players can go into a zone and feel a sense of flow, described as “a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity” 1. Imagine a website where visitors also feel and behave this way: they are engaged and focused, unaware of time, unselfconscious, and feeling rewarded. It would mean we could present brands in more complex environments and we could sustain interest in a site for longer. We could make time spent on a website more enjoyable to the visitor by touching them emotionally. Businesses could move beyond transactional interactions with visitors to mutually beneficial relationships, for long-term future rewards.

Websites don’t need to become more like video games in every way. The inherent purpose of a game is to have fun, and that is not the core motivator for most websites. Many of the most successful sites are able to incorporate fun into the experience, but the suggestion here is that the design of video games offers lessons, rather than a game’s defining attributes of fun, non-productivity, and uncertainty. Key elements of video game design are attractive to website designers because they remove some of the constraints we apply to solving design problems, and open up new opportunities for brand expression.

Such elements include:

  • the reliance on discovery
  • an expectedly steep learnability curve
  • explicitly graded levels of difficulty
  • expression of information using scenes rather than linear pages
  • the entertainment value and length of time engaged in a game title

Infusing websites with some of the attributes of games does not mean that we abandon the notion of utility either. Game players have goals—to kill enemies, to find treasures, to amass wealth—just as web visitors have goals. There exists a need to make progress, to accomplish something. Successful games induce a player to take on a goal, believe in it, obsess on it, and return to the game over multiple sessions, often spanning weeks, in pursuit of achieving it. Game designers plant a kernel that rages so strongly that a player will dedicate considerable time to it. How can we, as website designers, plant such a kernel in our users?

Attributes of websites vs. video games

 Websites  Video games
 Hand-eye coordination: digital  Total body coordination: physical
 Usable  Learnable, playful, discoverable
 One level of difficulty  Multiple levels of difficulty
 Social content   Social interaction
 Web development  Product development
 Wireframes  Storyboards
 Page  Scene
 2D  3D
 Needs are user-centric: satisfy the user  Needs are engendered: satisfy the player
 Free  Bought
 2 to 15 minutes  Hours to days
 Task, transaction and information  Entertainment
 Sticky, at best  Addictive
 Cheap to design and build  Expensive to design and build
 Superficial customization and personalization  Considerable customization and personalization

So how do you play this thing?

Nine approaches can put you on the path to creating differentiated website experiences.

1. Find a balance between challenging and rewarding the user

Gut reaction: who wants to be challenged? This is an area where “game think” is not suitable for every brand, company, and user goal. Conservatively positioned banking web application used by time-poor mom: “no thanks.” Progressive youth fashion brand frequented by surfing tween: “why not?”

Call of Duty 4's initial levels include tasks to familarize the player with weapons and actions

Call of Duty 4’s initial levels include tasks to familarize the player with weapons and actions

Another way to consider “challenge” is to recognize that games have rules and environmental constraints (e.g. materials, locations, physical spaces). Many websites and web applications also rely on rules and have other constraints that require users to interact with them in a certain way (e.g. travel booking forms, profile setup wizards, retirement benefit calculators).

Thinking about the way a game challenges a player is to think about:

  • Learnability. When you start a new game, you have to try buttons, actions, commands etc. to see what can be done. By the end of a few sessions you’ve worked out pretty much everything, and the game has probably guided you through most of it. Apple made the bet that people would be able to work out how to use an iPhone without the familiarity of the interactions from other phones. Users learned the gestures quickly and it has been hailed as an incredibly usable device. As the breadth of activities that can be performed online expands, the way we navigate and interact with those sites and web applications is also going to evolve. Usability will not be the key driver; it will be a given, and learnability will play a larger role.
  • Safe environments to explore and make mistakes. If you provide a way for a user to pleasantly explore and discover different things without irreversible consequences, then a website does not have to be immediately transparent in how it is used. Supporting rich undo, cancel, back, reset, and restart in appropriate ways contributes to the safety net where a user can experiment.
  • Swapping between easy and advanced modes. In video games, players who can handle it opt for more advanced game situations. If they find it too hard, they swap back. Crisis over. Some websites and applications ask users to select a version (standard, professional, custom, or other more complex) before they’ve even tried it out. And then once they’ve selected the more advanced version they’re stuck with it. Let them swap.
  • Progressive disclosure. Instead of overwhelming a player with all the modes of play (weapons, locations, moves etc.) from level one, the video game gradually introduces more sophistication and power. The most important options are offered initially, then more complexity is introduced as a player progresses, or specifically requests it. Tips, tutorials, and demonstrations from other game characters allow the player to learn as they go. Managing the learning curve of your website requires prioritizing features into primary, secondary and so on, knowing the technical and functional domains of your novice and expert users, and determining how many stages of disclosure are appropriate.

Usability is new to gaming; the focus has been on learnability and the visceral connection of the player with the game. Many websites aim to be intuitive. Video games show us that new paradigms can be learned.

2. Allow an ultimate fantasy experience that might actually be true to life

Fantasy experiences are not limited to creating an alter ego with a perfect body. Fantasy experiences incorporate:

  • Doing something in a game that is not actually possible (e.g. breathing underwater in a lost submarine city while shooting cyborgs, in BioShock)
  • Doing something in a game that is possible, just not as you (e.g. bashing out a guitar solo of “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns & Roses as Slash himself in Guitar Hero I).

Plan your dream kitchen at Ikea with your kitchen’s dimensions

Plan your dream kitchen at Ikea with your kitchen’s dimensions

For some games (e.g. Gran Turismo), representing the details of real life as closely as possible is important. Players can dream that the skills they use in the game compare in a minute way to the skills they would need in the real situation. In other games (e.g. Legend of Zelda), the sense of freedom that comes with doing the improbable is intoxicating. Who doesn’t dream of flying?

For a website, supporting both of these extremes might be worthwhile. In a shopping scenario, some users may want to see what certain apparel looks like on their exact body, while others will want to experience how a minor member of a royal family, feted with personal shoppers, is treated. Probe whether the fantasy experience that your users say they want, or your client would like to offer, is the type of thing only celebrities get up to or is not actually done on Earth. Both offer enormous opportunities for originality and usefulness.

3. Give users control of audio, colors, environment, characters

Let the user’s DNA mix with the site. In games such as Grand Theft Auto, the user can select genres of music to play in the background as well as the volume of the sound effects relative to the music. Users set preferences such as gun cross-hair positioning, colors of environmental elements (e.g. make the racing car red so it stands out more and can be recognized more quickly in the pack), and other elements. The aim here is not to make the game prettier or set arbitrary preferences but to make gameplay more efficient.

Avoid encouraging users to play around with design features that don’t make sense. For websites, the modifiable controls should encourage more effective interaction with the site. For example if, on a banking site, a customer wants to be alerted to all transactions over $100, enable them to red flag these line items in online statements. If a traveler is on a travel planning website coordinating a ski trip, let them use images of snowy landscapes to immediately visually differentiate this trip from the summer vacation that’s also in progress. If a user has the desktop email program configured so that an audible ping gets their attention, chances are they would like the same for their web-based email. Give users who value this customization the options, so they can tweak for added user-friendliness.

