Long Live the User (Persona): Talking with Steve Mulder

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“Whether you’re designing tax forms, toasters, or retirement accounts, taking time to describe who your users are and what they need can always be helpful for creating a product that will best serve them.”

You’ve tried it all. User personas as posters, ala Alan Cooper, hanging on the office walls. User personas as cardboard cutouts, sitting at the conference table with you and your client. User personas as glossy deliverables. As paper mâché projects. As collages, comics, mood boards, Word documents, lists, charts, and just regular conversations.

Through all your attempts to bring user personas into your project, one thing remains consistent: user personas are hard to get right. And even if you get them right, they’re even more difficult to integrate into your day-to-day process.

Steve Mulder, user persona aficionado, has some suggestions. A whole book of them, in fact. That’s why Boxes and Arrows needed to interview him after getting a preview of his new book, The User is Always Right, late last year. Steve’s been kind enough to talk with us and to provide us with a free sample chapter below.

Liz Danzico: Congratulations on your book. What is The User Is Always Right, and, well, is it true?

Steve Mulder: This book was born out of the sinking feeling that, despite all the constant preaching about knowing your users, too many websites are created and grown without keeping users in mind. More companies are doing user research than ever before, but they’re challenged with making the results of that research understandable and actionable. Enter personas, which are generating more and more buzz.

But what are the various approaches to creating personas? How do I actually interview and survey users? How do I segment users and turn the segments into realistic personas? How do I use personas for directing overall business strategy, scoping features and content, and guiding information architecture, content, and design? The intent of this book is to give practical advice and direction on creating and using personas, and also to challenge all of us to bring personas to the next level.

So, is the user always right?

Yes, philosophically. Successful companies recognize that putting users at the center of decision-making is almost always a good idea. But taken literally, the book’s title is also a lovely, overstated attention-grabber. Let’s face it, users often can’t tell you the right direction for the website. But buried in their goals, behaviors, and attitudes (both stated and unstated) is everything you need to discover the right path. That’s why good user research isn’t just about listening to what users say.

So it sounds like analyzing research—not just plain listening to what users say—takes a certain kind of background and training. Is that true, or can anyone conduct this kind of research?

Sure, anyone can conduct this kind of research provided you don’t care whether the output is useful or not. Okay, maybe that’s harsh.

As our work as information architects, designers, marketers, or insert-your-favorite-title-here gets more sophisticated, so, too, do our methodologies. Talking to a dozen users and making critical business decisions based solely on that qualitative research just doesn’t cut it within some organizations. Increasingly, we need to raise the bar and invoke proven tools from other disciplines, such as statistical analysis techniques that enable us to generate persona segmentation based on quantitative research. We need to incorporate data on not only what users say (in a survey, for example) but also what they do (log files and search logs). All of this can inform the creation of personas that represent a much more accurate and useful portrait of users.

Raising the bar means bringing in specialists more often, or training ourselves in new specialties. But honestly, isn’t that what we love most: pushing ourselves in new directions?

Indeed. But, as you say in the book, “pushing ourselves” means playing nicely with others in the company—others in departments that may not cooperate or throw up roadblocks. You point out, “Increasingly, companies are realizing that their Web sites need to be a cornerstone of their marketing, sales, and servicing efforts.” Can we leverage these departments with their new outlook on research for tools and techniques?

Absolutely, though I’d describe it as “collaborating” with them rather than “leveraging” them. Running a business based on actionable knowledge about users requires understanding those users throughout their complete lifecycle with an organization. Thus, all customer touchpoints within a company (from sales and marketing to user experience to customer service) must come together to create a shared vision of who the users are and how to best serve them. Personas that are more rigorous and that are communicated in the language of business are more likely to bring these different groups together and bring their strengths to the table.

I’d love to talk more about the rigor or fidelity of personas. In the book, you go into great detail on how to show the right personal information in personas. Can you describe the process of turning your research into a reality?

As you saw in the book, I believe that personas are only as good as they are actionable, and that means creating realistic details that will actually inform decision making. If I say that Francis the First-Time Home Buyer loves Billy Idol, that’s an interesting detail that makes her persona more realistic, but it doesn’t help me make critical decisions about the real estate site I’m working on. On the other hand, if I say Francis is embarrassed by her ignorance of real estate and unlikely to ask friends for advice, that’s helpful information for deciding what content the site could offer and how that content should be provided.

With personas, the right kinds of details matter, and they typically involve goals, behaviors, and attitudes.

When you’re unable to talk to real people to gather research (and you give us your blessing in your book to do so!), where do you look for inspiration for creating them?

Let me first say that talking with real people is always better than not doing so. I don’t believe it’s ever a waste of time to do primary research with users. And it doesn’t take much time or effort to set up a few one-on-one interviews with typical users.

However, when even that kind of limited research is impossible, personas based on no research are better than no personas at all. At a minimum, personas force everyone to agree on and apply a shared vision of who you’re targeting and what they need, and that’s a very good thing. When creating personas in this way, involve colleagues in your organization who have direct contact with customers, such as those in sales or customer service. Take advantage of internal knowledge that already exists, then look externally at research by companies such as Forrester Research. These can be great sources of insight for brainstorming which goals, behaviors, and attitudes might be most effective for defining your personas.

I was surprised to see that you recommend using very specific photos to represent the personas. Isn’t a more general photo better? Isn’t that what Scott McCloud taught us?

Ahh, but remember that in Understanding Comics, McCloud points out that generalized sketches work well in comics because they better enable us to see ourselves in the comic. With personas, however, the whole point is to see real people as our users and not focus on ourselves. Choosing very specific photos forces us outside of the habit of thinking about ourselves. Suddenly there’s a very real person staring back at us with specific goals, behaviors, and attitudes that we must address.

Some of the examples in your book are spectacular in that they reveal details of deliverables that are often hidden behind proprietary walls. Of particular interest was the way you wove personas into the process of prioritizing features. Did extreme programming have any influence on this tool? Bringing “user stories” into their feature prioritization is a standard part of that process.

