Data Driven Personas

A week ago, I was in Florence Italy, giving a talk on a paper that a colleague and I wrote. The paper was a CHI Note, which described a new way to create "personas": fictional characters who represent user groups who will use the products that we develop. It's a lot like creating user profiles, but personas have names, photos, and other details added to them, so that designers and developers can meet the needs of, say, "Sarah" rather than a nameless, faceless "system administrator".

The process for creating personas has been around for about ten years, and usually starts by brainstorming user characteristics. Ideally, the details of the personas are drawn from facts that have been gathered through user contact. Sometimes, once the personas have been created, they are then validated, by conducting a survey or focus groups or by communicating with representative users in some way. Unfortunately, there are several drawbacks to the traditional method, usually revolving around trust in the accuracy of the personas and acceptance by the team that is supposed to use them. But it's a numbers game, too: if you interview 10 or 15 or 20 users, how can you ensure that they are truly representative of the larger population?

My partner in this paper, Nalini Kotamraju, is a user researcher at Sun, and it was she who initially proposed that we turn the traditional method around: rather than interview users first, and then validate the personas through a survey, why not conduct the survey first, and then interview them? Brilliant! Not only would the personas be an artifact of the data, but we'd have statistically significant numbers of users to base them on! Then, when we conducted the user interviews to add details to the personas, they would be "the right" (read that as "representative") 20 or 30 users, because we'd have done the stats first.

Our new persona creation process went well, but there were some surprises along the way... perfect for a paper submission :) Fast forward a little more than a year, and there I was in lovely Firenze, sharing our work with a receptive group. My favorite part was at the end, after the talk was over, when I was able to share more in-depth details with friends and colleagues. I even got a question and compliment from John Pruitt! But there were a lot of friends and colleagues who weren't there, so if you're one of them, I'll be giving another talk in May :)

Jen McGinn is an interaction designer in xDesign who is working to improve the user experience with software registration and Solaris system administration. She has an MS in Human Factors in Information Design and works out of Sun's campus in Massachusetts.

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