Design control of Second Life avatars offers unprecedented detail

Design control of Second Life avatars offers unprecedented detail

Most games enable users to customize, and thus emotionally invest in, their characters. Second Life takes character creation to a level that invites the user to design anything from a facsimile of herself to something genetically impossible. Forget about shirt color, heels or sneakers, brown hair or blond—you can tweak freckle distribution, eye socket depth, lip pout, hand shape and other micro details along a continuum. Such advanced customization options enable the player to design someone unique and nuanced, and enjoy the sense of pride or accomplishment that goes with it. Once you’ve spent serious time perfecting the tip of your avatar’s nose, the bluntness of their profile and the hue of their cornea, you can bet that you’re not going to throw that work away lightly. You’re going to fall in love with your creation and show it off. What’s more, your handiwork and use of customization options impact the way other players or visitors to a social media site interact with you.

Make the character customization options on a website substantial enough, and give the options consequences, and you’ve won a degree of user loyalty. Yahoo, for example, enables visitors to create avatars that represent them as they move around the site. Users can express parts of themselves in Answers, chat, and other web applications without having to reveal their real identities. This way, visitors can avoid the proliferation of recognizable online identities and mitigate privacy concerns.

4. Wrap narratives around the action and functionality

Exactly how did Lara Craft become a tomb raider? How does this impact what “you” can do in the game? The back stories on games are well thought out narratives that drive the design of characters, scenarios, dialogue, levels and more. When new versions of games are released, the storyline develops further and players continue on the journey. Stories put everything in context.

The site reveals its functionality through a conversation, which tells the story of the firm

The site reveals its functionality through a conversation, which tells the story of the firm

The narrative for a website might stem from a number of different ideas and constructs, including personas, how the site fits into the organization’s processes and business model, the company’s history, corporate values, and its brand attributes. More likely it will come from medium- to long-term communication messages already evident in offline marketing activities, especially television commercials. If the company advertises, then the company’s story is already out there.

Bjorn Borg clothing store tells 'heritage' stories as video montages and invites visitor stories too

Bjorn Borg clothing store tells “heritage” stories as video montages and invites visitor stories too

Characters, locations, and storylines can evolve online. In fact arriving at a site that doesn’t continue this story or resonate with what visitors have experienced elsewhere is jarring and disorienting. Site navigation, imagery, and messaging should tell a universal story to all visitors to the site, so that they all walk away knowing what this company stands for and what it’s about.

5. Build delightful transitions and animations

Design flourishes (or lack thereof) reveal a lot about brand and add a layer of quality that can be impressive. Games have pushed the technical and design boundaries of animation so that pretty much anything that can be imagined can be represented on the screen. The physics engines do the heavy lifting within the games themselves, but the designers have also labored over the animation and transitions for non-game screens.

All aspects of the Mercedes Benz AMG interactions- selections, deselections, transitions – have been given carefully considered behaviors

All aspects of the Mercedes Benz AMG interactions—selections, deselections, transitions—have been given carefully considered behaviors

With the emergence of Silverlight and Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), the web is rapidly catching up with gaming technology. The challenge is to actually understand what the web is now capable of and dream up the designs to exploit it. For example, navigating through a video game menu is rarely a matter of point, click, see next screen. Every interaction with the non-game screens and in-game menus is an opportunity to reinforce a brand attribute, or pad out the world the player has entered, or let the user know they’re on a certain path. Every interaction.

Blue Moon Brewery makes the most of every click

Blue Moon Brewery makes the most of every click

6. Use loading screens to educate the user how to use the site better

There can be a lot of dead time playing a video game: loading, graduating to a new level, “dying,” cutscenes that relay the story and so on. Games make the most of this limbo by telling players more about the game. Hints, tips, factoids, instructions, and trivia are displayed while the player patiently waits for the fun to start. “Slow mo” scenes from previous games, spectacular gameplay sequences, acted scenes contributing to continuity and online player statistics—game designers are tapping their imaginations to come up with novel ways to make these loading screens not only palatable but valuable.

If you know the page that is loading, give the user a tip on how to use it, such as in Tony Hawk Proving Ground

If you know the page that is loading, give the user a tip on how to use it, such as in Tony Hawk Proving Ground

Online, users have the luxury of simply leaving a site if they have to spend too much time watching progress bars. Empower the user with something extra so that when the site or module finally loads they’re better prepared to use it effectively, better informed about the company, or at least amused.

7. Implement strong audio cues to provide feedback

Playing certain games with no sound is nigh impossible. You can’t hear things approaching, you’re not sure if your action was executed, you’re not sure where to go, you’re unclear about the results. Think of all the website usability tests you’ve witnessed where the participant is confused about whether their click registered with the site and whether something is happening. Further evidence of this confusion is the “only click once” message that some sites use to deter visitors from clicking again, when they think their action was not registered.

On the web, sound has been anathema. Websites that suddenly blare music at you during discreet workplace web surfing have destroyed the fun for all of us. But audio cues are common on computer operating systems and traditional applications. They’re such a simple, effective way to reinforce an action, alert you, or let you know whether something was successful or not.

Audio can add satisfaction by imitating real world sounds that we’re familiar with. The state of flow is supported because there is no need to translate the result. For example a falling two-note sound is instantly recognized as a negative result, whereas the cha-ching of a cash register is known to be a sign of money being exchanged.

On Uniqlo.com many clickable elements are indicated with an audio cue, with another sound to indicate when you have clicked and when a successful action is complete

On Uniqlo.com many clickable elements are indicated with an audio cue, with another sound to indicate when you have clicked and when a successful action is complete

Also, audio is another way to exercise brand muscle. Nothing quite lets a user know what your brand stands for than expressing it with a sonic branding device or giving it a literal voice. What sound would you expect to hear when visiting intel.com?

8. Play with spatial cues

Flash, Silverlight, and WPF make working with spatial cues a more interesting proposition. Many games rely on recreating three dimensions so that a player can move through terrain or other environments. In fact, game design has been likened more to architecture than film-making (which is another popular comparison) because the designers need to signal to players that they should move from location A to location B.

Using 3D space on the web is easier to visualize now that Vista, Leopard, iPhones, and iPods have reimagined how items can be stacked, ordered, shuffled, zoomed in on, and previewed. The physicality that is innate with game playing is migrating to other digital technologies, such as the web, through touchscreens and gestures.

Adidas uses backgrounds and foregrounds forcefully to denote hierarchy

Adidas uses backgrounds and foregrounds forcefully to denote hierarchy

Designs using the “z space” are emerging, often targeting younger audiences who might more comfortably migrate their behaviors from other media to the web.

Nike's Jordan site features zoom controls to navigate the space

Nike’s Jordan site features zoom controls to navigate the space

Visitors are instructed to hold down mouse keys and drag, use mouse scrolls, or use keyboard and mouse combinations to move within all three axes. Website designers can now add “depth” to the design toolbox when considering hierarchy, prominence, information design and chronology, among other things. Any element closer to the user will be more prominent.

