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Robert Reimann Interview


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 developing 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 its interface.

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.


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Rough Cuts (pdf) edition

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Available August 2006



Robert Reimann is the president of the Interaction Design Association and is the user-experience manager at Bose, the maker of high-end stereo equipment. He helped write the book on interaction design—literally, with Alan Cooper: About Face 2.0: The Essentials of Interaction Design.


Table of Contents

Read an excerpt "The Elements of Interaction Design" in UXmatters

Marc Rettig interview excerpt on Interaction Design's History and Future

Hugh Dubberly interview excerpt on Systems Design

Larry Tesler interview excerpt on The Laws of Interaction Design

Brenda Laurel interview excerpt on Design Research

Luke Wroblewski interview excerpt on Visual Interaction Design

Shelley Evenson interview excerpt on Service Design

Carl DiSalvo interview excerpt on Designing for Robots

Adam Greenfield interview excerpt on Everyware