QA Session on User Persona Method with Lene Nielsen

Design Research / Article 3.

Feb. 2008, HCI Vistas Vol-IV

International Expert for QA Session: Dr. Lene Nielsen

Lene Nielsen wrote her Ph.D. thesis Engaging Personas and Narrative Scenarios in 2004. She is usability consultant at Snitker & Co., Denmark. She is also the international mentor for HCI Vistas Global Initiative.

Question/Answer Session on HCI-Vistas-Global YahooGroup was announced in Jan 2008.

Dr. Lene Nielsen answered the questions on User Personas asked by the group members. Following two articles authored by her and published by Journal of HCI Vistas were the common reference point for this session.

Jan 2008 Personas - as part of user-centred innovation process
July 2007 Ten Steps to Personas

Transcript of QA Session

[Atul Manohar]
A large section of work (for most Indian IT Companies) comes out of off shoring. In a typical offshore scenario, what are the considerations, parameters, limitations, advantages for using the persona method?

[Lene Nielsen]
Not that I have any experience with off shoring, but I do have an opinion :-) I think that when the programming is taking place with a distant relation to the HCI persons who have done user studies, personas become even more important. I find that the personas descriptions should be part of every specification requirement, in order for the programmer to understand what he is doing and who is supposed to use the system. That way the scenario would become more precise and communicate more that the mere specs.

[Sangeeta Balasubramani]
I wanted to know the difference between Personas and Mental Models. How and when can they be used? What are the different aspects on which they throw light on, and help in the process?

[Lene Nielsen]
That’s a very good question! You have to distinguish between the process of creating a system and testing a system. Mental models are the users cognitive understanding of how a system works e.g. ask somebody to tell you how the internet actually works, and they might come up with some interesting answers - or a TV set. I find that mental models are a theoretical framework rather than something you can use in actual design.
Personas are mainly a tool to investigate and get design ideas from the personas point of view and from the personas needs.

[Ganesh Bhutkar]
I am doctoral student/assistant professor at Vishwakarma Institute of Technology, Pune, India. I am working on Medical Usability. Especially usability issues with medical devices used in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). There are users like physicians, nurses, administrators, patients, carers etc, in ICU.

[Lene Nielsen]
Very interestingly I have just developed personas for the same audience. When developing personas you have to focus on what I will call the domain - the specific area the device is going to cover - and look at differences in relation to the domain, the level of IT experiences and how the users differ. In my case the domain was communication of changes and we found that all the administrative staff had the same needs (nurses with administrative burdens, secretaries etc), all medical doctors were alike, and all staff were alike (nurses, hospital porters, etc.). We then created 3 different personas. In my experience hospitals can be very hierarchical and it can be a challenge to get the administration to understand that nurses and porters are covered by the same persona. So my advice is to look at differences and similarities among the users.

[Dinesh Katre]
How do you apply Personas in different usage scenarios? Does it become similar activity like cognitive walkthrough?

[Lene Nielsen]
My answer here concerns the scenarios. In About Face 3.0 Alan Cooper distinguish between different types of scenarios and I find that useful. There are at least three different kinds of scenarios:
1. Idea-generating scenarios Investigate how the IT system can cover the needs of the personas.
2. Interactions scenarios describes specific tasks and interactions
3. Test scenarios tests the design ideas and use cases etc.

Test scenarios are a bit like cognitive walk through. The difference is that here you walk through the system from each of your personas point of view. (as you can see I do not agree with Cooper in having just one primary persona and several secondary personas.)

[Divya Chotalia]
Why you don’t agree on having just one primary persona and several secondary personas?

[Lene Nielsen]
In most system design whether it is web design or software for mobile phones or workplace systems, there are more than one kind of users that are equally important. In the case I have described in 10 steps we had 4 personas and all were equally important. The personas are very different and have very different work conditions and you can’t say that if you fulfil the needs of one of them, the others will be happy. I find that in all the cases that I have worked with personas, the differences between the personas are so huge that you have to consider all of the personas at the same time.

[Dinesh Katre]
Is there any method for evaluating the quality of User Personas? Because sometimes I have seen that people write very interesting biographical sketches, they write very imaginatively, to help in transferring the ‘image’ of the persona. But how to know its effectiveness for design?

