Bringing Holistic Awareness to Your Design

Written by: Joseph Selbie

Gone, thankfully, are the days when the user experience and the user interface were an afterthought in the website design process, to be added on when programming was nearing completion. As our profession has increasingly gained importance, it also become increasingly specialized: information design, user experience design, interaction design, user research, persona development, ethnographic user research, usability testing—the list goes on and on. Increased specialization, however, doesn’t always translate to increased user satisfaction.

My company conducted a best practice study to examine the development practices of in-house teams designing web applications—across multiple industries, in companies large and small. Some teams were large and highly specialized, while others were small and required a single team member to perform multiple roles. We identified and validated best practices by measuring user satisfaction levels for the applications each team had designed; the higher the user satisfaction scores for the application, the more value we attributed to the practices of the team that designed it.

We did not find any correlation with user satisfaction and those teams with the most specialized team members, one way or the other: some teams with the most specialization did well, and some teams did poorly. What we did consistently observe among teams that had high user satisfaction scores, was one characteristic that stood out above all the others—what we began to call shared, holistic understanding. Those teams that achieved the highest degree of shared, holistic understanding consistently designed the best web applications. The more each team member understood the business goals, the user needs, and the capabilities and limitations of the IT environment—a holistic view—the more successful the project. In contrast, the more each team member was “siloed” into knowing just their piece of the whole, the less successful the project.

All of the members of the best teams could tell us, with relative ease, the top five business goals of their application, the top five user types the application was to serve, and the top five platform capabilities and limitations they had to work within. And, when questioned more deeply, each team member revealed an appreciation and understanding of the challenges and goals of their teammates almost as well as their own.

The members of the teams that performed less well not only tended not to understand the application as a whole, they saw no need to understand it as a whole: programmers did not care to know about users, user researchers did not care to know about programming limitations, and stakeholders were uninvolved and were considered “clueless” by the rest of the development team. These are blunt assessments of unfortunate team member attitudes, but we were surprised how often we found them to be present.

We also observed that the best teams fell into similar organizational patterns—even though there was a blizzard of differing titles—in order to explore and understand the information derived from business, users and IT. We summarized the organization pattern in the diagram below. We chose generic/descriptive titles to simplify the picture of what we observed. In many cases there were several people composing a small team such as the “UI Developer(s)” or the “User Representative(s)” often with differing titles. Also fairly common were very small teams where the same person performed multiple roles.

Holistic Awareness Fig 1

Fig. 1 — Teams tend to organize in similar patterns in response to the information domains they need to explore and understand

Even this simplified view of the development team reveals the inherent complexity of the development process. The best team leaders managed to not only encourage and manage the flow of good information from each information domain, but they also facilitated thorough communication of quality information across all the team members regardless of their domain. Here’s how they did it.

Five Key Ways to Promote Shared, Holistic Understanding

1. All team members—all—conduct at least some user research

Jared Spool once wrote that having someone conduct user research for you is like having someone take a vacation for you—it doesn’t have the desired effect! On the best teams, everyone, from programmers to stakeholders, participate to some degree in user research. A specialist on the team often organizes and schedules the process, provides scenario scripts or other aids to the process, but everyone on the team participates in the research process and thus has direct contact with actual users. There is no substitute for direct contact with users. Interviewing living breathing users, ideally in their own home or work place, makes a deeper impression than any amount of documentation can duplicate.

2. Team members participate in work and task flow workshops

Designing applications to support the preferred work and task flow of the users—providing the right information, in the right features, at the right time—is one of the hallmarks of applications that get high user satisfaction scores. The best teams devote enough whiteboard-style collaborative workshop time to explore work and task flow (including in the sessions actual users when possible), until all team members truly understand all the steps, loops and potential failure paths of their users.

3. Team members share and discuss information as a team

A simple practice, but one which is often overlooked, is taking the time to share and discuss findings and decisions with the entire team. Too often teams communicate information of significant importance to the project through documentation alone or through hurried summaries. Even if it is not possible for the team to participate in all user research or in mapping out all work and task flow on a whiteboard together, at a minimum, the team should go through the results of these processes in sufficient detail and with sufficient time to discuss and understand what has been learned.

Direct participation is the most effective way to learn and understand. Full and relaxed discussion with team members is the second best. Reading documentation only is the least effective way for team members to retain and understand project information.

4. Team members prioritize information as a team

Not only is it important that all team members be familiar with information from all three domains (business goals, user needs, and IT capabilities), but it is especially significant that they understand the relative importance of the information—its priority.

My company developed what we call a “Features and Activity Matrix”, based on our own experience designing applications, and from the practices we observed in our study. The features and activity matrix accomplishes two things:

  1. It forces teams to translate business goals, user input and IT capabilities into specific proposed features or activities that a user would actually see and use at the interface level. We have found that if an identified user need (for example, the need to know currency conversion values) isn’t proposed as a specific feature (say, a pop-up javascript-enabled converter, tied to a 3rd party database) then a potentially important user need either gets lost, or is too vague to design into the application.
  2. The features and activities matrix allows team members to prioritize the proposed features and activities from the perspective of their own domain through a process of numeric ranking. Business ranks according to the importance to the business, IT ranks according to “doability” (measuring budget, resources and schedule against each proposed feature and activity), and the user representatives rank according to their assessment of what will make users most satisfied.

The numeric ranking for each feature or activity, from each domain, is then averaged to arrive at a consensus prioritization of every feature and activity proposed for the application. If, as is usually the case, the team is already aware that they cannot do everything that has been requested or proposed, this is a very effective way to determine which features and activities are not going to make the cut and which ones have the highest importance.

