In (further) praise of personas

I felt this piece from UX Matters – Are Personas Still Relevant to UX Strategy? – and the string of great comments that follow it warranted a post here, based on personal experience forged in rigidly commercial environments.

To my mind, personas introduce a much needed human aspect into what can otherwise be a soulless, technical process that leads to an anodyne web site, app or web strategy. Rarely is the case for designing for people put as strongly as during a persona building exercise.

Personas also help to communicate strategy to otherwise sceptical stakeholders. When they are executed correctly, they ring true. They transform the “users” we so often refer to in design industry-speak into the clients and customers that your client recognises; they will know these people.

When it comes to crucial decisions of prioritisation, creating a hierarchy of needs for functionality can be greatly assisted by basing these decisions on the most important customers as a first step, rather than working with an exhaustive list of features or content.

The final, crowning glory of personas is their potential to bestow a lasting legacy. Beyond the life of an interface project, the organisation – your client – now has a valuable insight of their public. They will not be marketing personas (a very different proposition) and done badly, they are nothing but caricatures. But they can provide an enduring reference point for future communications. They inform your client about the people they currently, or aspire to connect with and how they prefer to interact. Above all they can imbue an organisation with the capacity for empathy.

Done right, you will change you client’s perspective for the better, giving them wisdom that they simply did not have before. They will know it and will thank you for it.

Design for Everything, Everywhere.

As occurs frequently on Twitter, I was able to enjoy a conversation between two prominent figures of the design industry as they exchanged insights. This one really made me sit up and take notice. I’ll reproduce it in full here, short and sweet as it is:

@trentwalton: Lines between mobile, tablet & everything else are beginning to overlap to the extent that the terms are becoming useless.

@lukew: wrist, palm, lap, desk, wall, mall sized screens. human ergonomics won’t change. devices will.
@lukew: as illustrated in: http://static.lukew.com/unified_device_design.png …

To save you a tap, click or cut n’paste, Luke Wroblewski’s graphic is reproduced below.

The new device landscape by @lukew

Any given day on Twitter yields a huge number of enlightening stats, info graphics and blog posts; frequently these will be stark reminders of how the device landscape is changing. Luke’s graphic however is a statement of fact – everything is changing.

Let’s just examine the message: device sizes, interactions, input devices and resolution are at once convergent and inconsistent. Add to the mix that context and location are unpredictable and it becomes clear that there is no convenient fallback. The desktop cliché, for instance, is now archaic.

Even the popular perception of responsive web design as a requirement to accommodate different viewport sizes must go. Our new reality affects (amongst other things) tap/click area, text size, image file size, colour palette, content length… Quite simply, it affects design decisions across the board.

There is no secret formula. The future of design on the web is designing for everything. Everywhere.

People-centred design™

I’m a little late to the party here but still bemused enough at the storm in a teacup that I couldn’t let it go. Jack Dorsey’s suggestion that we need to talk about “customers” rather than “users” sparked one heck of a debate and gathered a lot of backing, but it strikes as having more than a whiff of the PR exercise about it.

The term “users” remains relevant and essential. Anyone with any experience of designing for user interfaces know for instance that marketing personas are, and should remain, distinct from user personas. One can inform the other of course; much good data can be gleaned from well thought out and comprehensive marketing personas. But We cannot allow the term “customers” to dominate.

We use devices, we interact with content. Within those two simple statements lies a myriad of questions that require answers, challenges that need addressed. To apply the term “customer” regardless of context is to give undue emphasis to a marketing-centric approach. The art and science of designing for the web has many facets, of which designing for customers is just one.

If anyone practising user experience or user-interface design was so caught up in the science of their work that users becomes some kind of abstract, then something is wrong. If that was Jack’s point, I’d be right behind him. We are designing for people.

However, Jack also emphasises the importance of semantics in support of his argument, but it is a flawed point. Before “customers” is a fit term to apply in these contexts, that word in itself would require redefining. He also argues that “the word ‘customer’ is a much more active and bolder word. It’s honest and direct”. It is not. I’d suggest there are many people interacting with their favourite apps or sites who would be horrified to find out they are regarded as “customers”.

Apple has recently put Jonathan Ive in charge of what it has historically called its “Human Interface (HI)” team, a term which if anything sounds even more clinical, impersonal than UI design. No matter though; Apple know they are dealing with people, with customers, with consumers… with users. Whatever terms they choose to use in internal processes, what really matters is the products that emerge from them. Everything else is hot air.

UX & The Weight of Expectation

I’ve been thinking increasingly about the importance of user expectations in planing an effective user experience.

The greatest asset we have in going to meet the challenge of the user’s mental model is simply knowing it exists in the first place. A huge part of user research concerns itself with the needs of the user, but it’s important not to let this spill over into a hapless quest for what the user wants.

Don’t Give Me What I Want

User requirements are one of the basic tenets of user experience design. We know however that if the user got everything they wanted then we would almost certainly have a very messy interface to contend with, one overflowing with superfluous functionality and options. In short, what the user wants is often at odds with that they truly need.

This points to a very particular approach to user research.

In my own experience when the opportunity exists to talk to users in person the line of questioning should monitor the distinction between wants and needs very carefully. When talking through a particular system with a user group, the type of question I try to avoid is “what do you want to see on this page?”.

Love Me, Love My User

A quick aside here – people are amazing. Watching them in action on a website or an application is possibly the single greatest education a UI designer can have. They won’t always do what you expect them to do or what you want them to do. They will however do what they feel they need to do in order to achieve a goal. And that, of course, can be endlessly frustrating for designers.