9. Sprinkle in a few surprising serendipitous moments

Serendipitous touches are the ones that you dream up in the heat of brainstorming and figure your client is never going to go for. They’re a little bit clever, or silly, or over the top, and that’s what makes them memorable and essential. Those “extra mile” details are the ones that get a site talked about and bookmarked. They’re the things that fans savor and brand advocates “get.” For example, when your character dies in The Sims 2, the Grim Reaper appears and looks over some paperwork potentially to do with the character’s soul. Who knows? It’s totally ridiculous, and the first-time reaction is likely to be laughter, even though the player is about to start the game all over again.

The Sims 2 injects unexpected humor into what is actually an annoying situation

The Sims 2 injects unexpected humor into what is actually an annoying situation

Flickr.com’s multilingual greetings are often cited as a lovely unexpected gesture. The designers didn’t have to do it, but they did, and it is appreciated. How many other sites welcome you and you ignore it entirely? Is this an approach recommended for every brand? Such a gesture doesn’t imply childishness: rather, it acknowledges that a human is visiting this website. There’s usually an attribute within every brand that is related to being human: this is the attribute to exploit. Think about the emotional response you’d like to get from your website visitor and find one or two ways to elicit it in a playful way.

Steadyhand's CEO checks his phone while he waits for the user to interact with him, like a game character waiting for a player to start

Steadyhand’s CEO checks his phone while he waits for the user to interact with him, like a game character waiting for a player to start

Did the design stage just get longer?

Incorporating some of these ideas into the design phase of a project need not take extra time. Applying “game think” as a filter across activities you’re already doing will get you a lot of the way there.

Game designers adopt different methodologies, produce different deliverables, and follow different processes than website designers. It doesn’t make sense to take on many of these because ultimately you are creating different products. However, the fact that you’re working with the same medium—people access the internet through gaming consoles and play games on computers—should cause you to pause and consider how to make better use of the channel.

Energize a site and engage more of the user’s senses with animations, transitions, 3D, and audio. Then let the user bond with the site by having the site tell a story while incorporating their preferences, so that there is more “conversation” and less “messaging.” Encourage the user to explore and become an expert on the site through a choreographed dance of challenge, education, and reward. Finally, delight your visitors and get them hooked through unexpected, frivolous, and unique touches that your brand can own.

The payoff for using video game design elements is a memorable, distinguished, high-impact user experience that brings a brand to life, increases loyalty, and reaches out to new customers.

Your next step? Go play some video games and get inspired.

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)

Enhancing Dashboard Value and User Experience

Written by: Joe Lamantia

This article is the fifth in a series sharing a design framework for dashboards and portals.

Part 1 of this series, The Challenge of Dashboards and Portals, discussed the difficulties of creating effective information architectures for portals, dashboards and tile-based information environments using only flat portlets, and introduced the idea of a system of standardized building blocks that can effectively support growth in content, functionality, and users over time. In enterprise and other large scale social settings, using such standardized components allows for the creation of a library of tiles that can be shared across communities of users.

Part 2 of the series, Introduction to the Building Blocks, outlined the design principles underlying the building block system and the simple guidelines for combining blocks together to create any type of tile-based environment.

Part 3 of the series, Building Block Definitions (Containers), described the Container components of the Building Block system in detail.

Part 4 of the series, Connectors for Dashboards and Portals, described the Connector components of the Building Block system in detail.

In Part 5, we look at ways to enhance the long-term value and user experience quality of portals created with the building blocks by encouraging portability and natural patterns of dialog and interaction around aggregated content.

For the reader’s convenience, this article is divided into the following sections:

A Portal Design Vision: Two-Way Experiences

Recommendations

Metadata

Presentation Standards and Recommendations

Manage Functionality By Creating Groups

Enterprise 2.0 and the Social Portal

A Portal Design Vision: Two-Way Experiences

Portals gather and present content from a wide variety of sources, making the assembled items and streams more valuable for users by reducing the costs of content discovery and acquisition. By placing diverse content into close proximity, specialized forms of portals, such as the dashboard, support knowledge workers in creative and interpretive activities including synthesis, strategy formulation, decision making, collaboration, knowledge production, and multi-dimensional analysis.

At heart, however, aggregation is a one-way flow. In the aggregation model common to many portals, content is collected, organized, and perhaps distributed for use elsewhere, but nothing returns via the same channels. Savvy users quickly see that the greatest value of aggregative experiences and tools lies in their potential contributions to two-way flows. They understand that experiences capable of engaging direct and indirect audiences transform portal and dashboard content into a broadly useful resource for communities of much greater scope and impact. Further, business staff and IT users comfortable in the new world of Enterprise 2.0, DIY / mashups and shadow IT now often create their own information technology solutions, assembling services and tools from many sources in new ways that meet their individual needs.

Accordingly, portal designers should create experiences that support increased discussion, conversation, dialog and interaction, and allow for the potential value of remixing content in innovative ways. We might summarize a broad design vision for two-way portals that synthesizes these audiences, environmental factors and imperatives as follows:

  • Provide users with rich contextual information about the origin and nature of dashboard or portal content; context is crucial, especially in a fragmented and rapidly moving enterprise environment.
  • Improve the quality and consistency of the user experience of aggregated content.
  • Improve the portability of content, making it useful outside the boundaries of the dashboard.
  • Allow dashboard users to take advantage of other tools available outside the immediate boundaries of the portal.

Operatively, this means providing two-way channels that make it easy to share content with others or even "take it with you" in some fashion. The building block framework is ideal as a robust foundation for the many kinds of tools and functionality – participatory, social, collaborative – that support the design vision of two-way flows within and outside portal boundaries.

Recommendations

Based on this vision and my experience with the long-term evolution and usage of many portals, I recommend five ways to enhance two-way capabilities and the overall quality of user experiences designed with the building blocks framework:

  1. Define standardized Convenience functionality that could apply to all blocks. This will provide a baseline set of common capabilities for individual blocks such as export of Container content and printing.
  2. Define Utility functionality offered at the Dashboard or Dashboard Suite level. This captures common productivity capabilities for knowledge workers, linking the dashboard to other enterprise resources such as calendars and document repositories.
  3. Define common metadata attributes for all Container blocks, to support administration and management needs.
  4. Define presentation standards that appropriately balance flexibility with consistency, both within Container blocks and across the user experience.
  5. Define user roles and types of blocks or content to allow quick management of items and functionality in groups.

As with the rest of the building blocks design framework, these recommendations are deliberately neutral in terms of business components and processes, technology platforms, and development frameworks (RUBY, AIR, Silverlight, etc.), and design methods. They describe capabilities and / or functionality that design, business, and technology decision-makers can rely on as a common language when deciding together what a given portal or dashboard must accomplish, and how it should do so. (Besides allowing extension and reuse of designs, neutrality is consistent with the principles of Openness, Independence, Layering, and Portability that run throughout the building blocks system.)

Convenience Functionality

Convenience functions make it easier for users to work with the content of individual Container blocks. Good examples of Convenience functionality include printing the contents of Containers for use outside the Dashboard, or subscribing to an RSS feed that syndicates a snapshot of the contents of a block. Convenience functionality is associated with a single Container, but is not part of the content of the Container.