Holistic Awareness Fig 2

Fig.2 — Features and Activities Matrix. Note that we used a ranking scale of 1-5, 5 being the most important.

5. Team members design together in collaborative workshops

Once information from all three domains is gathered, analyzed, shared and prioritized, the remaining—and most powerful—practice to promote a shared, holistic understanding is to conduct wireframe-level, whiteboard-style, collaborative design sessions. Your session participants should include a solid representation of users, business and IT but not exceed roughly 12 people. In these workshops teams can work out together the basic layout, features and activities for most of the core screens needed for a project. These sessions can, and should, require multiple days. We have found that between 10 and 20 core screens can be considered, discussed, iterated and designed in 4-5 days of workshops.

Make sure everyone is fully engaged: business cannot be half committed, and IT cannot say that they will determine later if the screen can be built. All team members should be prepared to make real-time decisions in the collaborative design session. Inevitably there will be a few things that simply cannot be decided during the session, but the greater the shared, holistic understanding that already exists, the fewer things that will require processing and final decisions outside the session.

A well prepared collaborative design session both promotes and leverages the team’s shared, holistic understanding of the project. Even though they are time consuming, collaborative workshops eventually save time because the team ends up needing less iterations to refine and finish the design. Collaborative workshops also insure higher quality; there are fewer missteps and errors down the line because of the shared understanding of the design. Finally, collaborative workshops create great buy-in from business and IT. It is far less likely that some—or all—of the project will undergo unexpected or last minute changes if the goals and priority of features is clearly established during the design process.

Whatever the size and structure of your team, and no matter how many or how few specialists it has, your outcomes will be better if everyone shares a holistic understanding of the work at hand. Taking the extra time as a team to develop a shared holistic understanding pays off in greater efficiency in the long run—and most importantly—in greater user satisfaction and overall success!

UX Design-Planning Not One-man Show

Written by: Holger Maassen

A lot of confusion and misunderstanding surrounds the term "user experience." The multitude of acitivities that can be labeled with these two words span a vast spectrum of people, skills and situations. If you ask for UX design (UXD), what exactly are you asking for? Similary, if someone tells you they are going to provide you with UXD for an application, website or intranet or extranet, what exactly are you going to get?

Is it just one person who is responsible or is it a team of people who are in charge of UXD? In this story I´ll sketch my ideas of UXD based on my experiences and at the end of this story I will give you my answer.

Let us start at the beginning – UXD starts with experience – experience of the users. And so I will talk about the users first.



UXD-P – every person is an individual

Every person is an individual. Every person is in possession of different roles. For each individual there will be many roles and each person adopts a different role depending on the circumstances.

roles of experiences

User Roles

Sometimes the individual person holds one role, but mainly he will hold quite a few roles like consumer, customer, user, client, investor, producer, creator, participant, partner, part of a community, member, and so on.



UXD-P – network of expectations, experiences and knowledge

Every user is multi-faceted – and is considerably more complex than they themselves can imagine – so it´s not very helpful just to talk to the user or ask him what he needs. We have to watch what people do; we have to listen to what people say and to recognize what decisions people make – and by observing we have to evaluate and understand why they do this and that. Why and what kind of visual elements will the user like, prefer and or understand? Why and what kind of mental model, navigation or function do they respond to?

Jakob Nielsen said “To design an easy-to-use interface, pay attention to what users do, not only what they say. Self-reported claims are unreliable, as are user speculations about future behaviour.” (Jakob Nielsen – Alertbox) and I agree – I think no statement can be objective. Perhaps the circumstances are not realistic or not reasonable for the person. Or maybe the person himself is not really in the “situation,” or he is being influenced by other factors (trying to please the tester for example). Or maybe he is trying to succeed with the test rather than trying and failing, which tells us so much more.

When all three perspectives (do, say, make) are explored together, we are able to realize the experience spectrum of the “normal” user/customer we are working for.

Jesse James Garrett said: “User experience is not about how a product works on the inside. User experience is about how it works on the outside, where a person comes into contact with it and has to work with it” (J.J.Garrett – The Elements of User Experience) .

areas of experiences


Areas of experiences: different areas which effect the quality of communication



UXD-P – personal and individual

When we talk about experiences, we take the individual into consideration, including the subjective occurrences felt by the person who has the “confrontation” with what we want them to use. Experiences are momentary and brief – sometimes they are part of a multi-layered process or they are on their own.

Normally such know-how has been learned as a part of something or by itself and will be remembered in the same way – but that’s not always the case – and the person deals with the situation in a different way. If we look at their exeperience as a continuum, the user brings their experiences of the past to the interaction in the present and adds their hopes for the future. That future could be: to interact with their banking in a safe and secure way.

flow of experiences

Flow of Experience

Flow of experience: the individual user/customer is always in the present – they act in the present. They are influenced by former experiences and current expectations.

UXD-P is taking the users’ views, behavior, and interactions, to figure out the emotional relationship between them and the thing we have built. For the most part these "people" and their experiences are unknown. It requires an appreciation of the customer: their journey, their personal history and their experiences.

It is the collective set of experiences, in the online-world, the offline-world, or even tiny little things (i.e. My coffee was cold this morning) that affects their experience of the products and the companies that represent them. It is about appreciating the individual user’s unmet needs, wants, capabilities and desires in a contextual way. It´s a box of experiences including the things the user saw, acted and felt. (BBC Two [12th February 2008, 9pm, BBC Two] had a program on rational thought. Highlights of the program include: Loss complex, Post-decision rationalization, Priming, Precognition. Watch highlights from the programme : )

Experiences and expectations meet in the present. Both are inseperably combined, and every action we take takes both parts into consideration. When a person uses an application, he tries to understand what happens. He will always try to reference this to his past experiences. The moment is also tightly coupled to his expectations of his personal outlook.

