Monthly Archives: October 2008

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Personas Research

Forrester recently released an evaluation of latest trends in using Personas in their How To Get The Most From Design Personas research. I attend the webinar in which they revealed the results of their research, and found that Forrester had some pretty interesting updates on what’s been happening in the world of Personas, some of it new stuff I hadn’t been aware of.

I’ve been using Personas for roughly 10 or so years, but it turns out I’m apparently doing Persona’s all wrong – or at least missing critical elements, and not using Personas to their full extent in my enterprise (I’m so embarrassed). Don’t laugh, according to Forrester you probably are too.

Forrester’s Survey of Persona Use

If you’re a Forrester client, you can download the whitepaper for free. If you’re not a Forrester client you can download the whitepaper for a fee, they’re charging $279, which averages out to about roughly $12 per page. If you intensively use Personas or are considering using Personas you may want to check the whitepaper out.

Briefly, Forrester surveyed 26 firms, interactive agencies, including some of my favs like Organic and Avenue A | Razorfish, and some big enterprises like Charles Schwab, Staples and Wells Fargo, to name a few. They asked for samples of Personas, and they analyzed when, where and how Personas were used at each firm.

Persona Spending Up but Not Used Regularly

According to their analysis, Forrester says the good news is firms planned to spend more in 2008 on customer behavioral research, and spending on Personas continues to increase.

The bad news is the vast majority of Personas out there do not meet what Forrester considers as passing grades in their Persona evaluation. Worse, Personas are not regularly used, and few companies use Personas throughout the design process.

6 Criteria of a Good Persona

According to their research, Forrester believes there are 6 criteria that define a good persona. Among the criteria you know and love, such as making the Persona sound like a real person and making the narrative a good read while being informative, there are some criteria you may not normally associate with Personas. Criteria such as; does the persona call out key attributes AND high-level goals of the user? Another interesting criteria is; the Persona is focused on enabling design decisions. It’s a fascinating side note that in their scoring of all the Personas shared with them for the study, not one of the Personas passed all of the criteria.

Personas Can be Used Across the Enterprise

Here’s something very interesting, I won’t go into the details of why Forrester believes the criteria are important, but I believe in their criteria because according to Forrester, the Personas can be used across the enterprise, to aid decisions from everything from Marketing campaigns, to website design, to signage or even telephone support unit scripting IF the 6 criteria are present. Having the 6 criteria in place ensures you have a clear and accurate Persona with which to make design decisions, for web development as well as Marketing or Customer Service decisions.

For me, I never really considered using a Persona beyond the design of a website or microsite or other web-based application. But I can see the logic of why it makes sense. If you research and define your Persona correctly, and your Persona does indeed represent your typical customer, then it stands to reason you should be able to use the Persona again and again across the enterprise for other design-related decisions.

Personas and Cross-Channel Behavior

Another Persona technique I found new and interesting was mapping all the major touch-points a Persona experiences as they move through a typical task. Think about making a decision to purchase a car. You’ll see a Persona moving back and forth between Brand websites to research the car, potentially TV or radio commercials that tout the car, a dealership or two to test drive the car, potentially 3rd party websites to further analyze other people’s perspective on the car, to finally the seat in front of the financing manager to buy the car. What’s the Persona’s experience across all those cross-channel touch-points, consistent or disjointed? This cross-channel view provides a much greater degree of perspective about how a goal is accomplished by a Persona through all the key touch-points a Brand has, beyond the myopic view of just the web experience. It also bridges the gaps of understanding the complete user experience, which ultimately is the true test of a Brand.

Four Pages of Persona

An example Persona in the Forrester whitepaper provided from by WhittmanHart demonstrated there are four pages that provide information and detail about the Persona (including of course a photo of said Persona in her environment). According to Forrester ala the WhittmanHart example, a Persona should include a story, some basic geographic/income information, the goals of the Persona, issues or opportunities when communicating with the Persona, habits that could be significant, cross-channel touch points, a brief personal history and more… (phew!). Sort of makes me feel like my prior Personas were rather, well, immature.