This collection is a suggested set of Convenience functionality meant to help establish a baseline that you can adapt to the particular needs of your users. Assign Convenience functions to individual blocks as appropriate for circumstances and as endorsed by users, business sponsors, and technologists. Some of these features make sense at all levels of the block hierarchy, and some do not (how would one print an entire Dashboard in a way that is useful or readable?).

The collection is broken into five groups:

  1. Understanding Content Sources and Context
  2. Making Dashboard Content Portable
  3. Controlling the User Experience
  4. Staying Aware of Changes / Subscriptions
  5. Social and Collaborative Tools

The illustration below shows Convenience functionality associated with a Tile.

convenience_functionality_c.jpg

Figure 1: Tile Convenience Functionality (By Group)

Group 1: Understanding Content Sources and Context

Preserving accurate indication for the source of each block’s content is critical for the effective use of heterogeneous offerings. Dashboards that syndicate Tiles from a library of shared assets may contain conflicting information from different sources, so users must have an indication of the origin and context of each block.  (Wine connoisseurs use the term "terroir.")

Show detailed source information for a block. For business intelligence and data content, the source information commonly includes the origin of the displayed data in terms of operating unit, internal or external system (from partners or licensed feeds), its status (draft, partial, production, audited, etc.), the time and date stamp of the data displayed, the update or refresh cycle, and the time and date of the next expected refresh.

For widgets, web-based applications, and content that takes the form of transactional functionality such as productivity or self-service applications delivered via an intranet or web-service, source information commonly includes the originating system or application, its operating status (up, down, relevant error messages), and identifying information about the group, operator, or vendor providing the functionality.

Send email to source system owner / data owner. This allows portal users to directly contact the "owners" of a content source. In enterprises with large numbers of internal data and functionality sources that frequently contradict or qualify one another, the ability to ask clarifying questions and obtain additional or alternative content can be critical to making effective use of the content presented within the Dashboard.

Show performance data and metrics. If standard performance data and measurements such as key performance indicators (KPIs) or balanced score cards (which have risen and then fallen out of favor in the past five years) affect or determine the contents of a block, presenting them readily at hand is good practice. 

Such performance indicators might take the form of KPIs or other formally endorsed metrics, and require:

  • Showing displayed KPIs
  • Showing supporting KPIs (rolled up or included in the summary KPI on display)
  • Showing related KPIs (parallels by process, geography, industry, customer, etc.)
  • Showing dependent KPIs (to illuminate any "downstream" impact)

For performance indicators defined by number and name—perhaps they are recognized and used across the enterprise or operating unit as a comparative baseline, or for several different measurement and assessment goals—provide this important contextual information as well.

Show related documents or assets. Whether automated via sophisticated information management solutions or collected by hand, related documents and assets increase the range and applicability of dashboard content. Bear in mind that less is often more in a world drowning in electronic assets and information.

Show source reports or assets. If the contents of a block are based on an existing report, then providing direct access to that item—bypassing document repositories, collaboration spaces, or file shares, which often have terrible user experiences and searching functions—can be very valuable for dashboard users.

Show related blocks. In large portals or Dashboards that aggregate Tiles from many different sources—perhaps several Tile Libraries—providing navigable links to related Pages or Sections of the Dashboard increases the density and quality of the connections between pieces of content. Whether mapped by hand or automated, these links can further enhance the value of the dashboard by exposing new types of relationships between informational and functional content not commonly placed in proximity in source environments.

Search for related items and assets. If individual Container blocks carry attached metadata, or metadata is available from the contents of the block, search integration could take the form of pre-generated queries using terms from local or enterprise vocabularies, directed against specifically identified data stores.

Group 2: Making Dashboard Content Portable

These capabilities enhance the portability of content, supporting the two-way communication and social flows that make content so useful outside the boundaries of the dashboard. The items below include several of the most useful and commonly requested portability measures:

  • Print contents of block
  • Email contents of block (HTML / text)
  • Email a link to block
  • Create a .pdf of block contents
  • Create a screenshot / image of block contents
  • Download contents of block (choose format)
  • Save data used in block (choose format)
  • Download source report (choose format)

Group 3: Controlling the User Experience

Individual blocks may offer users the ability to change their on-screen layout, placement, or stacking order, collapse them to smaller sizes, or possibly activate or deactivate them entirely. If designers have defined standard display states for Containers (see Presentation Standards and Recommendations below), blocks may also allow users to customize the display state:

  • Change layout or position of block on screen
  • Collapse / minimize or expand block to full size
  • Change display state of block
  • Deactivate / shut off or activate / turn on block for display

Group 4: Staying Aware of Changes / Subscriptions

Aggregation models lower information discovery and acquisition costs, but do not obviate the costs of re-finding items, and do little to help users manage flows and streams of content that change frequently. Many portals and dashboards aim to enhance users’ awareness and make monitoring the status of complex organizations and processes simpler and easier. This group includes functionality allowing users to subscribe to content through delivery channels such as RSS or to receive notices when dashboard content changes:

  • Send email on block change (it is optional to include contents)
  • Subscribe to RSS feed of block changes (it is optional to include contents)
  • Subscribe to SMS message on block change
  • Send portal Page on block change

Group 5: Social and Collaborative Tools

This group includes social features and functions that engage colleagues and others using social mechanisms. Introducing explicitly social mechanisms and capabilities into one-way dashboard and portal experiences can dramatically enhance the value and impact of dashboard content.

When designed properly and supported by adoption and usage incentives, social mechanisms can encourage rapid but nuanced and sophisticated interpretation of complex events in large distributed organizations. Social functions help preserve the insight and perspective of a diverse community of users, an intangible appreciated by many global enterprises.

Annotate block. Annotation allows contributors to add an interpretation or story to the contents of a block. Annotation is typically preserved when blocks are syndicated or shared because annotations come from the same source as the block content.

Comment on block. Commentators can provide a locally useful interpretation for a block originating from elsewhere. Comments are not always portable, or packaged with a block, as they do not necessarily originate from the same context, and their relevance will vary.

Tag blocks. Tagging with either open or predetermined tags can be very useful for discovering unrecognized audiences or purposes for block content, and quickly identifying patterns in usage that span organizational boundaries, functional roles, or social hierarchies.

Share / recommend blocks to person. Combined with presence features, sharing can speed decision-making and the growth of consensus.

Publish analysis / interpretation of block content. Analysis is a more thorough version of annotation and commenting, which could include footnoting, citations, and other scholarly mechanisms.

Publish contents of block. Publishing the contents of a block to a team or enterprise wiki, blog, collaboration site, or common destination can serve as a communication vehicle, and lower the opportunity costs of contributing to social or collaborative tools.

Rate block. Rating blocks and the ability to designate favorites is a good way to obtain quick feedback on the design / content of blocks across diverse sets of users. In environments where users can design and contribute blocks directly to a Tile Library, ratings allow collective assessment of these contributions.