Actually, no. The tools I show in the book were simply a natural extension of what many of us already do. We talk about things like scenario-based design and use cases, but we seldom make the connections explicitly between the user research we do and the decision-making tools we use. At Molecular, we spend a lot of time drawing these connections, so it’s clear to our clients that decisions we make about features, IA, content, and design are all tied back to our knowledge about the real people we serve. Making personas a living part of the entire process is at least as important as creating effective personas to begin with, so we embed personas in our deliverables as much as we can.mulder personas

Can you talk about a time where you weren’t able to make personas part of the process despite your best efforts? Perhaps there are even times when integrating personas is not useful.

I remember a time when my team presented personas to a client using cardboard cutouts and a little role-playing, only to find that this company’s culture frowned on anything remotely touchy-feely. They wanted hard data, and we foolishly didn’t take the time to understand our audience before presenting personas to them. On that project, we continued to use personas, but because our initial presentation left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, the personas simply weren’t as effective in guiding decision making. As you can imagine, we didn’t repeat that mistake.

I was excited to see you start a book site to supplement and support the book. What are your plans for the site going forward?

The blog is intended to continue the conversation. A book is a snapshot frozen in time, but of course personas continue to evolve as a useful tool for managing websites. So my site tracks the latest news and opinions about personas, and I hope it becomes a useful resource for the community.

Did you use personas to create and guide the content for your book? How applicable are these techniques for other media?

Yes, I sketched out a few personas for the book, and found them very helpful for guiding not only what I wanted to cover, but also how to approach each topic. One persona was very much based on a client that I worked closely with, but I’ll never reveal that person’s true identity!

I absolutely believe that personas are valuable across many different domains. Whether you’re designing tax forms, toasters, or retirement accounts, taking time to describe who your users are and what they need can always be helpful for creating a product that will best serve them.

What’s next? Are you excited about using real stories and people to guide design? Are there changes coming in the way we use personas in the process?

More and more, businesses are letting real users have a tangible impact on decision-making, and I find the results exciting. My favorite current example is the way Starwood Hotels has used Second Life, that crazy virtual environment everyone is talking about, to create a large, detailed 3D model of a new chain of hotels it’s creating. In this virtual environment, users can walk through the hotel and give feedback on everything from the overall architecture to the fabrics. Starwood gains valuable feedback for improving its product before actual construction begins, and users get to contribute in a very real way.

The whole point of personas is to make users an active part of the process of running your business. Virtual or not, personas keep our eyes focused on the people who matter most: the customers we serve and who send us the business results that we so richly deserve.

icon acrobatDownload Chapter 3, The User Is Always Right (PDF)

Bring Your Personas to Life!

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“So you’ve got your persona set all neatly defined and documented. Now what? How can you ensure the persona isn’t ‘just another deliverable?’”

Most user-centered design (UCD) companies create personas (profiles of representative users) to guide their designs. To do UCD, you need to get the “U” in focus right from the start. So you’ve got your persona set all neatly defined and documented. Now what? How can you ensure the persona isn’t “just another deliverable?”

It’s in The Method
You may have heard of ’”method acting,” and how Robert DeNiro spent several months on the streets of Manhattan in a cab to prepare for his role in the movie Taxi Driver. He did this to understand the life of a taxi driver, so for movie-goers, the character felt realistic. He didn’t get advice from the drivers on how to act the role, he simply observed and eventually “became” a taxi driver, enabling him to empathize and see the world from their unique perspective.

Method acting is a technique in which actors try to replicate the emotional conditions under which a character operates, in an effort to create a life-like, realistic performance. “The Method” typically refers to the practice of actors drawing on their own emotions, memories, and experiences to influence their portrayals of characters.

Your persona is your “character sketch.” For software development projects, it may include information about the persona’s demographics, attitude, goals, environment, and how he or she will interact with your software in the context of the day. More advanced personas will also include detailed descriptions of activities or scenarios—these become the scripts for your persona to follow.

I figure the typical persona profile has just enough ingredients for our own version of “The Method.”

“The Method” was popularized by Lee Strasberg at The Actors Studio and the Group Theatre in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s. It was derived from the Stanislavski System, after Konstantin Stanislavski, who pioneered similar ideas in his quest for “theatrical truth.”

Strasberg’s students included quite a few of America’s most famous actors of the 20th century, including Paul Newman, Al Pacino, and James Dean.

Method acting combines a careful consideration of the psychological motives of the character and some sort of personal identification with and possibly the reproduction of the character’s emotional state in a realistic way. The best way to gain this understanding is to spend time with the people you’ve identified in the user requirement brainstorm. At the very least try to imagine being that person, then being that person in the act of using the software or system you’re designing.

Those trained by Strasberg often tried to experience all sensations as the character would and often used personal experience on stage to identify with the emotional life of the character and portray it.

Stella Adler, an acting coach whose fame was cemented by the success of her students Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro, broke with Strasberg and developed another form of Method acting. Her technique is founded in the idea that one must not use memories from their own past to conjure up emotion, but rather use circumstances from their imagination. She also emphasized, like Sanford Meisner, the all-importance of “action” within the theater. She often preached “we are what we do, not what we say.”

Sound familiar? Those of us working in the user experience field often comment, “it’s what users do, not what they say.”

Putting The Method to practice
The following are some of my techniques for method acting with personas. This can be done with a team of one (you), or a team of many, depending on how many personas you have and how many people are on your project team:

* Your project team is your troupe of actors.

* In larger teams, your lead designer becomes the director, and the other project team members are the actors.

* The primary persona is the character sketch for your lead actor (if you have more than one primary persona you’ll need several leading—or possibly “supporting”—actors). Because I work in small teams of 2-5 people, the director and lead actor role are usually given to the lead designer (the person who’ll call the shots for the design of your software, website, intranet, or device).

* Assign roles for the secondary personas to other members of your team—those not so involved in the core design process. You can call on these people as you need them to do a “reality check” on your designs.