In my opinion, balancing this greater amount of detail while still maintaining the focus on the essential information necessary to represent a typical customer makes this Persona a more complex, but potentially better tool for design decisions, especially decisions across the enterprise.

I don’t know about you, but my next Persona will be an attempt to replicate this treatment, but it may not be easy considering the great amount of contextual research that needs to take place to gain these insights into customers and Personas.

Personas are Critical for Experience-Based Differentiation

There is additional information in the Forrester report, including the five levels of enterprise Persona usage maturity and a compelling graphic about how Personas enable experience-based differentiation. But of great interest to me are the 2 pages of endnotes, which provides a wealth of additional resources (additional Forrester research) about Personas, experience-based differentiation, customer research and more. There’s easily enough reading in the reports to fill the time it takes to fly from Los Angeles to New York!

Personas & Contextual Observation

Finally, another interesting take-away from the Forrester Persona webinar was information about the latest trends in conducting contextual observation and field research. Turns out there’s an upswing in the usage of diaries. Firms that want a broader perspective into what motivates a Persona use all the usual suspects of field research, but include diaries that participants keep. I’ve been of the opinion that with the recent explosion of online, high-tech “diary” type tools, include MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Blogger and more, that finding customer behavior and opinions has never been easier. And yes, the good old fashioned paper-based diaries are still a great way to obtain this ethnographic data as well.

By the way, here’s a hint from me to you at absolutely no-charge; do your Personas have a MySpace or Facebook site? They should! It’s a great way to enable others in your organization to access and learn more about your Personas, plus it adds a bit more reality to your Persona, especially if your Persona is a younger demographic.

Personas Enable Enterprise Design Decisions

So, in conclusion, Personas can be and do more than only be used to design a better website experience. By spending time and energy upfront in conducting contextual observation and field research into your customers, you are able to provide a much richer Persona. This richer, more meaningful Persona can be the basis for many additional design decisions across the enterprise. Plus, this richer, more meaningful Persona can be used across the multiple touch-points that comprises the Brand experience. I think Forrester did a good job with this research, and I’m looking forward to seeing more from them on the subject.

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Dana Chisnell of UsabilityWorks recently published an interesting article about conducting quick and dirty usability testing. For all of you who read my little blog, which is probably pretty much only my mom (Hi Mom!), then you know how much I believe in useful usability, aka quick and dirty usability. In fact, I have been saying for many years now that doing any usability is better than doing no usability. Of course you have to be careful how you go about doing your “any usability” or you could end up making things worse than they already are! Ouch!

I love this quote from her article:

“You don’t have to do it by the book to get useful data. But it is different data from what you get from a formal method. There are trade-offs to be made. You do have to understand where the data came from and what it means. You can conduct usability tests that are quick, cheap, and generate all the insights about your users and your design that you can handle.”

Usability Trade-offs

As she so well puts it, it’s the trade-offs that you have to be careful about. Following usability “by the book” so to speak, will ensure the usability testing is done with maximum emphasis on accurate results. Doing quick and dirty usability provides results, but you have to assume less accurate results. The smart practitioner should follow-up quick and dirty usability testing with additional testing after the first round of changes has taken place, to ensure the quick and dirty changes actually improved things, vs making them worse.

Personas are Required

Perhaps the biggest potential failure point when conducting quick and dirty usability is observing or testing users who do not match the Persona of your typical user. One of the most important items of conducting usability testing is understanding and documenting quite clearly who the typical users are, and what their critical tasks are, and rolling that information into the form of a Persona. You then find participants who match the Persona. Easy right? Actually, it’s not that easy, because it takes a real understanding of your users to define what a typical user is. If you skip conducting the research to understand your typical users, then the rest of the usability testing is suspect. If you’ve not identified your Persona or Personae, then stop, do not pass Go, and get that done first. I’ll wait here.

