Magical Thinking

Looking Inside the Tapestry

· Storytelling,Research,Personas,UX Strategy

Building great experiences that people love is hard work. Even though we might romanticize the notion of the "eureka" moment, more often than not there is a slow, plodding, intentional method behind their creation.

And one thing almost all great experiences have in common.

In this grand tapestry of life, we are all interwoven threads, adding our color to the grand design.

In practice, we ask this a lot of our clients: to stop and notice that the world is filled with stories, each unique and completely valid, told from (now over) 8 billion perspectives.

Product designers yearn to understand this, and yet struggle with both the practice of listening to and considering so many disparate stories, and then integrating them into a single (or at least very limited) experience.

Personas were an earlier solution to this problem, first described in relation to software and product development by Alan Cooper in his 1999 book, "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum".

The very purpose of Persona development is to establish a definitive answer to the question: for whom are we designing this product?

Through ethnographic research, we hope to observe patterns of needs, use, and purpose among a selection of people. And from those stories we might construct stories, append a few demographic details to give the narrative a name, face, age, job title, etc., and... voila? Are we done? Can we just build a product for that one person, and be assured of a successful product launch?

In our experience, two practices have stood in the way:

  • The desire to accelerate the persona generating process, and imbue these "characters" with market segmentation data. When this is done, authentic stories are replaced with wishful data: we describe what we hope is true about the people we want to serve, rather than understand what is true about the people who want us to serve them.
  • Rather than do the hard, messy, politicking work of narrowing down the observed data into a single set of coherent needs, teams would "split the difference" and create several Personas. Strictly-speaking, this is kind of ok: if you're building completely different systems for each Persona (think "customer-facing eCommerce site" vs. "back-end fulfillment tracking system".) But otherwise, this practice utterly defeats the purpose of creating a Persona in the first place.

If, normally, the process of product design and development begins from the inside and works outwards towards the customer, the "looking inwards" approach of Persona building - even when it's done imperfectly - has at least one upside: we learn to see our organization, our product, our offering, from another perspective. That isn't easy and it doesn't come naturally to most people; and so it's no surprise that the gravity of "self-centered design" often pulls teams back to a "product-centric" process.

But even if done adroitly, then what? We've "discovered" the user, and identified her needs... so what?

The Persona is merely the beginning. A backdrop, a stepping-off point. The real magic is in understanding her story, in the larger context of daily life, and in learning how that story might weave together into an experience.

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