* It’s the responsibility of the actors to “become” the personas. They should read the persona profile as a starting point and if possible meet with and observe users represented by the persona to get inside the head of their assigned persona.

* At your design meetings, the actors consider how decisions will affect their particular character. Questions for the persona can be directed straight to the actor. This process can become fun and enable better teamwork, depending on how enthusiastically your actors embrace The Method.

* You can expect both good and bad actors, but The Method gives the personas life, rather than keeping them locked away on paper. A bad actor is still better than a hole in your plot. (In software design, a hole in your plot is when the user experience breaks because a personas requirements have been overlooked.)

* Over time, your actors should get to know their persona profiles so well that acting becomes second nature. That means they become a user advocate—not as an outsider, but an insider.

Method acting is just one technique to better enable user-centered design and is not intended to replace observational usability testing, but it can (and should) work in unison. For each observational user test, your actors will gain even more insights to the real world and can refine their method.

You can’t beat real customers for creating an authentic user experience, but then again, actors do a pretty good job most of the time!

This article borrows some material from Wikipedia, Method acting.

Customer Storytelling at the Heart of Business Success

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“Personas and scenarios tell honest stories that are sculpted from diverse and comprehensive sets of data.”Executive Summary

As most of us know by now, customer personas and scenarios are vehicles for helping an organization continuously keep their customers in their line of sight. Traditional segmentation identifies and categorizes a current or potential audience based upon common characteristics, including demographics, attitudes, behavior, transactions, frequency of interaction, spend, and more. They are discovered by “doing the math,” which may include data aggregation, cluster analysis, factor analysis, and other statistical methods applied to large sample sets. And then segments are given catchy names like Savvy Skeptics, Active Balancers, Indulgent Nutritionist, or Trade-Uppers. When done right, segments are statistically derived from the analysis and synthesis of quantitative data and are a solid foundation for customer understanding.

We create personas to build upon that platform by bringing the individuals within those segments to life. These are prototypical, but fundamentally real, stories of the multidimensional lives of specific customers. Of course they can also be about employees, partners, competitive customers, the press, and others, but for simplicity and consistency, let’s call them customers. These are specific customers with names and faces, but they also have an underlying implicit business agenda-that is they may be “the most profitable customer three years from now” or “the customer that we want to align with our brand,” or “the customer that shops for a product online and then purchases it in the store.” Their stories include topics such as demographics and psychographics, but also include mindsets, motivations, perceptions, personal quotes, actions, desires, measurable attributes and more. Their stories are crafted from real-world business intelligence, the sources of which may range from online surveys to channel-specific transactional data to descriptions given by in-store sales associates.

This report discusses how the Arc Worldwide’s Experience Planning group uses storytelling and multidimensional customer-based stories to provide relevance, direction, and resonance in today’s business planning landscape.

We feel, as do many of our professional peers, that they are a vital tool to provide guidance to and inform decision-making within an organization. Quite often, they are equally useful as a long-term, internal organizational tool. In our design and development culture and process, they are more than just a step in the product, application, or service development process. We have seen them deeply effect the planning of numerous organizations including those involved in product development, service development and delivery, marketing, communications, and customer service, to name a few. The decisions that customer personas and scenarios inform may include new product and service pursuits, details of product and service strategy, marketing strategies, customer relationship management frameworks, media placement and more. Personas and scenarios tell honest stories that are sculpted from diverse and comprehensive sets of data. These stories place the customer and their wants, needs, emotions, and behaviors at the center of a roadmap that charts current and future businesses success.

Within our personas and scenarios, the people and their stories are not arbitrary. They are stories of the lives of our client’s current and potential customers, and they serve as comprehensive guides to how our clients should interact with those customers, in the moment or over a lifetime, to profit their business. Three years ago, personas and scenarios were “a process step” in our iterative, user-centered development process, whereas today they are the platform upon which many of our insights are communicated, and our solutions are modeled. Over the past few years, they have risen in importance and become a primary tool for communicating data analysis, strategic business frameworks, new product and service concepts, and cross-channel brand experiences. We gauge this positive change by the frequency by which they are requested by internal team members and our clients, as well their prolific use by both.

The customer at the center
The best product and application design strategies are created when a team first gains direct understanding of the people who will use the end product-those people that will actually interact with applications, products, and environments to achieve desired goals-and then shapes strategies and solutions around those individuals (or groups or companies). An understanding of the customer is at the heart of every good business. That understanding should inform the company’s product and service development, its marketing strategy, its sales strategy, its mergers and acquisitions, its positioning within the marketplace, and even its organizational structure.

All business decisions impact customers. Customers have real lives, real challenges, and real desires. Businesses have day-to-day and long-term goals of revenue generation, profit margin, market penetration, market, and brand value. We use customer observation, empathy, measurement, and ultimately understanding and predictability to spark new ideas and provide comfort and/or reassurance with strategic and tactical business decisions. The ROI of business decisions ought to be a reflection of satisfying both business and customer desires in mutually beneficial ways. Customer-centric discussions, strategy and results continue to increase their prevalence in the boardrooms. Personas are a clear, comprehensive, human way to tell those stories.

Most importantly, identify who your customers are
Segmentation may identify who your customers are, but companies must also work to prioritize those segments. Through the combination of quantitative and qualitative methods that explore attitudes, behaviors, expectations, and trends, we are able to recognize patterns in people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. From those patterns, we are able to identify their potential value to the company, their spending trends over time, and their potential to connect with a brand messages for many years. Our experience has been that, by adding these dimensions or attributes to the personas and scenarios, they can be used to inform change within various parts of a business including product planning, budget allocation, marketing strategy, customer support and more. Some examples of these attributes could include a brand campaign with media messaging strategy or a planned change in the company’s enterprise-wide development platform.

