How did the idea of personas come about?
The idea of personas, or tools
like them, has been around for a long time. Many design, marketing,
and usability professionals
in the 80s and 90s made use of "user profiles" to help them visualize
who their customers were, and to help them imagine what kind of
needs and desires they might have in relation to products and services.
Alan Cooper, who coined the term "persona" for
this type of tool, first did so in 1983, while designing and
a software package called SuperProject for Computer Associates,
and later did so for what eventually became Microsoft's Visual
Basic. Cooper understood the importance of user empathy in product
design, and would play-act dialogues between his personas and hypothetical
products. By the mid 90's, he was presenting his designs to clients
in terms of storyboards with the personas as the primary actors.
Cooper's early personas were primitive, in that they
were based on loose, personal observations of a small number of
individuals in particular roles. However, Cooper's fundamental
insight was that these representative characters had goals and
behaviors that could be served by products. By enumerating the
most critical goals, and including them as part of the persona
description, Cooper developed a powerful design method: meet the
persona's top goals with the product by designing for their behaviors,
and the design is much more likely to be successful.
My own contribution to Cooper's persona methodology
was to introduce more formal ethnographic field research as the
data-gathering method for the information used to construct personas,
and to (with Kim Goodwin) refine the persona goals into three types:
experience goals, which describe how users wish to feel (or not
to feel) when using a product; end goals, which describe what users
actually want or need to accomplish with a product to meet their
expectations; and life goals, which describe the broader aspirations
of the persona in relation to the product, and thus help describe
what the product *means* to the persona. It's this focus on goals
and behavior patterns, combined with a scenario-based method of
translating these requirements into design solutions that makes
Cooper's personas so unique and powerful.
What are personas good for?
Personas are terrific tools for understanding and
communicating user behaviors, needs, desires, and contexts. As
such, they are extremely useful for:
1) Directing the product design. Persona goals and
behaviors inform both the structure and behavior of a product and
2) Communicating design solutions to stakeholders.
Using personas in storyboards and scenarios are a very effective
way to tell the story of the product, and helps highlight why design
decisions were made as they were.
3) Building consensus and commitment around the design.
Having a common language around which the team can communicate
regarding priorities and features, and tying each decision specifically
to user benefits/consequences helps rally a team to work together
to make the best possible product for its target users.
4) Measuring the design's effectiveness. Design choices
can be tested against persona behaviors, contexts, and expectations
while they are still on the whiteboard, far in advance of testing
on prototypes or final products. The result is better quality earlier
in the design process, which makes later refinements more manageable.
5) Contributing to non-development efforts. The information
captured in personas and storyboards can be of great interest and
use to marketing, advertising, sales, and even strategic planning
activities within companies.
Since they've been introduced, personas have
become somewhat controversial. Why do you think that is?
Actually, I don't think personas
are very controversial anymore. I think most interaction designers
and information architects
use some variant of personas in their work. Print and television
advertisements make use of persona-like characters to describe
product benefits, and there's a recent book on persona-based methods
for design co-authored by designers from Microsoft and Amazon.
So I think personas are becoming mainstream, which I'm of course
excited to see.
As for past controversy, I think
that any new idea meets with some resistance until it reaches
a tipping point. Some
people didn't think personas represented anything new. Some didn't
believe in the value of qualitative research. Some didn't pay attention
until persona methods were published in academic journals. Some
had methodological quibbles.And some designers thought (and perhaps
still think) that personas constrain creativity.This last objection
I could never personally understand.
I believe that a designer's best and most creative
work results when there are some constraints that serve to focus
creative thinking. And what better focus than your users' goals,
behaviors, and desires? This is what makes personas such a powerful
tool for design.