At this point of “present” I think of the UX honeycomb of Peter Morville [1] …

honeycromb – Peter Morville

Morville’s "honeycomb"

honeycomb – Peter Morville (P.Morville – Facets of the User Experience)

In the present we have to deliver to the individual user and his specific task the best answers to following questions.

  • Is the application useful for the individual user and his specific task?
  • Is the application usable for the individual user and his specific task?
  • Is the application desirable for the individual user and his specific task?
  • Is the application valuable for the individual user and his specific task?
  • Is the application accessible? Available to every individual user, regardless of disability?
  • Is the target findable for the individual user and his specific task?
  • Is the application credible for the individual user and his specific task?

In the UXD-P the whole team has to take the users’ views of the GUI and the interactions to figure out the emotional relationship between the brand and potential customers. It requires a common appreciation of the customer journey and their personal history: not only with the product and similar products, but also with similar experiences.



UXD-P – teamwork and cooperation

The first stage in discovering – to invent or design for the experience – is to take a new viewpoint about the people who buy and use the products and services we are designing. This is a birdseye view and from step to step we have to use the "mouseview," which is to say a detailed view from the user’s perspective, as we develop the application we have to switch between these views. Our main desire is to to respect, value, and understand the continuum of experience and expectations our users have .

UXD-P can sometimes be a slippery term. With all the other often used terms that float around: interaction design, information architecture, human computer interaction, human factors engineering, usefulness, utility, usability and user interface design. People often end up asking, “What is the difference between all these fields and which one do I need?” If the UXD is aimed to describe the user’s satisfaction, joy or success with an application, product or website, however we specify it, there are a few key essentials which need to be tackled and I have to point out the UX honeycomb of Peter Morville [1] a second time. Each of these points, as enlightened above, makes up a considerable component of the user experience. Each is made effective due to the design offerings from each of the following elements:

Usefulness is based upon utility and usability. This means the product is able to give exactly the right kind of service and what the user is expecting from it. And it´s the joy of reaching my aims and the joy of doing so easily. The information architecture is in charge of clarity of the information and features, lack of confusion, a short learning curve and the joy of finding. The designing of the interaction is essential for a successful and overall satisfying experience. So the interaction design has to answer the questions of workflow, logic, clarity, and simplicity of the information. Visual design is responsible for the clarity of the information and elements, simplicity of tools and features, pleasant or interesting appearance of the interface, the visual hierarchy, and the joy of look and feel. Accessibility is a common term used to describe how easy it is for people to use applications or other objects. It is not to be mixed up with usability which is used to describe how easily an application, tool or object can be used by any type of user. One meaning of accessibility specifically focuses on people with disabilities: physical, psychological, learning, among others. Even though accessibility is not an element of its own, it is important to notice that accessibility also plays a role on the whole user experience to increase the likelihood of a wide-ranging user experience. People tend to gravitate to something that is easier to use regardless of who it might have been designed for.

The UXD innovation process is a nonlinear spiral of divergent and convergent activities that may repeat over time. Any design process begins with a vision. This applies particularly to the UX process. A vision, however, is not enough to start design. As I mentioned before, we always have different circumstances, users and roles. Therefore, it is critical to accurately understand the end user’s needs and requirements – his whole experience and expectations. The UX process relies on iterative user research to understand users and their needs. The most common failure point in UX processes is transferring the perspective of users to UI design. The key is to define interaction first, without designing it. First, all the research (the user, product and environment) have to be organized and summarized in a user research composition. These lead to user profiles, work activities, and requirements for the users. The user research composition feeds directly into use cases. The use cases show steps to accomplish task goals and the content needed to perform interactions. Completed use cases are validated with the intended user population. This is a checkpoint to see if the vision is being achieved and the value is clear to users and the project team. The next step is to design the user interface, generating directly from the interaction definition. A primary concern with design is to not get locked into a single solution too early. To keep the project on time, this step should be split into two parts: rough layout and exact and detailed design. The rough layout allows experimentation and rapid evaluation. Detailed design provides exacting design and behavior previews of the final application that specify what is to be coded. Iterative user evaluations at both stages are connected to be fast and effective in improving GUI, design feedback, rapid iterative evaluations, and usability evaluations.

UX workflow cycle


design workflow – workcycle – workspiral




UXD-P – Gathering the elements

The diagram below presents the relationship of the elements above:

elements of UXD-P

Elements of UXD-P

Lewin’s equation

Lewin’s Equation, B = f (P,E) ( B – Behaviour; f – Function; P – Person; E – Environment ), …

… is a psychological equation of behaviour developed by Kurt Lewin. It states that behaviour is a function of the person and his or her environment [2].
There is a desired behaviour that we need to encourage, but we have no control over the person, so via interaction design, information architecture and interface design we control the environment and therefore generate the desired behavior. (see reference: ).



UXD-P – many steps to go but every step is worth it

How do we involve our team, customer and our user/consumer? We can start at different points, but I like to think about the circumstances first. Where do we come from? Where are we? Where will we go? And who is “we”? “We” means each person who is involved in the project. Iin the centre of each effort stands the user. To get the user with his personal experiences and expectations into the project, the design team and the customer needs a combining glue / tool / instrument. I believe these are the personas of the “target users/consumers” in the process of UXD-P. If there are no personas the second or third choice are scenarios or the workflows (based on a certain user/person).

The management point of view for the most cases is also the view of our customer. It includes the user’s/consumer’s age, income, gender and other demographics. The perspective of UXD-P is to look at behaviour, goals and attitude.