Brands must stay flexible in their ability to shape their meaning and offering to appeal to the right customers at the right time. This requires brands to have a conceptual breadth and dynamic nature such that they can configure themselves according to a customer’s needs as that customer interacts with diverse channels or touch-points. Industries such as retail, financial services, automotive, consumer packaged goods, and travel and leisure are continuously testing new brand messages and launching new brands to better fit with changing customers, market shifts, and social and cultural trends.

An evolution of personas and scenarios
The use of personas and scenarios is shifting to reflect the diversity of customers’ lives within the greater context of today’s business landscape. This human-centered process of planning and informing decision-making is being embraced by companies large and small. Every week we read articles about the way personas are used within an organization and their impact, from retail chains redesigning stores to reflect customer behaviors, to hotel chains designing services for different types of travelers, to financial service offerings that are simultaneously tailored to your lifestyle and specific life stage. On the surface, these are customer stories that illustrate mindsets, emotions, needs, tasks, and channel usage. They are communicated through narrative stories, task flows, charts of data, imagery, functional lists, and often personal quotes and resonant anecdotes. Below the surface, they are the stories of a company-how that company wants to be perceived, the experiences they want to enable, who they want to serve, and what constitutes their success. Brands, product and service offerings, customer service and cross-channel experiences demand to be crafted through a lens of whimsy, insight, pressures, perception, and unwavering consumer expectations.

Personas and scenarios can effectively tell stories of change over time. They can tell stories of what brand experiences customers have today, what we would like their experiences to be tomorrow, and “hey, what if?” These scenarios are not guarantees, but well-informed predictions of the future business-customer interaction and relationships.

Beginning a few years ago and continuing into the future, the use of personas and scenarios within our Experience Planning group and global marketing solutions company will continue to broaden in dimension, usefulness, and most importantly, business impact. The storytelling techniques that we use to communicate and predict the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of customers as they experience and interact with a company are useful in a breadth of business contexts. The following is a list of shifts or evolutions that we have experienced in our application of personas and scenarios to the business landscape. They continue to grow in complexity, vision, and usefulness in various business contexts.

Past use Current and future use
Product-focused > Business-focused
User task-oriented > Customer lifecycle-oriented
Software development tool > Strategy development tool
Tactical > Strategic
Use case tool > Business case tool
Single-channel > Multi-channel
Individual > Interconnected and community-based
New product concept > New categories of products
Anecdotal success > Success through measured business impact
Associated with a product > Associated with multiple divisions of a company
Customer-focused > Customer service-focused
Application-focused > Message, channel, frequency and media-focused
Static, one-time artifact > Living, dynamically shifting stories

The storytelling of business change

Product-focused > Business-focused
In the past, personas and scenarios have been used by single product, application or platform groups. Today, beyond product development groups, they have found their way into marketing, customer service, human resources, information technology, and sales. Many of our clients use them to introduce new employees to “their customers.” From poster-sized wall hangings to coffee mugs, these stories solidify an organization’s focus on the right customers. Part of the persona development process includes the design and development of an implementation and usage plan as well as a measurement and validation schema. We often refer to them as “living stories” that change and evolve in response to the dynamics of the business, the marketplace patterns of behavior.

User task-oriented > Customer lifecycle-oriented
Personas and scenarios are often used to illustrate or test a set of tasks that a user will attempt to accomplish using a system or product. They illustrate a user’s key interactions over time, showing how the relationship between a customer and a brand evolve over time via different and evolving interactive experiences and an ongoing brand dialogue. They illustrate the stories of a single individual (or family) and the life stages and evolution that they will experience.

Software development tool > Strategy development tool
Personas and scenarios are commonly used as a software development tool to describe the user-system interactive application design. They serve this purpose sufficiently, but also encompass a framework to tell strategic product, audience, market, and business strategy stories, telling the stories of individuals and how their lives will change over a few years. In parallel, they tell the stories of how the company, its products, services and philosophy might also evolve over those same few years. For instance, our strategic personas often paint a picture of how a brand will shift in public perception and/or marketing position over time.

Tactical > Strategic
Personas can exist at feature levels, product levels, division levels, company levels, market levels, and cultural levels. They can tell stories of new business models, new paradigms of service and of cultural shifts. They can be used to depict a “day-in-the-life” of this year, next year, and five years from now. They can tell multiple stories that span a customer’s lifetime relationship with a company. They bring to life product opportunities that are realized in the cracks of market shifts and emerging cultural changes.

Use case tool > Business case tool
Traditional use cases, most used within software development, are detailed stories of user-system interactions and responses. We can apply these same principles to defining and communicating business cases. Scenarios tell stories of what happens when a specific button is pushed or when a valuable customer calls Customer Service. They tell stories of how an interface is used to find a local store and they tell stories about what happens when that customer walks into a retail store.

Single channel > Multi-channel
Most often, personas are applied to software or website interactions. Fewer, but still many, tell stories of interactions with kiosks, portals, mobile apps, IVRs and customer support personnel. We often tell stories that incorporate brand experiences with many channels, each with the intent to move the customer closer to a transaction. The principles and techniques that are used to tell the stories of multiple interactive channels can be equally effective when applied to retail environment design and direct marketing strategies.

Individual > Interconnected and community-based
Personas are still most often about a single individual. From customer observation, we recognize that purchase decisions often involve more than one individual, including a spouse, a friend, a family member, or a “significant influencer,” as we like to say (like a grandmother, clergy, or a coach). These relationships are critical to how customers perceive, react, and experience a brand. Beyond co-decision-makers and influencers are the issues of a customer community. The use and the role of consumer-generated content and brand evangelists (extreme advocates) must be clearly defined and meticulously planned. Online forums, blogs, owner’s clubs, and streaming interviews are just a few of the data sources that emerge on the web and via traditional publishing every few seconds. You should become aware of these sources, understand their impact and anticipate how customers will use them to inform their behaviors. Make those interactions part of your personas and scenarios.

