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Personas as part of a user-centered innovation process

Design Research / Article 1.

Jan. 2008, HCI Vistas Vol-IV

Author: Dr. Lene Nielsen

I recently hosted a personas workshop aimed at innovation within dairy products. It was with some nervousness I went into a process that is quite far from IT, web design, mobile software, and the familiar boundaries of technology. Interestingly the personas method seems to function in other settings as well and more interestingly with methods from a more traditional field of innovation.

The aim of the workshop was to innovate on products or invent completely new products. The participants were a mixed crowd: engineers, anthropologists, a product designer, a chef, concept developers, and project managers.

Collecting data

Before the workshop an anthropology study was carried out and data from a number of interviews and visits with Danish families were analyzed. Notes from these visits formed the basis for the personas categories and descriptions.

Concurrently a series of focus groups conducted with the method €œDesired Outcomes were hosted by Axel Rosen.


The desired outcome method focuses on problems to overcome in future design. These are prioritized and used in innovation workshops.

In this case a list of outcomes for different handlings of dairy products were extracted and together with a list of ideas extracted from the visits and interviews formed the basis for scenarios.

Making personas

In this case the anthropology study were analyzed separately and presented to the participants. Interestingly enough it seems that the level of analysis in the two studies anthropology and personas is quite different. The analysis of the first study focuses on communalities and is reported on a concrete level, while analysis of the same material, when used for a personas process, focuses on differences and extraction into categories and is reported on an abstract level. In this case the anthropology study reported similarities within e.g. attitudes to health, some view a healthy body as a slim body others view the body as a functional body that can be optimized by eating healthy food.

In order to create personas an organization of the data into high order categories were necessary. A high order category was e.g. move-ability whether the persona took in new inspirations or acted mainly on habits. Another category was whether the persona had an ideal she strived to live after or if she lived after an everyday practice. The categories served to put each person into a grid that became the foundation for the personas - persons that were close together, but far away from others, formed a cloud of people with similarities. The cloud became the foundation for a persona description.

The move from facts to categories is in my experience one of the most difficult part of the personas process. Pruitt and Adlin (2006) describe it as going from factoids to clusters, where factoids are groups of facts that in a later process are transformed into high order clusters. In the 10 Steps to Personas method I describe it as going from a hypothesis, over verification, to the final patterns.

Getting to understand the personas

The persona and scenario workshop started by introducing the personas to the group. Each group were handed a personas description and asked to find a photo that illustrated their persona. To flick through photo databases and discuss how the written description can be expressed visually, forces the participants to delve into the text and to begin to imagine their understanding of the persona. In my experience most groups begin with a discussion of the hairstyle and how the hair expresses the inner values of the persona. This leads to discussions of other values and how they can be expressed visually.

Future scenarios

Inspired by design games a group of innovators were given:
* A persona description,
* A handful of ideas each written on a card (idea cards)
* A set of cards each with a problem described on it (problem cards).

The participants were asked to group the cards and ascribe headlines to the groups. The aim of this was to get the participants to understand the problem and ideas that were discovered during the field work.

Then each group were handed a situation for their persona and asked to create a scenario for their persona taking into account the ideas and problems on the cards.

In the room were different kinds of tools foam blocks, large sheets of paper, scissors, and Stanley knifes all served as inspiration tools and helped the participants to act the scenarios out and to create props. During the enactments the participants found new ideas and developed concepts that were later presented for the whole team.

Benefits from personas in innovation

As one of the participant’s expressed


now we are working inside out, normally we work outside in

with this he had the feeling that for the first time they invented from within the user, by understanding the user, instead of trying to push products to the users. The participants had a feeling of knowing the different users, their very different daily lives, the problems they are confronted with, and the values they apply to the problems. From this there seemed to grow, not radical innovation, but solutions to real problems.

The benefit of the acted scenarios, in this case, was the understanding of the context in which the products had to be used and an innovation that took a point of departure in both the personas and the contexts. Most of the participants acted the scenarios out, playing the part of the persona and of people in the surroundings. They used props to illustrate the handling of different products and this way got ideas for new products as well as tested these.

Benefits from using €œdesired outcomes

The desired outcomes seemed to provide a setting for the scenarios. In my experience, as I have mentioned in an earlier article, 10 Steps to Personas, there is a tendency to create scenarios with a very happy outcome that overlook the conflicts, obstacles, and critical instances in the scenarios. By focusing on problems the desired outcomes method seems to be able to create an awareness of the critical instances and get the participants to include these in the scenarios.

Lene Nielsen wrote her Ph.D. thesis Engaging Personas and Narrative Scenarios in 2004.
She is part-time assistant professor at Center of Applied ICT, at Copenhagen Business School
and part-time usability consultant at Snitker & Co.
Contact information: ln.caict@cbs.dk

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