Send contents of block to person (with comment). Sending the contents of a block – with or without accompanying commentary – to colleagues can increase the speed with which groups or teams reach common points of view.  This can also provide a useful shortcut to formal processes for sharing and understanding content when time is important, or individual action is sufficient.

Send link to block to person (with comment). Sending a link to a block – with or without accompanying commentary – to colleagues can increase the speed with which groups or teams reach common points of view.  This can also provide a useful shortcut to formal processes for sharing and understanding content when time is important, or individual action is sufficient.

Commenting and annotation, coupled with sharing the content that inspired the dialog as a complete package, were the most requested social capabilities among users of many of the large enterprise dashboards I have worked on.

Stacking Blocks

Some combinations of Convenience functionality will make more sense than others, depending on the contents of blocks, their purpose within the larger user experience, and the size of the blocks in the stacking hierarchy (outlined in Part 2). Figure 2 illustrates a Page composed of several sizes of Containers, each offering a distinct combination of Convenience functionality.

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Figure 2: Combinations of Functionality

Convenience…or Connector Component?

Several of the Connector components (described in Part 4 of this series) – especially the Control Bar and the Geography Selector – began life as examples of Convenience functionality. Over the course of many design projects, these pieces were used so frequently that their forms standardized, and they merited independent recognition as defined building blocks. (The change is a bit like receiving a promotion.)

With sustained use of the blocks framework, it’s likely that designers will identify similar forms of Convenience functionality that deserve identification as formal building blocks, which can then be put into the library of reusable design assets. This is wholly consistent with the extensible nature of the blocks system, and I encourage you to share these extensions!

Utility Functionality

Utility functionality enhances the value of content by offering enterprise capabilities such as calendars, intranet or enterprise searching, and colleague directories, within the portal or dashboard setting. In practice, Utility functionality offers direct access to a mixed set of enterprise resources and applications commonly available outside portal boundaries in a stand-alone fashion (e.g. in MS Outlook for calendaring).

Common Utility functions include:

  • Team or colleague directories
  • Dashboard, intranet or enterprise searching
  • Dashboard personalization and customization
  • Calendars (individual, group, enterprise)
  • Alerting
  • Instant messaging
  • Corporate blogs and wikis
  • Licensed news and information feeds
  • RSS aggregators
  • Attention streams
  • Collaboration spaces and team sites
  • Profile management
  • Document repositories
  • Mapping and geolocation tools
  • Business intelligence tools
  • Supply Chain Management (SCM), Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solutions

My Experience or Yours?

One important question designers must answer is where and how portal users will work with Utility functionality: within the portal experience itself or within the user experience of the originating tool? Or as a hybrid of these approaches?

Enterprise productivity tools and large software packages such as CRM and ERP solutions often provide consumable services via Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) or Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), as well as their own user experiences (though they may be terrible). The needs and goals of users for your portal may clearly indicate that the best presentation of Utility functionality syndicated from elsewhere is to decompose the original experiences and then integrate these capabilities into your local portal user experience. Enterprise tools often come with design and administration teams dedicated to supporting them, teams which represent significant investments in spending and credibility. Carefully consider the wider political ramifications of local design decisions that affect branding and ownership indicators for syndicated Utility functionality.

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Figure 3: Local vs. Source Experiences

Metadata

In portals and dashboards, aggregation often obscures origins, and content may appear far outside the boundaries of its original context and audiences. The Convenience and Utility functionality suggested above is generally much easier to implement and manage with the assistance of metadata that addresses the dashboard or portal environment.

The attributes suggested here establish a starting set of metadata for Container blocks managed locally, or as part of a Tile Library syndicated across an enterprise. The goal of this initial collection is to meet common administrative and descriptive needs, and establish a baseline for future integration metadata needs. These attributes could be populated with carefully chosen values from a series of managed vocabularies or other metadata structures, or socially applied metadata provided by users as tags, keywords, facets, etc.

Administrative Attributes:

  • Security / access level needed for content
  • System / context of origin for content
  • System / context of origin contact
  • Data lifecycle / refresh cycle for content
  • Most recent refresh time-date
  • Effective date of data
  • Block version #
  • Block release date

 Structural Attributes:

  • Container blocks stacked in this block
  • Crosswalk Connectors present within block
  • Contextual Crosswalk Connectors present within block

 Descriptive Attributes:

  • Title
  • Subtitle
  • Subject
  • Audience
  • Format
  • Displayed KPIs (defined by number / name)
  • Supporting KPIs (defined by number / name)
  • Related KPIs (defined by number / name)
  • Related Documents / Assets
  • Source Report / Assets
  • Related Blocks
  • Location

Metadata Standards

The unique needs and organizational context that drive the design of many portals often necessitates the creation of custom metadata for each Tile Library or pool of assets. However, publicly available metadata standards could serve as the basis for dashboard metadata. Dublin Core, with a firm grounding in the management of published assets, offers one useful starting point. Depending on the industry and domain for the users of the dashboard, system-level integration with enterprise vocabularies or public dictionaries may be appropriate. Enterprise taxonomies and ontologies, as well as metadata repositories or registries, could supply many of the metadata attributes and values applied to building blocks.

Presentation Standards and Recommendations

Visual Design and Style Guidelines, Page Layouts, Grid Systems

The neutrality of the building blocks framework allows architects and designers tremendous flexibility in defining the user experience of a dashboard or portal. The system does not specify any rules for laying out Pages, defining grid systems, or applying design styles or guidelines. Responsibility for these design questions should devolve to the local level and context; the architects and designers working on a given user experience must make these critical decisions.

Standards for Containers and Connectors. One of the paramount goals for the building blocks system is to minimize the presence of unneeded user experience elements (no excess chrome for designers to polish!), and maintain the primacy of the content over all secondary parts of the dashboard experience. Even so, aspects of the building blocks themselves will be a direct part of the user experience. Thus setting and maintaining standards for those aspects of Containers and connectors that are part of the user experience is essential.

The many renderings and examples of Tiles and other components seen throughout this series of articles show a common set of standards that covers:

  • Location and relationship of Tile components (Tile Body, Tile Header, Tile Footer)
  • Placement of Convenience functionality
  • Placement of Utility functionality
  • Treatment of Connector components
  • Boundary indicators for Tiles and Containers
  • Boundary indicators for mixed content (block and free-form)

Figure 4 shows one set of standards created for the Container and Connector components of an enterprise dashboard.

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Figure 4: Presentation Standards for Containers and Connectors

This is a starting set of elements that often require design standards. Architects and designers working with the building blocks will need to decide which block elements will be part of the user experience, and create appropriate standards. (If using lightweight and modular user experience development approaches, relying on standards and structured components, it’s possible to effect quick and easy design iteration and updates.)

Standards For Content Within Containers. Setting standards and defining best practices for layout, grid systems, and visual and information design for the contents of Container blocks will increase the perceived value of the dashboard or portal. In the long term, offering users a consistent and easy-to-understand visual language throughout the user experience helps brand and identify Tile-based assets that might be syndicated or shared widely. A strong and recognized brand reflects well on its originators. Figure 5 shows example standards for chart content in Container blocks.