New product concept > New categories of products
As a new product concept is brought to life, the development team often realizes that potential variations or expansions to the idea exist that can be applied to other products or industries. For example, as we designed a service look-up tool for the web, we realized that this was a platform and interactive tool that could be applied to many related place-based services. Scenarios tell stories of variations on or a deviation of an existing business model, or something entirely new. They tell stories of uncertainties that are grounded in the behavior and emotions of individuals, shifts in markets, and changing cultural values. Most business landscapes are mature, so you should push on them a bit with stories of unique, but obvious, variations that stem from user understanding. We often find it useful to include characteristics or behaviors in a persona that are disruptive or anomalies to the norm.

Anecdotal success > Success through measured business impact
Throughout the years, we have not seen much focus on the definition of how a feature or product is going to be proven successful. In most cases, we have prioritized a segment, and we know its value. All businesses have success measures which might include customer acquisition, revenue generation, share of wallet, brand perception, transaction through a channel, reduced operating costs, customer satisfaction, or something else. Sure, the personal stories of individuals resonate, but the stories of actual, predicted and measurable ROI are what let business executives sleep soundly at night. You should clearly define the measurable business attributes and goals that exist within the story of each persona. Design a continuous measurement, iteration, and validation strategy that is both tactical and strategic.

Associated with a product > Associated with multiple divisions of a company
Often, our persona actors are introduced to a company and they become part of the internal fabric of product and service planning. Customers don’t care if they’re interacting with a specific division of a company; what they do care about is the ease of interaction and quality of service and overall experience. Tell fact-based stories of how customers should effortlessly cross department and divisional boundaries. You’ll know you’ve done this well when someone recognizes and identifies by name a persona actor that you created for another division within the company two years ago.

Customer-focused > Customer service-focused
Personas are usually about a current or potential customer. We have found them to be a useful tool to model the dialogue and interactions of a customer and various Customer Service Representatives (CSRs). “A caller has requested to speak to an operator through the IVR via this path. This is their issue and, in most cases, the answer can found in one of these sections of the site.” What tools does the CSR use to resolve the customer’s issue? How should a CSR gently encourage and lead a caller to solely use the web next time? We typically spend one to two days at a Customer Service Center extracting a wealth of customer knowledge that exists, as well as directly listening to the dialogue of customer calls. Customer Service Centers are often the arms that embrace many current and future customers and carry them through the purchase, service, or ownership experience. The one-to-one customer relationships that are formed by a concierge or personal assistant are often the most impactful point of influencing customer perception and behavior. These individuals and their numerous daily interactions are the hub of customer empathy and understanding within a company. They deserve the same consideration and level of planning and strategy as any other marketing or sales channel.

Application-focused > Message, channel, frequency and media-focused
Arc Worldwide is part of a larger holding company and network of advertising agencies, channel marketers, and media planners. Agency Planners have traditionally provided the data and strategy that informs message development. Agency Creatives have crafted the messages and visual work used to present those messages to the public. Media Planners and Buyers create the strategies of when and where those messages should be delivered. Our personas and scenarios often complement, guide, and bring to life the work that these different groups do. The allocation of marketing and advertising budgets is quickly shifting from a past of majority allocation to mass media, to a future of majority allocation to one-to-one, multi-channel interactions. Personas can be used to show the predictive effects of more intelligent messaging, media, and channel experiences.

Static, one-time artifact > Living, dynamically shifting stories
Traditionally, personas have been created for one-time use, to inform the application design of a single product. They are created once and then used a few reports and presentations. On occasion, an internal set of personas is updated as financial quarters or even years pass, but this is the exception. We encounter many companies that have already “gone down the persona development path,” sometimes more than once, and didn’t realize any value from that activity. Our experience has been that personas are most useful and valuable when an organization declares that satisfying their needs and tasks is an operational imperative.

Imagine a future framework in which customer personas and scenarios are dynamically generated from live data. These stories can be accessed via an online portal by various internal and external marketing, sales, and product development teams. This online tool is a sophisticated information repository with an underlying construct of three layers-a data layer, a rules layer, and a presentation layer. Many companies have access to rich volumes of data from sales, marketing, and customer data sources. The data layer comprises feeds from various sources including survey data, transaction data, loyalty data, value measurements and more. The rules layer organizes the data itself and the data in relation to other data sources. The data comes to life in the presentation layer as it is converted into visual stories in the form of frameworks, diagrams, matrices, multi-dimensional personas, and experience models. These are rich and relevant stories about your target audience and the issues of their lives that may affect your business. Because of the dynamic nature of the data, these personas are living stories that change daily.

We aggregate this real-time data within this portal and bring it to life as visualizations of customers, channel usage, advertising and marketing effectiveness, and sales. From these snapshots come real-time planning insights and opportunities. The purpose of this portal is to provide an at-a-glance status of the profile of your audience and the various channels with which they interact with your brand. This portal uses various techniques of information visualization to demonstrate the effectiveness of these channels in accomplishing specific business and marketing goals. Aggregate views of current public opinion and press coverage add an additional dimension to the story. Also built into this tool is an application for scheduling and executing research studies with various representative customer groups. Tools and information are uniquely combined and delivered to you via a custom dashboard.

What better way to drive business strategies, including messaging, product and services offered, innovation explorations, media design, interactive dialogues, store design and much more? Our belief is that through the proper use of advanced technologies, every large brand could have a dynamic customer, market, and cultural reporting platform at the heart of its business decision-making engine.

Personas and scenarios applied
Over the past two years, the Arc Worldwide Experience Planning group has written dozens of personas and scenarios that span numerous verticals and diverse business models, goals, and strategies. Together with talented visual and information designers, we create compositions that juxtapose user, business, organization, marketplace, and product details in a way that clearly communicates connections, actionable insights, and opportunities.