To get a realistic persona we have to identify first of all the target users. Out of my experiences this is not only the task of our client to define the users and consumers – we have to support him. During the identification and characterization we have to go beyond demographics and try to understand what drives individual users and consumers to do what they do and these as detailed in quantity and quality as necessary and possible – like I mentioned above. The approach and the complexity of the characterization depend on the tasks, project and functionalities. Parallel to the very personal description we need a “picture” of the environment. For each persona we must define their business and/or their private concerns and aims. Do they want to research a product for purchase later? Are they concerned about not wasting time primarily? Do they just want to purchase something online as easy and quick as possible?

Depending on these personas we can formulate, discuss and prove scenarios – from the very beginning of the project, during the project and as check or analysis at the end of the project.






UXD-P – my blueprint of schedule – "todos" and deliverables

We are always asking and being asked: what are the deliverables. Throughout my career as an IA, UX-planner and designer, as well as during my study of architecture and town planning, I have constantly asked myself following the questions:

  • What kind of project is it? What are the key points?
  • What should our steps and milestones be in the project?
  • What should our/my deliverables be?
  • How can we/I explain the main idea?

I have realized that if I do not answer these questions previous to creating a deliverable, I waste more time and deadlines slip.

The deliverables are not for us. The deliverables are a means of communication with several people: manager, decision maker, client, designer, front-end developers, back-end developers, etc. Sometimes I have the feeling we overlook this from time to time. After I think about the project I have to ask myself, where will my deliverables and other efforts fit within the process of design? The following diagram describes different lines of work that will lead us to some questions each line must accomplish. Depending on these questions and topics I will outline the basis, basics and deliverables for which each skill and ability which is necessary.

Image_6___schedule of UXD-P_small version


schedule of UXD-P ___ better view – schedule 1238px x 1030px


UXD-P – my conclusion

I studied architecture and town planning. And just like town planning and architecture isn’t just for architects and art lovers, the internet isn’t just for computer users and developers. Similarly, just as the towns and the cities are for the inhabitants and architecture is for the users of a building, so products and applications are for the user, the customer, the member and not for the people who build them.

In every kind of process we should act in a team but in the process of UXD-P it is absolutely essential that we have to think parallel, with the same focus . We have to act in a team, although every team member is a kind of lawyer: lawyer of budget, of the client, of utility, of usability, of look and feel, of brand and finally of the user himself. Because at the end of the project, our user/customer is the final judge.

Good design is not only interface, or look and feel, or technology, or hardware, or how it works. It is every detail, like the structure, the labelling, the border of a button or a little icon. Finally, it is the sum of every element. I believe that a shared vision of a group of creators will have more potential than individual creativity. And that is the point where creativity meets expectation. The point of view on IA and design and the process to get to a well-designed product will be changed by UXD-P.

The persons who use the application or other object that we invent are the real “architects” of the “architecture” – the real “inventor” of the design. The more we know about our users, the more likely we are to meet their needs.

As the capabilities of interactive applications and the internet go forward and grow, more and more consumers use the applications and the various possibilities in new and different ways. We must think about all aspects of user experience.

And I will ask you once again: Is it just one who is responsible or is it the team which is in charge of UXD-P?
Personally, I believe it is the process of planning and designing for User Experiences (and so I think it’s the team which is in charge), but the overview has to have an experienced planner as a kind of captain.


The most common cause of an ineffective website (one that doesn’t deliver value to both the business and its intended constituents) is poor design. The products have to follow, to cover the functions and the experiences. The lack of clear organization, navigation and values of brand and mood mean that people will have an unintentional and maybe bad experience, rather than one that will meet the business’s relationship objectives for each individual. User experience design and planning is a fundamental component to the creation of successful digital products, applications and services.

UXD-P is UXdesign and planning- – In my estimation there are distinctions between Design and Planning.

Design is usually considered in the context of arts and other creative efforts. When I think of design in the UX process it focuses on the needs, wants, and limitations of the end user of the designed goods, but mainly on the visual parts and the mood. A designer has to consider the aesthetic-functional parts and many other aspects of an application or a process.

The planning part provides the framework. The term "planning" describes the formal procedures used in such an endeavors, such as the creation of documents, diagrams etc. to discuss the important issues to be addressed, the objectives to be met, and the strategy to be followed. The planning part is responsible for organizing and structuring to support utility, findability and usability.

I strongly believe that both parts – design and planning – have to work closely together. Every team member should have the ability to think cross-functionally and to anticipate consequences of activities in the whole context.

I’ve often seen timelines like this …


and this doesn´t work for UXdesign and planning …

I give a timeline the preference which looks like this:


… to develop a UXdesign and UXplanning.

And in the center of this team and of this process should stand the leading person – the user!

Image_9___basis points of UXD-P




[1] _ UX honeycomb of Peter Morville



[2] _ The Sage Handbook of Methods in Social Psychology _ by Carol Sansone, Carolyn C. Morf, A. T. Panter

google-books (The Sage Handbook of Methods in Social Psychology) (The Sage Handbook of Methods in Social Psychology)


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.


  • Alan Cooper, “The Origin of Personas”:
  • Jason Fried, “Ask 37 Signals: Personas?”:
  • Antonella Pavese, “Get real: How to design for the life of others?”:
  • Dan Saffer, “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?”:
  • Joshua Porter, “Personas and the advantage of designing for yourself”: and “Personas as tools”:
  • Jared Spool, “Crappy personas vs. robust personas”: and “Personas are NOT a document”:
  • Steve Portigal, “Persona Non Grata”:, interactions, January/February 2008

What Is Your Mental Model?