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Figure 5: Presentation Standards for Chart Content in Container Blocks

Standards For Mixed Building Block and Freeform Content. Setting standards for layouts, grid systems, and information design for the freeform content that appears mixed with or between Containers makes sense when the context is known. When the eventual context of use is unknown, decisions on presentation standards should devolve to those designers responsible for managing the local user experiences.

Container States

The core principles of openness and portability that run throughout the building blocks framework mean the exact context of use and display setting for any given block is difficult for designers to predict. Defining a few (three or four at the most) different but standardized presentation states for Containers in a Tile Library can help address the expected range of situations and user experiences from the beginning, rather than on an ad-hoc basis. This approach is much cheaper over the long-term, when considered for the entire pool of managed Tiles or assets.

Since the on-screen size of any element of the user experience is often a direct proxy for its anticipated value and the amount of attention designers expect it to receive, each standard display state should offer a different combination of more or less content, tuned to an expected context. Using a combination of business rules, presentation logic, and user preferences, these different display states may be invoked manually (as with Convenience functionality) or automatically (based on the display agent or surrounding Containers), allowing adjustment to a wide range of user experience needs and settings. In practice, states are most commonly offered for Tiles and Tile Groups, but could apply to the larger Containers with greater stacking sizes, such as Views, Pages, and Sections.

One of the most commonly used approaches is to assume that a Container will appear most often in a baseline or normal state in any user experience, and that all other states cover a sliding scale of display choices ranging from the greatest possible amount of content to the least. The four states described below represent gradations along this continuum.

Normal state is the customary presentation / display for a Container, the one users encounter most often.

Comprehensive state is the most inclusive state of a Container, offering a complete set of the contents, as well as all available reference and related information or Containers, and any socially generated content such as comments, annotations, and collective analyses. Figure 6 shows a Tile in comprehensive display state.

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Figure 6: Tile: Comprehensive Display

Summary state condenses the block’s contents to the most essential items, for example showing a single chart or measurement. The summary state hides any reference and related information, and places any socially generated content such as annotation or comments in the background of the information landscape. Figure 7 shows a Tile in summary display state.

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Figure 7: Tile: Summary Display

Snapshot state is the most compact form of a Container block, offering a thumbnail that might include only the block’s title and a single highly compressed metric or sparkline. Snapshot states often represent the Container in discovery and administrative settings, such as in search experiences, in catalogs of assets in a Tile Library, or in dashboard management interfaces. Figure 8 shows a Tile in snapshot display state.

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Figure 8: Tile: Snapshot Display

Convenience and Utility Functionality

New platforms such as Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) and Microsoft Silverlight, and the freedom afforded by Asynchronous Javascript and XML (AJAX) and Rich Internet Application (RIA) based experiences in general, offer too many possible display and interaction behaviors to discuss in detail here.

Accordingly, I suggest designers keep the following principles in mind when defining the interactions and presentation of Convenience and Utility functionality:

  • Convenience functionality is meant to improve the value and experience of working with individual blocks.
  • Utility functionality addresses the value and experience of the portal as a whole.
  • Convenience functionality is less important than the content it enhances.
  • Convenience functionality is always available, but may be in the background.
  • Utility functionality is always available, and is generally in the background.
  • Convenience functionality does not replace Utility functionality, though some capabilities may overlap.
  • Usability and user experience best practices strongly recommend placing Convenience functionality in association with individual blocks.
  • Usability and user experience best practices strongly recommend presenting Utility functionality in a way that does not associate it with individual Container blocks.

Manage Functionality By Creating Groups

Most users will not need the full set of Convenience and Utility functionality at all times and across all Tiles and types of Container blocks. Usage contexts, security factors, or content formats often mean smaller subsets of functionality offer the greatest benefits to users. To keep the user experience free from the visual and cognitive clutter of un-needed functionality, and to make management easier, I recommend designers define groups of functionality, users, and content. Create groups during the design process, so these constructs are available for administrative use as soon as the portal is active and available to users.

Other recommendations include:

  • Define bundles of Convenience and Utility functionality appropriate for different operating units, business roles and titles, or access levels of users.
  • Allow individual users to select from bundles of Convenience and Utility functionality. Customization commonly appears in a profile management area.
  • Create roles or personas for dashboard users based on patterns in content usage, and match roles with relevant and appropriate functionality bundles.
  • Define types of user accounts based on personas, or usage patterns and manage functionality at the level of account type.
  • Define types of Tiles or Containers based on content (informational, functional, transactional, collaborative, etc.). Apply bundles of Convenience functionality to all the Tiles or Containers of a given type.
  • Define standard levels of access for social features and functionality based on sliding scales of participation or contribution: read, rate, comment, annotate, write, edit, etc. Manage access to all social functions using these pre-defined standard levels.

Larger portals may warrant the creation of a dedicated administrative interface. The building blocks make it easy to define an administrative console accessible via a Page or Section apparent only to administrators.

Enterprise 2.0 and the Social Portal

Portals and dashboards that augment one-way aggregation of information with Convenience and Utility functionality can offer diverse and valuable content to savyy users – customers who expect Enterprise 2.0, Web 2.0, and social software capabilities from all their experiences and tools. As these recommendations demonstrate, the building blocks can serve as an effective design framework for portals that serve as two-way destinations.

Many of these recommended Convenience and Utility capabilities now come "out of the box" in portal or dashboard platforms, and the interactions that make them available to users follow standard behaviors in the resulting user experiences.When first identified as valuable for users (almost five years ago), these capabilities almost universally required teams to invest considerable amounts of time and money into custom design, development, and integration efforts. Thankfully, that is no longer the case.

Part Six of this series will explore how the Building Blocks framework solved recurring problems of growth and change for a series of business intelligence and enterprise application portals.  We will review the evolution of a suite of enterprise portals constructed for users in different countries, operating units, and managerial levels of a major global corporation.

Personas and the Role of Design Documentation

Written by: Andrew Hinton
I’d seen hard work on personas delivered in documentation to others downstream, where they were discussed for a little while during a kick-off meeting, and then hardly ever heard from again.

In User Experience Design circles, personas have become part of our established orthodoxy. And, as with anything orthodox, some people disagree on what personas are and the value they bring to design, and some reject the doctrine entirely.

I have to admit, for a long time I wasn’t much of a believer. Of course I believed in understanding users as well as possible through rigorous observation and analysis; I just felt that going to the trouble of "creating a persona" was often wasted effort. Why? Because most of the personas I’d seen didn’t seem like real people as much as caricatured wishful thinking.

Even the personas that really tried to convey the richness of a real user were often assimilated into market-segment profiles — smiling, airbrushed customers that just happened to align with business goals. I’d see meeting-room walls and PowerPoint decks decorated with these fictive apparitions. I’m ashamed to say, even I often gave in to the illusion that these people — like the doe-eyed "live callers" on adult phone-chat commercials — just couldn’t wait for whatever we had to offer.

More often than not, though, I’d seen hard work on personas delivered in documentation to others downstream, where they were discussed for a little while during a kick-off meeting, and then hardly ever heard from again.

