Personas and Scenarios

Jun 06, 2006

Personas and Scenarios are powerful new tools in the content management toolbox to enhance the user experience of interacting with your content, especially web content that includes any form of interaction.

The first, Personas, identify a specific type of user by creating a fictional person with considerable biographical details--a given name, gender, age, education, interests, work description, and even a photograph or idiosyncratic element--to bring the Persona to life so that they stick in the mind. The Persona description identifies both the goals of the fictional person and the goals of your enterprise for such a person. It should include the skills, the tools, and the working environment of the Persona, especially when these details will affect the interactions and transactions between persona and enterprise (usually through a website).

Creating Personas is related to but should not be confused with traditional market segmentation, where typical customers are identified for targeting sales messages. Personas are created from user research--interviews, often in the field, with real users--by clustering the characteristics of important representative users into archetypal characters. The aim is to include all important user characteristics in at least one of the personas. For example, if some users work on Macintosh, at least one Persona should be a Mac user.

The Persona is used by information and interaction designers to help imagine how a real user will react to their designs. Each Persona has clear needs or goals that help the designers look at the project from a point of view different from their own. Many design failures are traceable to designers (or programmers) who unconsciously assume their users are like themselves.

The Persona also allows a sort of virtual user testing, before getting to the real user testing phase. When Personas are really working, designers and programmers talk as if they are real people, people that they know well.

A Scenario is a variation on what software engineers and system designers refer to as a use case. Use cases lead to detailed requirements, a functional specification, testing metrics, and validation of the software model. They are exhaustive lists of the many things that might be done with a software system to help the designers "walk through" all the possible uses and make sure the system was thoroughly debugged.

A Scenario, by contrast, attempts to prioritize only the most important uses that are likely, and these for the most important types of user, as collected in the archetypal user concept of the Persona. It is still a collection of tasks or goals that need to be accomplished for example, your objectives and those of your users for a website being designed.

Setting the Scenario
So, after Persona's have been developed, specific tasks or goals may also be identified as a use case or Scenario in order to further refine usability. The user experience engineer tries to imagine how each Persona would accomplish tasks, often specific detailed interactions or transactions, described in the Scenario. Beyond simply espousing a vague "user-centered design," this process helps clearly articulate what is to be done and by whom, which leads to the "goal-directed design" methods detailed by Alan Cooper and Robert Reimann in their classic book About Face 2.0.

Each Scenario describes a task or goal to be accomplished by the user, or actor, or Persona. It also includes the specific sequence of actions needed to achieve the goal, sometimes including alternative sequences, discovered through user research, documenting exactly how the user reacts to the design.

Personas and Scenarios for Life(cycles)
John Pruitt and Tamara Adlin have just published an important book called The Persona Lifecycle, in which they make the point that Personas aren't something you do at the start of a design process and then forget. They evolve along with your organization and its website. Similarly, the information architecture of a website needs to change as the organization adds important new functionalities or whenever user testing reveals inadequacies. Each change requires existing Scenarios to evolve or may demand new Scenarios.

While Personas and Scenarios may be among the latest additions to the content manager's toolbox, the underlying theories are not new. Personas and Scenarios are well-established techniques that have been known through the years under many other names: Designing for People (Dreyfuss, 1955), Target Customer Characterizations (Moore, 1991), Actors and Agents in Scenario-based Design (Carroll, 1995), Individualization (Upshaw, 1995), User Profiles (Hackos and Reddish, 1998), and User Archetypes (Mikkelson and Lee, 2000). Yet the term Persona, popularized by Alan Cooper in his 1999 book, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, does beautifully encapsulate the power of this tool as a way to facilitate the old business adage to "know thy customer."