Some of the industries and related business problems to which these methods have been applied include:

  • Defining long-term ebusiness strategy based on how the company-patient relationship will evolve with each disease state (in the context of budget approval for multiple large-scale projects over a three-year period).
  • Validating and bringing market data-driven segments to life (to demonstrate future reliance on and interaction with the financial service company’s emerging global intranet).
  • Architect multi-channel user experiences and define effective customer purchase processes for a range of high revenue-generating products (to optimize category specific, multi-channel shopping processes).
  • Planning and launching a new home entertainment product category, product, service, and brand; (telling stories of the customer relationship continuum from initial consideration, through service purchase, the out-of-box experience, installation, usage and customer service).
  • Understanding how regional travelers plan trips and what channels and mediums they use to plan. (also clearly defined were the goals, considerations, and the types of information that are critical to their success and peace of mind).
  • Increase brand awareness and penetration of a consumer package good in specific European markets (provide a framework to generate new ideas to increase product loyalty).
  • Understand the interconnections and relationships between a union and its members.
  • Tell stories of regional and local difference and opportunities around military recruiting (tied to emotions, values, behaviors, and the effectiveness of various messaging and media).

Whatever the industry, we craft user personas and scenarios to communicate clear, digestible plans and strategies that are embraced as useful and engaging throughout organizations. As mentioned, in many cases we introduce organizations to their customers for the first time. And in other cases, the introductions are broader, including a strategy for shifting market position or measuring business success.

Conclusion and recommendations
Amazon, Home Depot, Delta Airlines, Sears, Discover, Morgan Stanley, Microsoft, Toyota and many others have integrated customer personas and scenarios into their strategic planning process. They provide flexibility, adaptability and a real-world usefulness that many business strategy and forecasting techniques do not. Whether your client’s target audience is students, sales associates, doctors, online shoppers, future soldiers, insurance agents, financial advisors, or business partners, we recommend that you use personas and scenarios to capture their essence, apply it to business issues, and tell stories of future business success.

Arc Worldwide Experience Planners ensure that Arc’s products and services are informed and inspired by the attitudes and behaviors of customers while appropriate and innovative in supporting business objectives. With a holistic and relentless focus on creating engaging customer experiences that meet business needs, Experience Planners are highly skilled in activities frequently associated with behavioral market research, business process analysis, usability engineering, information architecture, and interaction design. Employing an iterative, user-centered development approach, Experience Planners create the blueprint for products and services that are at least relevant and efficient, at most delightful, loyalty-inciting, and life-altering. They invent and improve experiences across interactive media and real-world spaces: from in-store kiosks to websites; from personalization infrastructures to interactive games and mobile UIs. Experience Planning is part of Arc’s larger global Insights & Analytics group.

Parrish Hanna is VP, Director of Experience Planning at Arc Worldwide. Previously, Parrish served as President of HannaHodge, a groundbreaking user experience firm that he co-founded in 1998. For over a decade, he has spent the better part of each week planning better experiences for humans and refining the process to do so. He considers himself fortunate to have worked with brilliant people toward making the products of enlightened companies like Cadillac, Ford, Vanguard, Disney, Samsung, IBM, Sears, Intel, and Xerox easy and pleasurable to use. Parrish has a B.A. in Industrial Design, an M.A. in Human-Computer Interaction, and a handful of patents and industry awards. He’s a regular publisher and speaker on issues related to experience design.

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

Extending a Technique: Group Personas

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Spock: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Kirk: “Or the one.”

–Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan

I recently had the pleasure of teaching a workshop on applying user-centered design methods to personal technology design in a European amusement park.

The workshop started out typically. We interviewed company management, mapped out the goals of the company, the context in which the project was being done and collected information about how people currently behaved in the park. We then identified several classes of users, created personas for them, and started creating scenarios using these personas.

Initially, the workshop progressed about as it would if we were going to be designing a piece of desktop software or a website, but the minute we started developing personas and scenarios, the unique nature of the park started to become clear. We first sketched out some personas, and that went fine. But once we began working with scenarios for a while, trying to create believable situations for these characters to behave in, we noticed something: all of our scenarios consisted of groups of personas interacting with the environment or with other groups of personas. That’s when we realized that individuals mostly don’t act alone in amusement parks. People rarely go alone and they don’t make decisions alone. Needs and desires are negotiated in a group, not expressed individually. People really fully embrace the experience only when they’re experiencing it with others. In this environment, individual personas and scenarios for them matter less than what happens to groups of people.

So we decided to see if we could make group personas. At first, there was some apprehension–what if the groups are so varied as to be impossible to characterize? But as soon as we started making them, only several different kinds of personas made sense and it became a straightforward extension of Alan Cooper’s original persona technique. Here’s how we did it.

Individual descriptions
We had started by describing individual personas, so we had the building blocks of groups, and we used those personas as the basis of our subsequent work. Those personas were based on several visitor categories that we defined based on the park’s operators’ knowledge of their audience–the statistics they had and their personal experience with the park:

  • Teenagers
  • Young adults
  • Pre-teens
  • Young parents
  • Grandparents

We decided to leave the profiles broad, rather than going into detailed persona building, and described each group along some criteria appropriate to the problems the park was trying to solve. Young parents, for example were described thus:

  • Age: 25-35
  • Children: 2
  • Budget: $75-100 per day (in the park, not including tickets) per parent
  • Technology: cell phone (6-24 months old), digital camera, video camera, computer at home, internet connectivity in the office
  • Desires: have fun with kids, let kids run around in safe place
  • Needs: to have fun, too; place to change diapers; place to sit down; to buy food/drink

Of course, this only scratches the surface of how young parents in an amusement park can be described–we could have defined different criteria based on gender, culture (this park has sizable populations of visitors from as far as Poland), etc.–but time was limited and it was enough to get us started creating group personas.