Whenever orthodoxy seems to be going awry, you can either reject it, or try to understand it in a new light. And one way to do the latter is to look into its history and understand where it came from to begin with — as is the case with so much dogma, there is often a great original idea that, over time, became codified into ritual, losing much of the original context.

The Origin of Personas

When we say "persona", designers generally mean some methodological descendant of the work of Alan Cooper. I remember when I first encountered the idea on web-design mailing lists in 1999. People were arguing over what personas were about, and what was the right or wrong way to do them. All most people had to go on was a slim chapter in Cooper’s "The Inmates are Running the Asylum" and some rudimentary experience with the method. You could see the messy work of a community hammering out their consensus. It was as frustrating as it was interesting.

Eventually, practitioners started writing articles about the method. So, whenever I was asked to create personas for a project, I’d go back and read some of the excellent guides on the Cooper website and elsewhere that described examples and approaches. As a busy designer, I was essentially looking for a template, a how-to guide with an example that I could just fill in with my own content. And that’s natural, after all, since I was "creating a persona" to fulfill the request for a kind of deliverable.

It wasn’t until later that Alan Cooper himself finally posted a short essay on "The Origin of Personas." For me it was a revelation. A few paragraphs of it are so important that I think they require quoting in full:

I was writing a critical-path project management program that I called “PlanIt.” Early in the project, I interviewed about seven or eight colleagues and acquaintances who were likely candidates to use a project management program. In particular, I spoke at length with a woman named Kathy who worked at Carlick Advertising. Kathy’s job was called “traffic,” and it was her responsibility to assure that projects were staffed and staffers fully utilized. It seemed a classic project management task. Kathy was the basis for my first, primitive, persona.

In 1983, compared to what we use today, computers were very small, slow, and weak. It was normal for a large program the size of PlanIt to take an hour or more just to compile in its entirety. I usually performed a full compilation at least once a day around lunchtime. At the time I lived in Monterey California, near the classically beautiful Old Del Monte golf course. After eating, while my computer chugged away compiling the source code, I would walk the golf course. From my home near the ninth hole, I could traverse almost the entire course without attracting much attention from the clubhouse. During those walks I designed my program.

As I walked, I would engage myself in a dialogue, play-acting a project manager, loosely based on Kathy, requesting functions and behavior from my program. I often found myself deep in those dialogues, speaking aloud, and gesturing with my arms. Some of the golfers were taken aback by my unexpected presence and unusual behavior, but that didn’t bother me because I found that this play-acting technique was remarkably effective for cutting through complex design questions of functionality and interaction, allowing me to clearly see what was necessary and unnecessary and, more importantly, to differentiate between what was used frequently and what was needed only infrequently.

If we slow down enough to really listen to what Cooper is saying here, and unpack some of the implications, we’re left with a number of insights that help us reconsider how personas work in design.

1. Cooper based his persona on a real person he’d actually met, talked with, and observed.
This was essential. He didn’t read about "Kathy" from a market survey, or from a persona document that a previous designer (or a separate "researcher" on a team) had written. He worked from primary experience, rather than re-using a some kind of user description from a different project.

2. Cooper didn’t start with a "method" — or especially not a "methodology"!
His approach was an intuitive act of design. It wasn’t a scientific gathering of requirements and coolly transposing them into a grid of capabilities. It came from the passionate need of a designer to really understand the user — putting on the skin of another person.

3. The persona wasn’t a document. Rather, it was the activity of empathetic role-play.
Cooper was telling himself a story, and embodying that story as he told it. The persona was in the designer, not on paper. If Cooper created a document, it would’ve been a description of the persona, not the persona itself. Most of us, however, tend to think of the document — the paper or slide with the smiling picture and smattering of personal detail — as the persona, as if creating the document is the whole point.

4. Cooper was doing this in his "spare time," away from the system, away from the cubicle.
His slow computer was serendipitous — it unwittingly gave him the excuse to wander, breathe and ruminate. Hardly the model of corporate efficiency. Getting away from the office and the computer screen were essential to arriving at his design insights. Yet, how often do you see design methods that tell you to get away from the office, walk around outside and talk to yourself?

5. His persona gained clarity by focusing on a particular person — "Kathy".
I wonder how much more effective our personas would be if we started with a single, actual person as the model, and were rigorous about adding other characteristics — sticking only to things we’d really observed from our users. Starting with a composite, it’s too easy to cherry-pick bits and pieces from them to make a Frankenstein Persona that better fits our preconceptions.

Personas are actually the designer’s focused act of empathetic imagination, grounded in first-hand user knowledge.

The biggest insight I get from this story? Personas are not documents, and they are not the result of a step-by-step method that automagically pops out convenient facsimiles of your users. Personas are actually the designer’s focused act of empathetic imagination, grounded in first-hand user knowledge.

It’s not about the documents

Often when people talk about “personas” they’re really talking about deliverables: documents that describe particular individuals who act as stand-ins or ‘archetypes’ of users. But in his vignette, Cooper isn’t using personas for deliverables — he’s using them for design.

Modern business runs on deliverables. We know we have to make them. However, understanding the purposes our deliverables serve can help us better focus our efforts.

Documentation serves three major purposes when designing in the modern business:

1. Documentation as a container of knowledge, to pour into the brains of others.

By now, hopefully everyone reading this knows that passing stages of design work from one silo to the next simply doesn’t work. We all still try to do it, mainly because of the way our clients and employers are organized. As designers, though, we often have to route around the silo walls. Otherwise, we risk playing a very expensive version of "whisper down the lane," the game you play as kids where the first kid whispers something like "Bubble gum is delicious" into another’s ear, and by the end of the line it becomes "Double dump the malicious."

Of course there are some kinds of information you can share effectively this way, but it’s limited to explicit data — things like world capitals or the periodic table of elements. Yet there are vast reservoirs of tacit knowledge that can be conveyed only through shared experience.

If you’ve ever seen the Grand Canyon and tried to explain it to friends back home, you know what I mean. You’d never succeed with a few slides and bullet points. You’d have to sit down with them and — relying on voice, gesture and facial expression — somehow convey the canyon’s unreal scale and beauty. You’d have to essentially act out what the experience felt like to you.

And even if you did the most amazing job of describing it ever, and had your friends nearly mirroring your breathless wonderment, their experience still wouldn’t come close to seeing the real thing.

I’m not saying that a persona description can’t be a useful, even powerful, tool for explaining users to stakeholders. It can certainly be highly valuable in that role. I’m only saying that if you’re doing personas only for that benefit, you’re missing the point.

2. Documentation as a substitute for physical production.

Most businesses still run on an old industrial model based on production. In that model, there’s no way to know if value is being created unless there are physical widgets coming off of a conveyor belt — widgets you can track, count, analyze and hold in your hand.

In contrast, knowledge work – and especially design – has very little actual widget-production. There is lots of conversation, iteration, learning, trying and failing, and hopefully eventual success. Design is all about problem solving, and problems are stubbornly unmeasurable — a problem that seems trivial at the outset turns out to be a wicked tangle that takes months to unravel, and another that seemed insurmountable can collapse with a bit of innovative insight.