Written by: Chris Baum

B&A readers get 10% when purchasing from (use code BARMMM10)
Rosenfeld Media has just released Indi Young’s Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy With Human Behavior. Boxes and Arrows sits down with Indi to talk about:
* The origins and evolution of the mental model
* How the mental model is a way of visualizing nearly any research data
* What shortcuts you can use to get started on a mental model with minimal time investment
* Why “combing” an interview is like riding a bicycle
* How Webvan failed because it ignore the mental model of its customers

If you’re unfamiliar with Indi’s mental model diagrams, download the excerpt(.pdf), check out the “book’s description”: for more information on the method, or visit “this Flickr set”: for images from the book.

Discount for Boxes and Arrows readers: Get a 10% discount by purchasing the book “directly from Rosenfeld Media”: Just use the code BARMMM10.

Mental Models: Origins & Evolution

Boxes & Arrows: Our readers would benefit from the story behind the Mental Model. Can you tell us how you created it?

On a project at Visa back in ’93 or ’94, I was the interaction designer on a team of consultants including developers, business people, and analysts.

The business analysts didn’t have their work together, so I started working on the customer service rep workflow table in MS Excel, a kind of state diagram from “Computer Science”: At the same time, a Stanford professor did a presentation on the layers of user experience at “BayCHI”: One of those layers was a “task” layer, very much like the state diagram.

At first I only documented the the behaviors; I didn’t let any of the emotions or philosophy get into it at all. For one client, I presented the state diagram by lining up the internal workflow underneath their customers’ workflow, the flip of the mental model. Kevin George was there and immediately encouraged me to pursue this method as it was a very powerful way to explain these relationships to a customer.

B&A: It’s interesting how this really arose from trying to allow communication between stakeholders. How has the mental model changed since then?

I did some projects at Charles Schwab, and started using the long horizon diagram. In doing that format, I started realizing that I was trying to capture motivations that influence behavior as well as the behavior itself. I was never interested in the granularity about how you actually use an application that the usability people were seeking. I wanted to know understand what you’re thinking about.

Figure 1: A mental model diagram (click to enlarge)

Figure 1: A mental model diagram (click to enlarge)

“Todd Wilkens”: mentioned a year or two ago that I am looking for behavior, and I realized that they weren’t tasks. He was absolutely right.

These days I’m trying to call it behavior, motivation, philosophy, and emotion but stay away from statement of fact, references to things, preference, and the actual use of the tool. I want to know what people think as they walk down the hallway to go do something. I call this the hallway test.

Customers are just thinking about their reactions to the tool. They are not trying to squeeze water out of a water bottle, they are trying to quench their thirst. Of course you want to listen to them, but at the same time you want to interpret.

They aren’t going to approach you and say, “I’m trying to quench my thirst, make it quench faster.” When you try to do it at the level of the tool, you’re blinkered by what that tool does already. I’m interested in the mind process – what you are you trying to get done.

B&A: This doesn’t acknowledge the base influences that are going to make that successful or not. As a business, you have an objective you’re going for and need to balance it with the customer’s objective, not their preference. Even business decisions are many times colored by preference.

I like to talk about how CEOs and founders for startups have the original mission statement at heart. “I do this because my son is having trouble in school, because the school system doesn’t work.” They sometimes lose sight of all the details.

They start off down the path with one certain solution, they’re solving the problems associated with that solution and losing track of the mission. What if it’s the wrong path? What if they branched left when they should have branched right?
They start losing the ability to go back and explore other branches or go back to the root and start in another direction because they have so much investment in it.

B&A: Interesting. What you’re doing is taking a mission statement and giving it a skeleton to grown on, to iterate a strategy. The mental model includes the details of what both the business and the customers are trying to do. Is that right?

Yes, the diagram looks like a skeleton or a spine if you turn it on its side. That’s the whole idea! It’s something that’s going to last for a very long time, and you can hang all of your decisions off of it. It’s something that you want to go back to on a regular basis when you want to start a new path or shake things up.

The diagram also helps you show others how you’ve prioritized your current focus and how their item fell into the quadrant of things that you’ll do later.

Comparing Methods

B&A: How do mental models compare with different research methods?

Many different methods allow you to collect data, but I have not found others that let you represent the data effectively. The mental model diagram can visualize ANY research data as long as it’s data about why customers do things.

For example, diaries can feed into mental models. You can process them the same way you process a transcript. You won’t be able to drill down into the “why” further, as you have no control how deep people go.

Ethnography (field studies) can also get built into a mental model. Once you’ve followed people to their offices, you have third-person notes (she did this, he did that) rather than transcripts. Just translate it to “I” and make a mental model.

At “Adaptive Path”:, when we were asked to do usability, we’d run an interview either the first part of the last half of the test. Then, we would add the interview data to the mental model as well.

Just get this information somehow. What is going on in their head before they use the product? Why are they using the product? How are they using the product isn’t that important. Ignore the product.

B&A: So you just do some research and dissemble it into the mental model. They aren’t mutually exclusive.

That’s why I have all these shortcuts and why anyone can create a mental model. It’s just a representation of a process, and the purity of that representation is dependent on how much time you put into it.

That purity arises from how much you can disengage yourself from your own world and tools. Look at the user from their perspective.

Creating a Mental Model

B&A: Ok, let’s shift gears a bit. You go do your interviews. Can you talk about extracting the behaviors, what you call “combing” the script? You were saying that sometimes it’s difficult.

It is hard to do a mental model, until you get it. As I mentioned, this is not just tasks. It’s behavior, motivation, and philosophy. You have to think about how to distinguish preference from philosophy and statements of fact from actual behaviors.