In research as in life, framing a question can be as important as the question itself.

An open question such as “what would you like to see on this page?” (as a crude example) will garner very different responses from “what would you expect to see on the next page?”. The former can lead to some serous flights of fancy, where the entire web as we know it has to be re-engineered to match the heady goals set for what the site has to provide. Expectations are so much more important than perceived need.

Let Me Down Easy

When engaging with stakeholders, the same types of enquiry can help to keep a sense of promise to a minimum. “What do you want…” infers a degree of promise about what will be delivered. So much of stakeholder engagement is about inclusivity, giving people a platform to make contributions to a process that values their input. To over-promise in these situations is to mislead participants as to what will be done with their feedback. “What do you expect?” carries with it less of an overt sense of promise, and more one of discussion.

What’s New, Pussycat?

And what, you may ask, of innovation? If we only deliver in line with expectations, how does anything new enter the mix? Clearly, delivering “to expectations” is a lowly objective for any project. However, delivering what users expect is an imperative. The point is that we are not constantly seeking to reimagine the web. The time for reinventing conventions is gone. Lord knows we saw enough “innovative” – some might say wacky – attempts at elements such as navigation systems pre-2002. We have been left with a web that, generally speaking, conforms. And there is no shame in that. Most of our consumer products do the same; even the iPod delivered innovation in a very familiar package, building on the form factor that products such as the Walkman had created. Everyday innovation almost always arrives in tandem with the familiar. And delivering based on expectations does not preclude the element of delight.

Conclusion

Users do not like the unanticipated, but they will react positively to a system that simplifies a task. Strive for innovation of course, but be careful how you define it. And make no mistake – managing expectations is possibly the single biggest task faced by UX practitioners. As techniques such as responsive design gain traction, the issue of expectations grows ever more complex. In user research, assume nothing… and expect the unexpected.

Return to the garden

(or: Designers Assemble!)

 

I shouldn’t need to declare support (again) for the pursuit of responsive web design as the future for online design. What irks me though is not so much a sense that visual design is being compromised in order to achieve a responsive outcome, but that the fact is not being acknowledged.

For what it’s worth I’m writing from the standpoint of working in a sizeable agency on many projects where RWD is not a practical option based on such factors as functionality and user profiling. You can take much of what I offer here as my opinion only, but my firm belief is that it is not mine alone.

Yin without a yang

I’ve written before about the difficulties of implementing responsive solutions in a commercial environment. As evidenced in James Young‘s excellent collation of “problems from the coalface“, designers are having mixed experiences in the transition to RWD – a situation I feel is inadequately represented in online conversations. The overwhelmingly positive spin accompanying a responsive site launch creates a subtle (but tangible) pressure on conscientious designers to ‘step up’ and deliver RWD on their own projects. Which would be fine, but the inference that RWD is desirable at any cost.

So here is a conundrum for designers that I will pretentiously moniker ‘the RWD Paradox’:

Forced to choose, what is less desirable: a visually mundane but responsive website, or a highly engaging fixed width site?

Obviously I distort for effect, but I believe that this is the uncomfortable truth for a large proportion of designers trying to pursue a responsive approach. The underlying point of RWD is that all resolutions and viewport sizes are important; it’s not just preordained screen sizes that should be accommodated. That being the case, why do many responsive sites create visual anomalies at certain sizes that we would normally find unacceptable in any other context? And if this as a natural consequence of applying RWD, then lets at least admit it.

Think outside the box (model)

It has further been suggested by more than one industry colleague that RWD promotes ‘boxy’ design, where a facet of the site’s visual appeal – part of the ‘personality layer‘ – is sacrificed to easily scaled, easily manipulated blocks. This is clearly manifest in at least one high-profile brand’s recently launched site.

Now, this is not to suggest that RWD precludes great visual design. Not at all. There are many examples of a successful marriage of the two, but they appear to be in the minority compared to the plethora of single-column portfolios or blogs that have little relevance to large consumer-facing sites.

Ding-a-ling

Suppressing these issues will only exacerbate them. And yet we resize our browser windows, ooh-ing and aah-ing at every cute little piece of javascript that animates resizing images while missing an important point – users don’t care. Users want a coherent experience relevant to their situation at any given time. Designers and developers are the only people I know who sit and accordion their browser window to see how a site will respond. We’re too in love with technique because we know that somewhere, another designer or developer is going to think it’s cool. And folks, when it gets to the point when we are designing for other designers, that should ring some pretty loud alarm bells.

Return to Eden

So what should be done? We need look no further than relatively recent history for inspiration.

Dave Shea‘s CSS Zen Garden marked a sea change in online design. The site, if you are unfamiliar with it, accepts CSS submissions and applies them to a core HTML file, demonstrating in a simple and powerful manner how separating content from presentation creates a beautiful and effective flexibility. In 2003 it enlightened many designers, myself included, and put the argument for the jump to CSS beyond debate. More than that, it coalesced the design community in a way that circulating links on Twitter does not.

“Just sowing seeds..”

We need a new garden for responsive web design. Mediaqueri.es is great as an initial eye-opener for those unfamiliar with the idea of adaptive layouts, but we badly need something to give designers the opportunity to pool ideas and resources and begin raising the bar for RWD. Not a new idea I freely admit. However while it may have been hinted at, and the original Zen Garden used to illustrate adaptive potential, I have not found a straight call for a new ‘Garden’. So this is it.

We can and should learn from experience in order to forge a better future for web design. That, and be a little more open on occasions when quality has taken a back seat to technique.