Rough outlines
Before fleshing out the group personas, we decided to make some rough outlines of the clusters of people one might find in the park. Based on what we had heard from the park staff and additional interviews we conducted with a couple of friends-of-friends who had visited the park as tourists, we came up with four different groups to focus on, and tried to give them distinctive names:

  • The Teen Posse
  • Young Parents, Young Kids
  • The Extended Family
  • College-age Friends

We also defined some axes along which we could define the group. Again, we chose to pick out those qualities that we felt would be valuable in answering the park’s questions, rather than trying to describe every detail. Thus, the “Young Parents, Young Kids” general description looked like this:

  • Number of people in group: 5
  • People in group: 2 adults, 2 kids ages 3-10, grandparent
  • Time spent in park per day: 6 hours
  • Number of days visiting park: 2
  • Season: August

The level of detail at this stage needed to emphasize the group as a whole and make it different from the other groups, without burdening it (and ourselves) with descriptions that didn’t affect the end experience. We didn’t describe the individual members of the group, and included as few constraining specifics as possible. Such details and idiosyncrasies would come in the persona, which we did next.

Iterative persona creation
We developed each persona in several passes, both to refine the persona until it had sufficient believability and because this was the first time any of us had developed group personas, so we naturally ended up over-describing certain aspects and under-describing others. The process was roughly as follows:

  • a rough sketch, where we quickly outlined the persona, determining its composition and adding some defining details
  • a detail brainstorm, where we added as many details as we could, even if they were silly, contradictory or redundant
  • editing, where we cut out everything we thought was irrelevant to addressing the project focus, and clarified overlapping ideas
  • preliminary scenario writing, during which we “exercised” the personas by walking them through some examples in which they interacted with the park and some of the design ideas on the table
  • tuning, where we adjusted the personas based on what we had learned from the scenarios

After a couple of days of doing this for 2-3 hours per group persona, we had four fleshed-out group personas and some scenarios that we felt were typical examples of groups who visited the park and how they would behave. These we used to examine the problems the park was experiencing and our proposed solutions.

Example: The Ancona Family, a secondary persona
Note: this persona is significantly modified from what we developed in the workshop.

Back story
Luisa and Giorgio, a couple in their mid-30s, have decided that the family needs a vacation. It’s mid-August and they’re spending time with Luisa’s parents, Maria and Carlo, at their home outside of Rome. Mauricio and Laura, their children, are getting bored and cranky and clearly need a break from hanging out at the grandparents’ house. Giorgio suggests they spend a weekend at an amusement park with water rides before they go to Rimini for the traditional week on the beach. Maria, Luisa’s mother, will come along. She’s always willing to help out with the kids.

Luisa and Giorgio are in their mid-30s. They live in Rome. They’ve been married for five years. Giorgio is a mechanical engineer and Luisa is a full-time parent and also works part-time at her parents’ grocery store.

Mauricio and Laura are their 7- and 4-year-old children.

Maria is Luisa’s mother. She is in her late 50s. She lives outside of Rome with her husband, Carlo. They own a small grocery store, where Maria manages, in addition to being a full-time homemaker.

Technology use
The park was interested in developing wearable or portable technology for people to use as they’re being entertained, so we included a range of technologies in our description, rather than just focusing on computer and software experience, as we would have if this was a piece of software or a website.

Luisa and Giorgio have mobile phones. They’re very comfortable sending text messages, and typically send 3-5 to each other per day. Luisa sometimes uses hers to play video games and she texts one of her friends almost every day. Luisa’s phone is newer than Giorgio’s and has a camera.

They have a two-year-old computer at home, which Giorgio and Luisa use to send email (they have a dialup internet account) and which the kids use to play video games and watch DVDs.

Giorgio has a faster internet connection at his office.

They have a digital video camera with them, which Luisa bought for Giorgio for his last birthday.

Maria doesn’t have a mobile phone, but she’s comfortable using one.

Luisa and Giorgio have taught Mauricio how to call the emergency number on a mobile phone, but he’s otherwise not used one even though he understands in principle how they work.

Group goals are a negotiated combination of individual goals. In a family trip, most of the long-term goals are set by the parents, and most of the short-term goals are set by the kids.

Mauricio has one major goal: to ride the big roller coaster over and over again. He’s never been on one, but he knows about it. He’s also very interested in the dinosaur area.

Laura has never been to an amusement park before, so she doesn’t know what to expect, but her parents told her about the costumed mascots and water rides and she’s excited to see those.


  • Have fun with his kids
  • Wants to use his new video camera
  • Wants to ride the roller coaster


  • Wants to spend time with Giorgio and her kids
  • Wants to ride the ferris wheel


  • Talk to her daughter
  • Spend time with her grandchildren

Combining these, we get a set of general goals:

  • Ride the big roller coaster
  • Avoid boredom
  • Spend time together

In our example, goals are individual but they affect the whole group, whereas needs are mostly group-wide. This may be a product of our process, or it may point to a general case of how group personas work.

  • Find each other
  • Find the bathroom
  • Be entertained while waiting in line
  • Get food/water
  • Rest for Maria, while kids are being entertained

Purchasing profile
Since selling stuff is a key amusement park revenue stream, we decided to do a short profile of what the group is likely to purchase throughout the day.

  • Ice cream, bought by Maria, as a treat for the kids
  • Soda in a theme cup, requested by Laura, bought by Giorgio
  • Lunch for everyone, bought by Luisa and Giorgio
  • Disposable camera bought by Luisa
  • Sunscreen, bought by Luisa
  • T-shirts for Mauricio and Laura, bought by Giorgio

Example: Ancona family scenarios
Having developed a general group persona, the next step was to develop some scenarios using the persona in order to test it and further refine it.

Day narrative
We began with a general narrative of what happens during the day. Here’s an abbreviated version of the first day:

6:00 AM: kids wake up
8:00 AM: breakfast at Maria and Carlo’s home
9:00 AM: family leaves for park
10:30 AM: arrive at hotel near park, check in
11:30 AM: leave for park
12:00 PM: arrive at park, buy tickets, go in, start getting oriented
12:30 PM: orientation chaos: where to go? what to do? Negotiation and prioritization.
12:45 PM: Giorgio and Mauricio head for roller coaster. Luisa, Laura and Maria start looking for a place where Maria can wait with Laura while Luisa joins her husband and son.
1:00 PM: Giorgio and Mauricio arrive, get in line.
1:15 PM: Luisa and Maria find picnic area where Maria can wait.
1:30 PM: Luisa joins Giorgio and Mauricio.
2:30 PM: Luisa, Giorgio and Mauricio get to the front of the line and ride the roller coaster. Everyone is very hungry.
2:45 PM: Group reunited, start looking for lunch.
3:00 PM: Lunch bought at stand near picnic area.

