28 September 2006

Vaporising users

Developing a usable application requires that you pay particular attention to who you’re designing for.  That statement isn’t exactly rocket surgery, but it becomes rocket surgery when you begin to realise that everyone has their own ideas of who their users are. 

Faced with broad labels, such as ‘ software developer’ or ‘dba’, it can be tricky to get consensus on skill levels, attitudes and goals.  What you then discover is that one person’s idea of your user’s ability is magically exaggerated when they’re arguing a case for assumed user knowledge, and then somewhat diminished at other occasions when you’re arguing the case for a feature that would take a lot of development time.

Fortunately, we usability people have thought about this.  You’ll find that it’s hard to pick up a usability book that doesn’t mention personas in some form or another, confidently claiming how they’ll ensure everyone knows who your users really are.

Excellent.  Jobsa good’n.  Time for a pint of warm froffy ale and a quick read of ‘That’s me sorted’ magazine.

Only, that’s not quite the end of the story.  Personas are tools we use to specify a user archetype.  They represent a broad group of people as a single user who is easier to relate to, understand and design for.  Satisfy your persona and you satisfy the group.  So clearly, you need to think long and hard about the group to ensure that your persona is representative.  Most projects have a couple of personas representing groups of people with differing needs.

Hard as that is, it’s not impossible and creating believable and representative personas is a great way to start a project.  Customer visits, forum and support feedback as well as market research are all rich avenues of information about your real customer needs. 

No, what’s really tricky is integrating personas into your development team and extracting the full worth of what a persona is good at – i.e. ensuring everyone knows the goals, behaviours and skills of your users.  What typically happens is that unless everyone is completely sold on the idea (and reminded almost daily), it’s easy to lapse back into the mindset of imagining a malleable user that changes according to your needs.

Red Gate are pretty close to getting the full benefit of using personas and their associated scenarios, but in the next coming weeks, I’m looking to implement a few more ideas to have us living and breathing our users.

To that end, I’ll be vaporising any appropriate users and feeding the resultant er… vapor… into the air conditioning.  Any volunteers?

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