Free Usability Participants

As I mentioned in an earlier posting about finding free usability testing participants, you probably have friends and family that represent a typical Persona, especially if you are working with a business to consumer type of web site or application. That does NOT mean that your great Aunt Mary can be used to test the latest teen heartthrob web site, no matter how many tie-dye T-shirts she still wears. Remember that Persona you identified with your research? You need to find friends and family or others that match the Persona.

Conduct Field Usability Research

Speaking of research, just the act of getting out of your cube or office, and observing real users interacting with your site or application is a great way to learn quickly about possible usability issues that should attract further exploration. It may not be practical to have your entire group follow you around as you lurk over the shoulder of a real user, in their environment, conducting real tasks on your website or application. But if you carry around a video camera, and share the results with your team afterward, its almost the same as having your whole team there. Or better yet, take your team out in small groupings, so that each member has a chance to experience watching real users interact with your website or app. You’ll have even more research done, and each team member will have had the experience of observing real users in their environment.

Read more about Dana’s point of view from her article on quick and dirty usability testing.

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You must synchronize with your usability participants to establish a rapport and clear communications

When conducting one-on-one usability testing, you’ll be meeting a variety of people, each of whom has different communication styles. In order to get the most out of the participant and the session, you must synchronize with your usability participant, to help promote open and clear communications between the participant and you. By synchronizing with the usability participant, I am able to more easily make the participant feel calm and at ease, which helps the usability test by promoting a more open and honest dialog from the participant.

How to Synchronize with Usability Participants

When conducting a 1-on-1 usability session, have you ever had a participant who is extremely quiet, who only looks at the screen and provides no verbal feedback? Perhaps you’ve also dealt with a participant who was extremely negative, pretty much finding fault with everything, even before the test starts! I’ve found over the years of conducting testing that the best way to handle these situations is to establish a rapport with the participant, by synchronizing my communication style with their style.

There are multiple steps I use to synchronize, I won’t go into too much detail with each step in this post, but will provide a quick overview of how I synchronize to give you the big picture.

First: I establish open body language and a positive and warm attitude when first meeting the usability participant.

Second: I use my introduction and warm-up session with specially developed open-ended questions to establish what type of communicator this person is.

Third: I match my communication style to the communication type of the participant, either Visual, Auditory or Kinesthetic.

First: Establish Open Body Language

Do you sometimes find yourself sitting across from someone with their legs crossed, their arms perhaps crossed over their chest and maybe turned somewhat away from you? Those are all closed body language positions. At other times, do you find yourself across from some who has the arms open, their body directly facing you and perhaps slightly leaning forward? This is an open body language position.

When conducting the preliminary introduction prior to the 1-on-1 usability testing sessions, it’s critical that I immediately establish open body language and a positive attitude, making sure I clearly face my participant, using open gestures and leaning forward & smiling to communicate with them and establish rapport. Usually the other person responds in like manner, and we quickly establish a synchronization of body language. However, at times the participant will demonstrate closed body language to my open position. When this happens, I quickly but smoothly switch my body language to match the participants closed language. As we continue through the introduction, I gradually easy my position to a more open body language, and observe if they start following my lead and synchronizing to a more open body language. By synchronizing with them, I establish a rapport with their body language, and then over the course of the introduction the participant becomes more at ease, and I understand the communication style of the participant.

Second: Use Open-ended Questions

Asking open ended questions, and then observing they communication style of the usability participant as they answer the questions, is an important way I establish exactly what type of communication style the participant uses, which helps me synchronize with them. What’s an open-ended question? “What do you think…?” “How did you like…?” “Why did you say…?” are all examples of open ended questions. They are called open ended questions because they require a response that promotes communication from the participant. Examples of closed ended questions are “Do you like…” “Can you find…” or “Did you see…?” Closed ended questions require a one or two word response back, and are “closed” in the sense that they do not enable a dialog from the participant.