Where are Giorgio and Laura?
Using this structure, we started thinking about technological solutions: what problems are encountered? How can the information technology we know the family has or has experience with affect the situation? How can the park benefit?

Business problem:
People complain of getting lost when trying to reunite when groups separate.

Laura really wanted to go on the water flume ride, but since everyone gets soaked while on it, the rest of the family doesn’t really want to go. Giorgio and Luisa agree that he’ll go, while she and Mauricio and Maria go to the ferris wheel. Since everyone gets soaked, Giorgio doesn’t want to take his mobile phone and leaves it with Luisa. Now, how will they meet up again? They don’t know how long the lines at the various rides are. How will they know when to meet? If the water ride line is as long as the roller coaster and the ferris wheel has no line, then Luisa, Maria and Mauricio may end up waiting hours for Giorgio and Laura to get back.

Potential solutions:

  • Wait-time kiosks. If there are kiosks scattered around the park that tell people how long the lines at the rides are, then the family can estimate how long the whole process will take and pick a time and place to meet up again.
  • RFID bracelets/ride check-in. Everyone gets a wrist bracelet when they buy their ticket. Assume that each bracelet has an RFID (radio frequency ID) tag in it and people’s IDs are linked
  • Waterproof mobile phone bags. Watertight bags provided by the park for people waiting in line for water rides. These allow people to coordinate and communicate using the tools they’re familiar with.

Using the group persona, we were able to explore and evaluate how well these solutions worked, both for the Anconas and for the park. The low-tech solution, the bags, is cheap and requires the minimum investment by the park in new technology and by the Anconas in learning a new system, but it’s not without problems. What if Giorgio, who’s quite attached to his phone, doesn’t trust the bag?

What we learned
This exercise was incredibly helpful when we started designing technology to support people’s experience in the park.

Groups are not individuals, though they sometimes act like them.
As the persona is developed and as scenarios are written, the focus shifts from the individuals in a group to the group as a whole. The group is rarely treated as an entity identical to an individual, but it often behaves as one. So when the Anconas move around the park, they’re often moving as a group. Where they go may be heavily influenced by one person’s desires (Mauricio’s desire to ride the big coaster), but the decision is made collectively and they act as a group.

Group descriptions should have moderate detail, but not too much.
While it’s not necessary to describe either the group or its members in deep detail, some description is important. In fact, describing groups as groups is actually tough: we just don’t have that many axes along which we typically describe small groups: we can number the members and collect aggregate demographic information, but that’s about it. We had to invent a lot of the categories we used on the fly.

The design goal drives the persona description.
Remembering that this was an amusement park and that we were going to be designing ways in which the park could support and encourage the use of personal technology really helped focus the persona development process. It narrowed the directions we explored and how we spent our time fleshing out ideas. There were times when we’d go too far into describing the persona and clearly enjoying the storytelling aspect too much, which was fine and often useful, but then the design goal allowed us to edit what we had produced so that it was most relevant.

Imperfection is important.
We found we had a tendency to tell stories where everything goes right and technology saves the day and makes everyone happy. Though this made us feel good, it’s not realistic, and the exercise of examining where our ideas could fail, where they could be misunderstood and misused, was quite helpful.

This is a really useful tool for realistic idea generation.
When given a broad mandate, this technique allowed us to narrow the space of all possible uses of technology from what was merely possible to what seemed like it would be actually useful and valuable. It defined the space in which we could create innovative ideas and to understand where services that bridged technologies made sense and where they didn’t. It also allowed us to see the problems with some of the ideas.

Extending traditional techniques to groups is possible and valuable.
This was the first time I tried this technique. Frankly, I kind of invented it on the spot and my workshop participants ran with it, but the process of taking a known technique and stretching it to a new set of problems proved quite valuable, both in terms of helping us solve the problems we were tasked with and in terms of understanding what I know about individual personas.

Extending to other kinds of experience design.
So what does all of this amusement park stuff have to do with software and websites? It’s directly applicable to software that’s used by groups. Entertainment, education, and collaboration software is often used by two or more people simultaneously (and not in the sequential “I edit this, then I give it to you to edit” model, but simultaneously). It’s difficult to imagine teleconferencing software without thinking about two groups—one at either end of the connection—using it; sometimes these are groups of executives, sometimes they’re technical collaborators, sometimes they’re mixed. Each of these different groups has a different set of needs and expectations from the software, and each can be modeled as a group persona, rather than as individual users.

In the most general sense, as our tools become more social, as information processing and ubiquitous computing pervade our environment, so should our techniques to model their users. Group personas are a small and easy step.


Cooper, Alan. The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How To Restore the Sanity. Indianapolis, IN: Macmillan, 1999.

Cooper, Alan, et al, Newsletters on Personas.

Kuniavsky, Mike. Observing the User Experience: a Practitioner’s Guide to User Research. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann, 2004.

Olsen, George, Persona Toolkit (.pdf), February, 2004.

Disney Trip Report Archive, 27 July, 2004.

Mike Kuniavsky is the author of Observing the User Experience: A
Practitioner’s Guide to User Research
(Morgan Kaufmann), and has been
developing commercial websites since 1994. He is a founding partner of
Adaptive Path, one of the world’s premier user experience consulting
companies. Previous to co-founding Adaptive Path, Mike was the
interaction designer of HotBot, the award-winning search engine, and
creator of the Wired User Experience Laboratory, where he served as chief

He is currently an independent consultant, focused on ubiquitous
computing and on the ways that such technology changes everyday objects
and experiences. His blog is www.orangecone.com.