Here’s an example:

When interviewing a manager who oversees fleets of vehicles, she might say:
“I believe in not overloading my employees with work.”
“I’m gonna assign 3-4 jobs per day.”
“We send out 300 vans a day.”

These words come to me as 3 things:
* Assign 3-4 jobs per day. This is a true task.
* Not overloading the drivers. This is a philosophy that guides how the jobs are assigned.
* Send out 300 vans a day. That is just a statement of fact that I will not include in the mental model.

Sending 300 vans out sounds like a task. It has a verb, but it’s not a task. You aren’t doing it, the organization is.

They can talk about the process of how they decide where to send the drivers, prioritize things, or deal with emergencies. All of that is behavior. It can be difficult for designers to sort between those at first.

You also want to leave preferences out of the diagram. They actually began with the verb “prefer.” “I prefer to come into work early.” In his next statement if a driver told you his philosophy behind coming into work early “because…” That is what you want. If you picked that up during the interview, you could have explored it a little bit. There may or may not be a reason. Maybe he’s just a morning person.

Philosophies are important to get into the mental model because your business is going to want to be aware of and support those kinds of things.

B&A: There’s a subtlety there. Both statements sound like descriptions of why they do something. One has a reason, the other is just what they like or don’t like.

Not only is it difficult when you’re trying to comb tasks out of a transcript, but it’s also something that poses difficulties when you’re writing the interview. Before you try running an interview, you have be somewhat aware of what the tasks are going to be. A great way to do that is to practice combing a transcript.

Be careful that you don’t ask leading questions using do, did, would, or could. Rather, start with who, what, where, when, and how. If you do this, you’re generally scott free. And always remember to follow up by asking why, like a 4-year-old. It may be annoying, but that’s kind of what you’re trying to do.

Even with all of my experience doing this, I still find myself not going deep enough. One blatant example: one woman told me that she holds meetings with her team every week. In my head, I made this instant assumption of what those meetings were about, because i’ve been to weekly meetings with a team leader.

When I was combing it, I thought, “Why is she holding those weekly meetings? Is she trying to…?” The assumption I made was that she was trying to find out status on everybody’s project. In the end, I had no idea why she was holding those meetings.

A lot of these interviews that I do are a little more psychoanalytical, because it is not conscious why were doing some of these things. Maybe the woman holding the meeting has never had to enunciate why she’s doing it. I ask her to do that during the interview.

B&A: In the “Women in IA podcast”:, you mentioned that you don’t find it difficult to get people do to mental models. I have to press on that fact. It’s not a very simple, easy process.

Well, let me go back to the shortcuts. You and i could sit here in Starbucks (where we met for the interview – Ed.) and sketch out what the baristas do. If we watched them greet the regulars and non-regulars, we could sketch out their tasks and mental processes. There is a real strong mental model right there. We could note what we see, but we’re going to miss things. For example, we won’t capture what they do in before opening the doors in the morning.

You don’t necessarily have to do it the hard way – going out, doing the interviews, and combing the transcripts for tasks. However, that’s the most agnostic and data-driven way to do it, and by going through the extra effort is how you’re going to make discoveries of things that aren’t already in your head.

I list a couple options in the book. For example, you really believe in this, but your employer doesn’t. Well, I’ve heard people interviewing people and combing the interviews and creating a mental model in their spare time. Then they unveil it in some team meeting to kisses and hugs.

B&A: It just sounds like that will be a little more focused on the tools that exist rather than the philosophies around them.

That’s the problem. All of these shortcuts have the same troubles. I actually ran a lot of the “stakeholders around the table” discussions back in the dot com era because every wanted to spend the time to doing it.

I even did this for Webvan, but I could not get them to pay attention to it. For example, their interface was about picking delivery windows, which made the customer pick the end of the transaction up front so the company could maximize the efficiency of the trucks going out. It just wasn’t working.

Customers didn’t like picking the delivery window first. It wasn’t in their mental model. “I want to tell you what I want, because that’s what I know now. Then we can discuss how you bring it to me.”

Every single one of the Webvan mental models was missing the mental spaces that would have gotten them ahead of their competition or help them understand their customer base. So the “sitting around the table” method is a little dangerous, as it might mislead you to believe you’ve got it all.

B&A: Luckily for those of us still standing, we can try to avoid those mistakes. Mental models seem like fantastic tools. Thanks so much for taking the time, and good luck with the book!

I enjoyed it, too. Take care!


If you liked this interview, download the excerpt. (.pdf)

Boxes and Arrows readers can get a 10% discount by purchasing the book “directly from Rosenfeld Media”: Just use the code BARMMM10.

About the Book
“Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy With Human Behavior”:
by Indi Young
Paperback, 299 pages
Publisher: Rosenfeld Media (2008)
ISBN-10: 1933820063

Building a Data-Backed Persona

Written by: Andrea Wiggins

Incorporating the voice of the user into user experience design by using personas in the design process is no longer the latest and greatest new practice. Everyone is doing it these days, and with good reason. Using personas in the design process helps focus the design team’s attention and efforts on the needs and challenges of realistic users, which in turn helps the team develop a more usable finished design. While completely imaginary personas will do, it seems only logical that personas based upon real user data will do better. Web analytics can provide a helpful starting point to generate data-backed personas; this article presents an informal 5-step process for building a “persona of the people.”

In practice, outcomes indicate that designing with any persona is better than with no personas, even if the personas used are entirely fictitious. Better yet, however, are personas that are based on real user data. Reports and case studies that support this approach typically offer examples incorporating data into personas from customer service call centers, user surveys and interviews. It’s nice work if you can get it, but not all design projects have all (or even any!) of these rich and varied user data sources available.