Design is messy, intuitive, and organic. So if an industrial-age management structure is to make any sense of it (especially if it’s juicing a super-hero efficiency approach like Six-Sigma), there has to be something it can track. Documents are trackable, stackable, and measurable. In fact, the old "grade by weight" approach is often the norm — hence the use of PowerPoint for delivering paper documents attenuated over two hundred bulleted slides, when the same content could’ve fit in a dozen pages using a word processor. The rule seems to be that if the research and analysis fill a binder that’s big enough to prop your monitor to eye level, then you must’ve done some excellent work.

In the pressure to create documents for the production machine, we sap energy and focus away from designing the user experience. Before you know it, everything you do — from the interviews and observations, to the way you take notes and record things, the way you meet and discuss them after, and the way you write your documentation — all ends up being shaped by the need to produce a document for the process. If your design work seems to revolve mainly around document deadlines, formatting, revision and delivery, stop a moment and make sure you haven’t started designing documents for stake-holders at the expense of designing experiences for users.

Of course, real-world design work means we have to meet the requirements of our clients’ processes. I would never suggest that we all stop delivering such documentation.

Part of the challenge of being a designer in such a context is keeping the industrial beast happy by feeding it just enough of what it expects, yet somehow keeping that activity separate from the real, dirty work of experiencing your users, getting them under your skin, and digging through design ideas until you get it right.

3. Documentation as an artifact of collaborative work and memory.

While the first two uses are often necessary, and even somewhat valuable, this third use of documentation is the most effective for design — essentially a sandbox for collaboration.

These days, because systems tend to be more interlinked, pervasive and complex, we use cross-disciplinary teams for design work. What happened in Cooper’s head on the golf course now has to somehow happen in the collective mind of a group of practitioners; and that requires a medium for communication. Hence, we use artifacts — anything from whiteboard sketches to clickable prototypes.

The artifacts become the shorthand language collaborators use to "speak design" with one another, and they become valuable intuitive reminders of the tacit understanding that emerges in collaborative design.

Personas, as documents, should work for designers the way scent works for memories of your childhood.

Because we have to collaborate, the documentation of personas can be helpful, but only as reminders. Personas, as documents, should work for designers the way scent works for memories of your childhood. Just a whiff of something that smells like your old school, or a dish your grandmother used to make, can bring a flood of memory. Such a tool can be much more efficient than having to re-read interview transcript and analysis documents months down the road.

A persona document can be very useful for design — and for some teams even essential. But it’s only an explicit, surface record of a shared understanding based on primary experience. It’s not the persona itself, and doesn’t come close to taking the place of the original experience that spawned it.

Without that understanding, the deliverables are just documents, empty husks. Taken alone, they may fulfill a deadline, but they don’t feed the imagination.

Playing the role

About six months ago, my thoughts about this topic were prompted by a blog post from my colleague Antonella Pavese. In her post, she mentions the point Jason Fried of 37 Signals makes in +Getting Real+ that, at the end of the day, we can only design for ourselves. This seems to fly in the face of user-centered design orthodoxy – and yet, if we’re honest, we have to realize the simple scientific fact that we can’t be our users, we can only pretend to be. So what do we do, if we’re designing something that doesn’t have people just like us as its intended user?

Antonella mentions how another practitioner, Casey Malcolm, says to approach the problem:

To teach [designers] how to design usable products for an older population, for example, don’t tell designers to take in account seniors’ lower visual acuity and decreased motor control. Let young designers wear glasses that impair their visual acuity. Tie two of their fingers together, to mimic what it means to have arthritis or lower motor control."

Antonella goes on:

So, perhaps Jason Fried is completely on target. We can only design for ourselves. Being aware of it, making it explicit can make us find creative ways of designing for people who are different from us… perhaps we need to create experience labs, so that for a while we can live the life of the people we are designing for."

At UX Week in Washington, DC this summer, Adaptive Path unveiled a side project they’d been working on — the Charmr, a new design concept for insulin pumps and continuous monitors that diabetics have to constantly wear on their bodies. In order to understand what it was like to be in the user’s skin, they interviewed people who had to use these devices, observed their lives, and ruminated together over the experience. Some of the designers even did physical things to role-play, such as wearing objects of similar size and weight for days at a time. The result? They gained a much deeper feel for what it means to manage such an apparatus through the daily activities the rest of us take for granted — bathing, sleeping, playing sports, working out, dancing, everything.

Personas aren’t ornaments that make us more comfortable about our design decisions. They should do just the opposite.

One thing a couple of the presenters said really struck me — they said they found themselves having nightmares that they’d been diagnosed with diabetes, and had to manage these medical devices for the rest of their lives. Just think — immersing yourself in your user’s experience to the point that you start having their dreams.

The team’s persona descriptions weren’t the source of the designers’ empathy — that kind of immersion doesn’t happen from reading a document. Although the team used various documentation media throughout their work – whiteboards and stickies, diagrams and renderings – these media furthered the design only as ephemeral artifacts of deeper understanding.

And that statement is especially true of personas. They’re not the same as market segmentation, customer profiling or workflow analysis, which are tools for solving other kinds of problems. Neither do personas fit neat preconceptions, use-cases or demographic models, because reality is always thornier and more difficult. Personas aren’t ornaments that make us more comfortable about our design decisions. They should do just the opposite — they may even confound and bedevil us. But they can keep us honest. Imagine that.

References:

  • Alan Cooper, “The Origin of Personas”:http://www.cooper.com/insights/journal_of_design/articles/the_origin_of_personas_1.html
  • Jason Fried, “Ask 37 Signals: Personas?”:http://www.37signals.com/svn/posts/690-ask-37signals-personas
  • Antonella Pavese, “Get real: How to design for the life of others?”:http://www.antonellapavese.com/archive/2007/04/249/
  • Dan Saffer, “Charmr: How we got involved”:http://www.adaptivepath.com/blog/2007/08/14/charmr-how-we-got-involved/

_*Author’s Note:* In the months since the first draft of this article, spirited debate has flared among user-experience practitioners over the use of personas. We’ve added a few links to some of those posts below, along with links to the references mentioned in the piece. I’d also like to thank Alan Cooper for his editorial feedback on my interpretation of his Origins article._

  • Peter Merholz, “Personas 99% bad?”:http://www.peterme.com/?p=624
  • Joshua Porter, “Personas and the advantage of designing for yourself”:http://bokardo.com/archives/personas-and-the-advantage-of-designing-for-yourself/ and “Personas as tools”:http://bokardo.com/archives/personas-as-tools/
  • Jared Spool, “Crappy personas vs. robust personas”:http://www.uie.com/brainsparks/2007/11/14/crappy-personas-vs-robust-personas/ and “Personas are NOT a document”:http://www.uie.com/brainsparks/2008/01/24/personas-are-not-a-document/
  • Steve Portigal, “Persona Non Grata”:http://interactions.acm.org/content/?p=262, interactions, January/February 2008