[Lene Nielsen]
I do believe in a strong connection between data and personas. As a writer you must be able use your data to explain what you have written. And I do think that not all personas writers are aware of that everything they write should be there for a reason. If it doesn’t communicate something, don’t write it. If the persona owns a dog, it is written because it communicates something about the persona and as a writer you should know what it is it communicates.

[Dinesh Katre]
I have always found it difficult visualize or understand the characters illustrated in the books of P. G. Woodhouse because all are British personalities and I have not lived in Briton so long to understand these personalities as they are quite culture specific.
On the contrary, I can visualize all the characters written by Indian authors such as Salman Rashdi, because of cultural familiarity. Your understanding of these personas depends on cultural familiarity. As Atul was mentioning, in the Offshore IT projects, I don’t think that a designer will be able to build good user personas if the project is for the users from another culture.

Do you think ‘culture’ plays some role here?

[Lene Nielsen]
I think you are onto something really important that has not been fully explored. We know that we understand other people from our own cultural background and from our encounters with people (schematas). So how do we create personas for multi cultural sites?
I think it will take some research to explore this subject further. In the meantime we might learn from film. I have seen several Indian movies and understand them well, because I can relate to the feelings and problems the characters have, as these are universal. An idea might be to use photos to convey the contexts of the users and to focus on the communalities in the problems and contexts of users.It is not only in cross-national cultures these problems are. I wrote a paper once about an interaction designer who had never met a worker, and when she designed she imagined a man from an American sit-com as the user - not the best strategy.

[Roger Joseph]
At present I am working on a website which has covered 2 million users in 8 months. The company wants me to redesign the website. Time given to me is 3 days. My question here is how do I create persona’s within my company even after knowing that people in my company are aware of the website and most of them are technical in background. Creating persona’s within a few days and what is the effect of it on the design?

[Lene Nielsen]
I don’t think you should consider creating personas with the time given. I do think that you should provoke the company to give you more time, if they want to use personas. One method I use is to ask top management (or whoever decides) whom they consider the users, and ask them to give a description of a typical user. Most often they will come up with different descriptions and pointing that out to them, often helps.
Other times I refuse to call what I do personas, but use other words like user segments or user images, and create sketches of users, just a couple of bullets, to make sure that we are aware that there are different types of users. I do think that all you can do is to start slowly and create awareness in your company of the huge differences among the users and then later proceed to an actual personas process.

[Dinesh Katre]
UPA UK conference has a talk on User Persona: Archetype not Stereotype. According to you what is the difference between archetype and stereotype?

[Lene Nielsen] What a treat to be member of a group with insight into very different matters as this discussion shows.

Archetypes or stereotypes. Coming from a completely different field - the study of narrative fiction - I view the matter as the difference between having one character trait or more character traits, the difference between a flat character and a rounded character. Both the archetype and the stereotype is characterized by a single character trait that describes the person. Combined with our mental ability to create schemata and in our first encounter with fellow beings to reduce him or her to fit into earlier created schemata, the archetype are bound to end up as a stereotype unless there is a focus on creating a rounded character with more than one character trait.

Wikipedia offers the following definitions:

An archetype is a generic, idealized model of a person, object, or concept from which similar instances are derived, copied, patterned, or emulated. In psychology, an archetype is a model of a person, personality, or behaviour. This article is about personality archetypes, as described in literature analysis and the study of the psyche.

In the analysis of personality, the term archetype is often broadly used to refer to

1. a stereotype€”personality type observed multiple times, especially an oversimplification of such a type; or
2. an epitome€”personality type exemplified, especially the “greatest” such example.
3. a literary term to express details.

This point to that a stereotype is a slightly more oversimplified than the archetype.

I do often see persona descriptions that says more about the person who wrote the description than about the actual users. It is so easy for us as human being to simplify, and thereby create a distance to the descriptions. I hope to see more descriptions in the future of rounded, empathic descriptions of personas.

Sorry for this long contribution, but this was what first spurred me to react against all the terrible descriptions of personas I saw, when I started my Ph.D.

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