However, more and more sites are now collecting web analytic data using vendor solutions or free options such as Google Analytics. Web analytics provides a rich source of user data, unique among the forms of user data that are used to evaluate websites, in that it represents the users in their native habitat of use. Despite some drawbacks to using web analytics that are inherent to the technology and data collection methods, the information it provides can be very useful for informing design.

Google Analytics is readily accessible and offers great service for the price, so for the sake of example, the methods described here will refer to specific reports in Google Analytics. Any web analytics solution will provide basic reporting similar to Google Analytics, give or take a few reports, so using a different tool will just require you to determine which reports will provide data equivalent to the reports mentioned here.

To illustrate the process, an example persona design scenario is included in the description for each of the five steps:

Kate is an independent web design contractor who is redesigning the website of a nonprofit professional theater company. She has hardly any budget, plenty of content, and many audiences to consider. The theater’s website fills numerous functions: it advertises the current and upcoming plays for patrons; provides patrons information about ticketing and the live theater experience; announces auditions; specifies playwright manuscript and design portfolio requirements for theater professionals; recruits theater intern staff; serves as the central repository of collected theater history in the form of past play archives and press releases; advertises classes and outreach activities; and attempts to develop a donor base as well. As she gathers requirements, Kate decides to use the theater’s new Google Analytics account as a data source for building personas.

Step One: Collect Data

After Google Analytics has been installed on a site, you must wait for data to accumulate. Sometimes you will have the good fortune to start a project that has already been collecting data for months or years, but when this isn’t the case, try to get as much data as you can before extracting the reports you will use to build personas. Ideally, you want to have enough data for reporting to have statistical power, but not all sites generate this level of traffic. As a rule of thumb, less than two weeks of data is not sufficient for any meaningful analysis. One to three months of the most recent data is much more appropriate.

If it is reasonable, try to set up two profiles to filter on new and returning visitors. While some Google Analytics reports do allow segmentation, profile filtering on new versus returning visitor status gives you the best access to the full array of reports for each visitor segment. If this setup can be arranged early in data collection, then you can later draw on a profile that contains only new visitors to determine the characteristics of your personas who are new visitors, and likewise for returning visitors.

Kate has been given administrator privileges in the theater’s Google Analytics account for the duration of her contract. The theater has just one profile that includes all site traffic, so she starts off by making two new profiles with filters to include new visitors in one profile and returning visitors in the other. Kate knows that she needs a decent sample of site data, so she monitors the profiles weekly to make sure that the data is accumulating. She starts designing her personas using the existing Google Analytics profile (all visitors), and checks back later on the custom profiles to see if the segmented data can provide any new insights to add to her personas.

Step Two: Determine How Many Personas to Use

Next, determine how many personas to use–generally no less than three and rarely more than seven or eight. This gives you the number of blank slates across which to proportionately distribute the user characteristics that you extract from Google Analytics reports. If there are four personas, each will be assigned the characteristics of 25% of the site audience in each report; if five personas, each represents 20% of the site audience. Despite the fact that you’re working with statistics, you don’t have to be exacting in proportionately representing user segments; sometimes it is very important, for business reasons, to strongly represent a small user segment.

After thinking carefully about the many functions that the site has to fill, Kate looks at the Top Content report in Google Analytics to see what pages get the most traffic. She notices that most of the top pages are related to current shows, tickets and directions, and decides that she will have at least one persona represent a first-time patron who plans to travel from out of town. The other pages that are popular include the “About Us,” “People,” and “Classes” pages; “Auditions” is a little further down the page, but well above “Support Us.” Kate determines that she will create another persona to represent people interested in joining the theater company. Kate knows that fund development is important to the theater, but it doesn’t appear to be all that important to the website audience, so she decides to create another patron persona who has attended several plays and is interested in becoming a donor. She feels that these three roles can represent the audience the theater is most interested in reaching, and starts creating a persona document for each of them. She names her personas: Regina is the first-time out-of-town patron, Monica is the would-be theater participant, and Rex is the returning patron.

Step Three: Gather Your Reports

After allowing some data to accumulate, the next step is to acquire the Google Analytics reports, whether you’re interacting directly with the application yourself or someone else is providing you with reports. If you are not the person extracting data, make sure that you receive the PDF exports of reports, as these contain summary data that is not present in some of the other export formats. Whether or not you have profiles that are filtered on new versus returning visitor segments, you will be interested in the same handful of reports:

  • Visitors Overview Report. In one convenient dashboard-style screen, you can get the percentage of “new visits,” or visits by new visitors, and a snapshot of other visitor characteristics.
  • Browsers and OS Report. While you can look at browsers and operating systems separately in other individual reports, it usually makes more sense to look at them in combination in the Browsers and OS Report. Typically only a handful of browser and operating system combinations are required to represent well over 90% of the site’s visitors.
  • Map Overlay Report. To use this report, which provides a great deal of detail on the geographic origins of site visits, you will need to do just a little bit of math. Divide the number of visits from the top country or region (whichever is of greater use to you) by the total number of visits to get the percentage of visits from that geographical area. This allows you to determine the proportions of domestic and international visits. For the visits from your country, you will want to drill down to the city level and select a few cities from the top ranks of the list, keeping in mind that big cities will statistically generate more traffic than small ones. For your international visitors, choose from the top cities in the countries that bring the most visits.
  • Keywords Report. This report shows the queries that bring users to your site. When you look at the search engine query terms, ask yourself, “What are our users looking for? What type of language do they use when searches bring them to our site?” This gives you a starting point to think about user motivations and goals.
  • Referring Sites Report. Like the Keywords Report, the Referring Sites Report gives you an opportunity to look for answers to questions like, “Where do our users come from? Are they reaching our site from search engines, other sites, or just appearing directly with no referrer, as returning visitors are more likely to do?”