By asking open ended questions to the usability participant, the participant can talk and express themselves. Their answers, and the language they use to answer, provide important insight into how they process information, and how they communicate back to the world this information. Open ended questions are a great warm up device too, they usually get the usability participant more comfortable with talking to me, which after all will be critical to the rest of the usability test. Finally, open ended questions help me frame the domain expertise, the taxonomy and the values the participant brings into the test, which helps me frame and clarify the subsequent responses to the testing that the usability participant will be sharing with me.

Match the Visual, Auditory or Kinesthetic Communication Style

I carefully note the words the usability participant uses when answering my open ended questions. Does the usability participant, when answering open ended questions, use words or phrases such as, “appears to me…” “looks like a good idea…” or “clearly it will…”? These are all visual type words, identifying the participant as a Visual type communicator. Perhaps the usability participant uses words like “sounds like a plan…” “I hear you” or “voice my opinion about…” These are all Audio type words which helps define the participant as an Audio type communicator. Maybe the usability participant uses words or phrases such as “feels good to me…” “I’m leaning toward…” or “fits like a glove…” in which case these feeling words help define the participant as a Kinesthetic communicator, one who uses touch or feeling words to define their experience. Remember that nobody will always use only one style of word, and so it takes practice to observe which style of words the usability participant seems to favor.

Once I’ve established what I believe is the communication type of the participant, either Visual, Audio or Kinesthetic, I then match my communication to theirs, to help me synchronize with them and build a rapport. I’ve found that by understanding the communication type it also helps me better define the results of the usability test, for example, understanding that when a visual type communicator tells me she “see that this is organized” she’s not necessarily referring to the visual location or style of the item, but instead may be communicating her belief that the task is relative organized, or simple. I’ll follow-up with additional probing questions in those situations to firmly establish her meaning.

Synchronizing with Usability Participants

In conclusion, by synchronizing with my usability test participants I establish a rapport with the participant which helps produce better testing results by putting the participant at ease. It also helps me establish the expertise and language the participant has. Finally, it builds a communication bridge that enables me to better understand the feedback the user is providing, based on whether they are a Visual, Auditory or Kinesthetic type communicator.

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YOU may have access to free usability testing

Yes, free usability testing is alive and well and even you, dear reader, can find it and use it. Free usability testing is also called “customer feedback” and is readily available in the form of comment cards, web forms, or telephone transcripts. At my company, I read transcripts from chat conversations we have with our customers. It clearly puts into perspective what issues our customers are dealing with, what products or services they are trying to acquire to help them with their issues, and any comments or feedback they have about usability issues, such as difficulty using web pages or web forms when trying to purchase services.

Now I’ll be the first to tell you that customer feedback in and of itself is not the same as conducting actual usability testing with users in a 1-on-1 environment. However, it is a great source of general usability feedback, and in the sense that it’s real users, trying to accomplish real tasks on your real applications, can be a treasure chest of helpful usability clues which point you in the direction of further sleuthing usability issues.

Customer Feedback is free usability testing

This customer feedback is a form of free usability testing, in the sense that your firm probably already collects customer feedback from a variety of sources, and customers will tell you (sometimes in painful detail) what’s bugging them or what’s making them unhappy.

The first trick is finding the feedback, and then the real tricky part is analyzing the feedback and knowing what actions to take based on any suspected usability issues found. Much of the customer feedback you read may not necessarily align with usability issues. Don’t fret, keep on digging. You may not be able to act on much of the customer feedback you read, again, don’t fret, simply note any issues or concerns that others in your firm may need to know about, and forward as necessary. Eventually, if you read enough, you’ll soon begin seeing a pattern of recurring comments about a particular issue or problem that is usability related, and THAT my friends is the free usability testing you’ve been searching for.

Analyzing customer feedback

When analyzing customer feedback, I try to bucket the recurring comments into three or so groups of usability related items:

The first group is critical usability issues, for example a large number of comments about a task in a web form that gives error messages. Critical issues are usually highly specific to a process or task and are narrow in focus. These are issues that if resolved, could add a larger amount of completed transactions for your form. Now please don’t expect the comments from users to provide detailed usability explanations of what the task was, and what the error was that causes the task to fail. Customers don’t understand the details of a process and more than likely are just going to say something like “your web site sux, it crashed on me.” You’ll have to do some sleuthing, but should be able to idenfity the issue fairly quickly.

