Thursday, April 21, 2005


dealing with users' personalities

I am convinced emotional design will not develop far until it tackles the very slippery topic of personality. Personality, like its anthropological cousin culture, is one of those words that is so familiar to us in our daily speech but can be hard to pin down when speaking of it as an analytical concept. It is important because, as I mentioned in a previous post, one needs to distinguish what emotional needs of users are universal, and what needs might be specific to particular personality subgroups of users. Unfortunately, the academic literature that underpins the user centered design discipline has nothing to offer.

Patrick Jordan, a leading proponent of emotional design, acknowledged the problem several years ago: "How much work has human factors done on matching products to people's personalities, their emotional responses, their ideals? Very little!" It is true one sometimes finds references to personality in design, but bizarrely, those references talk about the personality of products, or websites, not the personality of people! I accept that people can project a personality on products, and it is interesting to see what they make of them, but I am more interested in the people themselves. Without knowing what makes their personalities, their responses seem rather random.

The other, very unsatisfactory response to the personality issue has been personas. People use personas in widely different ways: as a way to put a face on an explicit, normally functional, user goal (Alan Cooper's original concept), or as a way to create a fictitious "character" to represent a story one might tell about a user (cf. Lene Nielsen). Nielsen gets closer to the feeling of a user personality, but her approach is rhetorical rather than analytical. If personas try to capture the user's personality, it is based on assumptions, fictions, and co-mingling with other aspects of the user, such as their life history. Personas are muddy: one can't tell if a user who, say, lives alone is because of some random external circumstance, is an isolated choice, or because she has a general personality pattern of being avoidant.

So, how can design consider and accommodate the personality variation among users? I'm not remotely an expert on personality, but I do see some paths as dead ends. I don't like the pop psychology classifications like Myers-Briggs, which are based on conjecture and aren't robust. I'm wary of pychometrics (too clinical) and the whole "disorders" school of personality (too negative and limiting.) One approach I have found is the so-called "Five Factor" model looking at five personality dimensions: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN). OCEAN is designed to explain people in relationship to other people, not in relationship to objects, so some creative modification is needed. Still I can see applying some of these concepts to users. Users do vary considerably in their openness to experience (e.g., willingness to try new things), and their conscientiousness (e.g., doggedness to get something done.) Extroversion can affect the context of use of products and services. A user's agreeableness could affect the tone of feedback offered by a design, and will no doubt be more important as interactive design tries to become more user-specific in giving feedback. Neuroticism sounds negative, but it covers everyday things like what we find embarrassing, which varies widely among users.

Okay, I'm stretching my thinking here. Any feedback/ideas/criticisms?

"pop psychology classifications like Myers-Briggs" -- yeow - that's a bit of a slur, isn't it?
Steve, I'm afraid no matter no popular Myers Briggs is, that doesn't make it robust. I can attest from my own experience taking the test several times it yields different results, even though its defenders claim consistency over time. It also doesn't address many core issues of personality, for example, what things make us anxious. Again, I'm not an expert on this topic, but I don't believe academic psychology considers Myers Briggs as reliable or as an acurate reflection of underlying personality factors. Whatever its value for personal enrichment, it isn't a good candidate for understanding user needs.
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