If you have the segmented profiles set up, extract the same reports from both of these profiles, and get the Visitors Overview report from an unfiltered profile.

Kate starts looking for report data to build her personas. She has already generated user goals for her 3 personas, but the goals are pretty general, so she hopes to find more specific characteristics that are based on the real user population. Kate consults the Visitors Overview report and find that about 75% of the site’s visits in the last month were from new visitors; she decides that the Regina and Monica personas will be new visitors to the site and quickly brainstorms a few questions that she thinks they might have, based on their goals, that motivate their site visits. The last persona, Rex, will be a returning visitor.

Kate knows that the overwhelming majority of patrons are local because it is a regional theater company. She checks the Map Overlay report and sees that at the state level, about half of the visitors come from Michigan, where the theater is located. She decides that Monica comes from another state, and picks New York because it’s in second place behind her state, and because of the level of activity of the theater community in New York City. Kate drills down to view the traffic from Michigan, and chooses the top city for Rex’s home–the city is near the theater, so this makes intuitive sense. For Regina, who is planning to travel a little further, she selects the #4 city, which is about an hour away, and is a much bigger city. The visitors from that city have longer visits and a lower bounce rate, so she feels these characteristics would match well with Regina’s goal of planning an out-of-town visit to the theater. Coming from that city, she will also want to have dinner and stay the night at a local bed-and-breakfast, so Kate jots down these additional goals for Regina.

Since two of her personas are new visitors, Kate looks up the Traffic Sources Overlay and then the Referring Sites and Keywords reports. There’s a lot of search engine referral traffic, and some strong referrers among regional event listings sites. She decides that Regina got to the site from an event listings site that refers a lot of traffic, and that Monica arrived from a Google search on the phrase, “auditions in Michigan.” Kate thinks that a logical reason Monica would be searching for auditions in Michigan is because she’s planning to move there from New York, so Kate adds this detail to Monica’s persona.

Step Four: Fill in the Blanks

The next step is to “fill in the blanks” from the report data. Make a template for each persona, and first fill in whether they are a new or returning visitor. If you have segmented profiles on new versus returning visitor status, draw the remaining characteristics of your new visitors evenly from the new visitors profile, and likewise for the returning visitors. When you have distributed the other statistics (browser, operating system, and geographical location) among your persona templates, review them against the unfiltered “all visitors” profile for a reality check to make sure you have not unintentionally over-represented a user characteristic, which is one hazard of using segmented data. If you have no preconceptions about user goals, you can distribute the report characteristics randomly at this point, as there is not necessarily much meaningful interplay between the statistics for new/returning status, geographic location, and browser/OS. Alternately, using a goal-oriented approach as in the example, you can select persona characteristics from the user data that make sense with the goals you have established.

Kate took a goal-oriented approach to building her personas, so she has already assigned the report data to the personas. She builds her normal persona description template with the notes she made while looking at reports and adds OS and browsers based on the Google Analytics report to each of them. Kate then starts drilling down into the Google Analytics reports’ segmentation to add more detail. She clicks on Rex’s city in the Map Overlay to check the average visit length, bounce rate, and number of pageviews in the visit, which she uses to help her think about which pages Rex would be looking at, given his goals and those averages. Visits from Regina’s city are a little longer, so Kate considers what pages might show up, and checks the event listings site that referred Regina’s visit to find out what Regina might already know before visiting the theater’s site. Kate also checks on the referrers and keywords for visits from NYC and verifies that they contain some phrases similar to the one she chose for Monica.

Step Five: Bring the Personas to Life

The fifth and final step is to breathe life into these rough skeletons of personas. This is the familiar practice of generating the rest of the fictitious biography of the user, the detailed picture of who that person is and what motivates her or him, and so on. Let your creativity take over and build off the initial characteristics from the web analytics data to create a coherent persona. For example, the assigned browsers and operating systems should guide the determination of the computer makes and models that your personas use. Use the new or returning visitor status to assign the personas a level of comfort with using your site and their motivations for the site visits. The geographic location determined from the user data can help generate appropriate user goals and challenges, as well as occupations and hobbies, which may differ for domestic and international users. The reports on Keywords and Referring Sites offer insight on visitors’ interests and motivations, albeit slightly abstracted, and are a good starter for writing usage scenarios.

Kate spends some more time fleshing out her personas, and eventually decides that she needs more information about Rex, the returning patron and would-be donor. She asks the theater for some information from their patron database about how often regular patrons from Rex’s city visit the theater. Kate also interviews the company’s Development Director to gain more perspective on the characteristics of the theater’s existing donors from the local area. After learning more about the types of donors that the theater attracts and the general giving patterns they have, Kate feels that Rex is a good representation of the kind of potential donor who would visit the theater’s website repeatedly, and adds in some additional details based on her interview with the Development Director.

If you have other sources of user data, this is a great time to work it in. Survey data can often provide useful demographics that web analytics cannot, like users’ age, sex, and education level, for example. Free answers from surveys, interviews and focus groups are great sources of inspiration for filling in the details that make personas come to life. The Google Analytics Keywords report can sometimes provide the very questions that bring users to your site–and where better to answer them than in the design process?

Even when there is relatively little user data available to aid in the process of persona development, leveraging the resources at hand creates a stronger design tool. The 5-step process presented here aims to provide a starting point for developing personas using web analytic user data, rather than relying solely on assumption or imagination. An evidence-based approach like this one can lend structure and credibility to using personas and scenarios in the design process. At the same time, user data and statistics must be creatively synthesized to produce a useful representation, and imagination is always required to transform a user profile into a persona.