The second group is important usability issues, which as the name implies are usability issues that should be addressed, but are not deemed “critical.” These issues may or may not be easy to fix, and may appear to be more broad natured. They are important in the sense that by addressing them, you can either fix usability issues or add functions or features that provide a better customer experience. For example, you may see many feedback comments from customers that are complaints about not having certain information available when they are reviewing their customer service account information online. You may not be able to immediately acton on this type of information, but by tracking the number of requests for this function over time, you can build a case for adding this new feature to your existing customer service application.

The third group is general usability issues, which is a bucket of either one-off usability items, or modest usabilty issues that you already know about. It helps to track these issues, if only to put forth a case of potential usability enhancements in the future. Examples of this type of usability feedback may be issues about the speed of the web site, or the inability to change the formatting of displayed information, or any other item that has to do with usability, but is not repeated in other customer feedback comments.

Usability Feedback in Comments

Although it takes time, pouring through the comments received from your customers is a great source of free usability testing. Don’t have feedback forms on your web site or in your internal applications? Get them! Make a case for why comments are so important to your organization. By using real customers, and their real feedback about your products, services or applications, you’ll be making use of a great form of usability information.

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What is Useful Usability?

I like to think of a definition of “useful usability” as:

“Helping to make things easier to use in a quick & easy manner”


I think helping in this useful usability definition refers to the fact that the vast majority of usability practitioners do not actually code and make their recommended usability changes. As usability experts, all the usability practitioners I’ve ever met or known typically test, then suggest or identify improvements to teams that actually do the work. This is not a negative, it’s the same concept as an architect who does not grab hammer and nails to build the design he or she developed. What this means is that usability practitioners must be experts at propagating ideas and concepts, and must work very well with teams, both business and IT, to communicate ideas, concepts and specific recommendations for change.

“Make things easier to use”

Making things easier is what useful usability is all about. Whether it’s a ball-point pen, a company web site or a cell phone, making something easy to use provides increased user satisfaction, which ultimately provides businesses with a product or service that can be sold well. Making things easier from the business’ perspective means making things more profitable. If we do our job well, then companies make more money. We do that by making things easier for the end customer, thus more satisfying, resulting in a more rewarding customer experience which ultimately drives sales (and thus profits) for firms.

“But,” you say, “I don’t build external stuff, I only work on employee applications, or I work for a not-for-profit.”

Doesn’t matter. By making internal employee applications easier to use you are helping to drive more profits, in the form of increased employee production, for your firm. Not-for-profits are the same, your efforts make your not-for-profit more efficient, resulting in better production for the firm, which can take the savings gained and use it elsewhere to better fund operations.

Smart usability practitioners always summarize their work in terms of revenue gained, or operational savings earned for a firm. If you always communicate the business value your efforts are helping to create, you’ll pretty much always have a value for the firm and thus a job!

“Quick and easy manner”

Useful usability is about getting usability done. I once conducted an amazingly long and expensive usability test of the Blue Cross of California web site. We brought users in representing the typical Personas of our users. We set up a location near downtown LA with a full usability lab with multiple cubes, computers, video cameras and usability analysts. It took me about 9 months, from inception of the project to final delivery of the analysis document. In a massively attended meeting with all the VP “stakeholders” of each division of the company present, we delivered our analysis of where there were usability issues with the site. Half way through the presentation, one of the VP stakeholders interrupted the presentation. “OK, we get it, the web site sucks” he said. “So what are your doing to fix it?” I blinked several times, at a loss for words. The reality was I had done nothing to fix it, I had just spent almost a year simply analyzing it and pointing out what needed to be fixed. I had entered the “analysis paralysis” zone.

