Wednesday, October 12, 2005


too fuzzy: personas and scenarios

Personas and scenarios are meant to make an abstract, intangible interaction process more concrete. But more often than not, they fail miserably: offering a simplictic, waffly caricature of something that is complex and nuanced. I am beginning to think that both tools are more dangerous than useful, and give user centered design a bad name by pretending to be user centered when in reality these techniques rely on assumptions, distortions and conjectures.

I have written previously about how confused the concept of personas is. I know that personas can be useful when one is clueless about your market. You may be a designer who is making something totally new, and need to get a feeling for who might use it. Or you are a high level executive who can't deal with details in a short briefing, and needs a mental picture of who the customer is. But designers are a bit arrogant to assume that clients are generally clueless about their customers and users. Generally the client knows far more than the designer. Developing the persona is less for the benefit of the client than it is for the designer.

Another problem of personas is that they very rarely are based on rigorous research. The detail they contain may sound impressive, but it is often invented. To be credible, every aspect of a persona should reflect real details of the lives of multiple people. If your persona reads Cosmo, it is because you have met more than one real user who actually reads Cosmo. Anything less is just fiction, not user research.

But if someone has done real user research, meeting with numerous people who share certain characteristics, a persona is a poor representation of that research. Personas suck the nuanced details out of research, and present a bland stereotype, who might as well be a cartoon character. As a cast of "characters", personas are simply stage actors. Few persona developers can answer what proportion of all users a given persona represents. Simply saying "there are some people like Grandma Jane" is fairly meaningless. Design research can highlight many things that clients aren't aware of. Unfortunately, personas are too crude to deliver these details.

A close relation to personas, scenarios, also proves imprecise. It is true that people relate to stories. But is it also true that stories are gross simplifications of reality. Again, we find literary invention masquerading as research. Very often, scenarios are a substitute for user research. It is far faster (and cheaper) to brainstorm some stories about what users might want to do, than to actually do the research to find out. As a starting point, scenarios are fine, as long as one recognizes that it is just speculation. What tends to happen is that the brainstorming is codified into requirements. Proponents of scenarios like John Carroll have caused the abstract concept of "use" to become confused with the concrete concept of "used".

Scenarios suffer from several problems. As stories, they only address the big themes, and not the minor details. The devil is in the details, and scenarios don't help there. Scenarios can indeed led to a false sense of accomplishment: the user wants to X, we offer X, so we are on target.

Another problem with scenarios is that they are based on speculations. "Suppose the user...", "the user may want to...", etc. As with other pseudo-user centered techniques such as "expert reviews", scenarios create two distortions: false issues, and missed issues. Scenarios can cause designers to worry about issues that in reality aren't a concern to users. Being based on the imagination of designers, instead of the reality of users, scenarios also miss important issues users may be concerned about.

Design researchers need to be honest about the purposes and limitations of personas and scenarios. Everyone may have a novel inside them waiting to be written, but don't use personas and scenarios as a pretext to write it.

I pretty much agree! The personas I create are 80% task/activity descriptions (within the context of various scenarios), 10% a person-description, and 10% describing the users technology platform (browser etc). Where possible the personas are created following actual user research : but worse-case scenario I simply interview the client, which is (usually) better than nothing.
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