From that point forward, I realized that to be effective, usability should be useful, meaning efficient. Useful usability then became my mantra. Do usability testing and optimization simply, quickly, and deliver results to make changes. Usability does not have to be a mind-numbing exercise of massive proportions. It can be as simple as paper and pencil wireframes, card-sorts using 3×5 index cards and observing real users over their shoulder as they interact with a ball-point pen, web site or a cell phone.

What Useful Usability Means

So, the definition of useful usability is really about doing your usability tasks simply, quickly and delivering results that can be acted upon almost immediately. By making usability useful, you make yourself useful, and ultimately you help your firm and it’s customers, which in my opinion is one of the most satisfying and rewarding aspects of being a usability practitioner.

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Contextual research and observation are crucial to good usability, including the usability of everyday objects that we love to hate.

I hate my coffee maker. No, I mean I really hate it. It’s a new one, I got it as a gift because my old one (which I quite liked) “broke” when it apparently leapt off the shelf of the cabinet and crashed down onto the floor. Or so my wife would have me believe.

The new one is pretty, but it’s big. My wife does NOT want the coffee maker on the kitchen countertops, so I dutifully make my morning coffee, sit down and dutifully write out this blog (which I think only my mom reads – Hi Mom!) and sip my coffee.

When I’m done blogging, I dutifully put the coffeemaker away, back up into the kitchen cabinet where it lives (out of the way of my wife) and go about my normal business.

Contextual Research and Your Kitchen

So why should I hate my coffee maker? Because I like to program it the night before to have my hot, steaming, nutritious coffee ready for me when I come downstairs the next morning. Which means each night I have to re-set the time, and then re-set the brew time. Each night. Every night. You see, my coffee maker forgets what time it is each time I unplug it from the wall and put it away in it’s wife-friendly hiding space in the cabinet. There’s no battery, so each time I unplug it it “forgets”

I don’t know if usability research was conducted on my coffee maker, but imagine with me that it was, and that you and I are flys on the wall of the usability research design center at the coffee maker manufacturer’ headquarters. We’re watching the usability team conduct usability research with some typical subjects who match coffee-drinker Personas. The usability researchers are busy conducting observations to see exactly what features and functions of coffee makers the users most liked, or thought critical to coffee making success.

Labs Don’t Offer Contextual Observation

As we buzz around the room, we note that the subjects are dutifully using several brands and versions of coffee makers, all of which are plugged into the walls of the lab. What’s missing however is the kitchen environment, and most importantly the wife who refuses to let the coffee maker live on said kitchen countertop. Our imaginary usability team does a good job observing the users, and determines the several features and functions that are critical, such as easy to load coffee filter holders, easy to pour water access, and easy to pull in and out coffee pots.

If our imaginary design team sends this information to the manufacturing team, and they build the coffee maker to specs, then theoretically they’ve achieved coffee maker design success. Or have they? They’ve actually left out a crucial part of coffee maker usability. What about all those people who have to unplug their coffee makers each morning? How will the coffee maker “remember” the time? Many coffee makers use a battery that keeps track of the time when unplugged from the power at the wall. Sadly, this coffeemaker has no such convenience, because our imaginary team did not conduct contextual observation and so did not realize the importance of the battery-kept time.

Contextual Research Offers New Design Opportunities

If our imaginary team had left their design lab, and observed real coffee maker users out in their kitchens, they more than likely would have observed a household or two where the coffee maker was required to be unplugged and put away into a hiding space in a cabinet each morning. They also would have observed that the coffee maker time had to be reset each night in order to brew the coffee at the appropriate time each morning. Seeing the struggle each night our imaginary usability team would realize the importance of a coffee maker that remembers the time.

The moral of this story? Observation in the lab is not contextual observation, and thus does not reflect a user’s environment and their “reality” of usage. Lab observation is helpful, but without contextual observation critical tasks can be overlooked, resulting in a design that is less than perfect, and users who are less than satisfied.

As for me? my coffee is gone (yum, it was good!), and this usability post is about over. My wife is eyeing the coffee maker on the countertop, so I better get going and put my coffee maker away to preserve our happy family environment. I’ll have to re-program the time tonight [sigh].