Persona’s, Scenarios and Don Normal 2 of 2

(Lazarus – Original 09/11/2005)

Here is the first part of a discussion I had with Don Norman about his recently published articles on the use of personas and activity-based design…

How does (or should) the thesis of your article, if accepted, affect a group’s use of personas as a design tool? Should we forget about them (except as a communication tool) and concentrate on activities as the driving forces behind product design?

Don: Well, we got along quite well without personas before they became popular. I do not think they are important for the intelligent, observant, designer. As I an d you) said, I think they are useful mainly in communicating the decisions to other people.

I think the emphasis on activities is the key.

Is there perhaps too much growing faith in the power of personas at the expense of in-depth understanding of activities and their associated problems?

Don: Absolutely. The persona still says nothing about how to design.

Is a focus on activities perhaps too mechanistic, and blind to all the nuanced subjectivities of experience that contribute to a product’s success or failure, that are better captured between the lines of a persona narrative? (sorry for the awkward sentence, but I could think of how to better phrase it) .

Don: No.

Any single prescription runs the risk of being accepted mechanically. But if you have only average designers, then mechanical solutions are apt to be pretty good — better than they might produce otherwise.

Is a persona centered design approach even a user centered design approach? Or are many of us simply seduced by ease and economy of them compared with studying actual people?

Don: If you don’t study real people, then you can’t produce sensible personas! A persona is, after all, a distillation of the knowledge gathered about numerous individuals.

What is a comfortable balance between understanding people and activities in terms of designing better products? Your articles hint at an answer here.

Don: In no way can you understand activities without understanding people. An activity is the set of actions ( perceptions, thoughts, decisions, and actions) made within t he context of a set of goals. One cannot separate activities from people. Activities are goal-driven, and goals exist only in the heads of people. A major support need is to handle changing goals, and interrupted goal-driven activity — and this involves people.

Does this help at all?

Thanks for writing, and for the useful set of questions.


Persona’s, Scenarios and Don Normal 1 of 2

(Lazarus – Original 09/13/2005)

While I tend to agree with Norman’s assertion that activities should be design’s focus, I disagree with the black-and-whiteness of the debates in the wake of “HCD harmful?”

I believe the real issue is not the inherent superiority of examining either activities or people. Rather I suspect the real issue is how to determine the balance between examining each and under what circumstance one should lead, or take priority over, the other.

Norman’s critique succeeds as a valuable reality check to those with too much faith in personas, and as a reminder that the designers job is to help people better perform activities.

However, his critique also has a couple rather weak points. First, it uncharitably represents personas and scenarios. They are indeed more than just communication tools. To be fair though, Norman’s representation might be a reflection of how he has seen them commonly used rather than their full potential in the hands of an experienced professional designer.

And second, his critique tries to be too universal. What is an appropriate balance between ACD and UCD will obviously vary — a nuance his critique elides. Here’s an example. Compare call centers with hospitals. Employees in both are unionized, follow highly evolved procedures and interrelated activities, are strongly hierarchical, etc. You could very successfully model a call center almost entirely on activities without personas, because call centers have evolved to maximize the interoperability of its people, turning people into little more than hot-swappable cogs, so to speak.

On the other hand, even the most complete activity analysis of a hospital would provide only a superficial model that would overlook or minimize the complex web of cultural and personal motivations, goals, and attitudes that make each hospital so unique and that personas and scenarios are so good at revealing.

As a result Norman raises an important issue, but fails to help us develop the tools to prioritize the balance between activities and people necessary to a systematically successful and repeatable design process. Perhaps that will be in his third article soon.

Old Stars Don’t Lead New Bulls

I’ve never been a fan of “What’s hot, what’s not” lists. However CNN money has a very interesting article about how the Jack Welch business dogma may be working its way over to the “not” list.

Now I will admit that Welch has probably forgotten more about running a business just this week than I’ll ever know. But I have to wonder if we’re nearing a sort of Copernican revolution in business. Has much of what we’ve held to be true, including Welch, only seemed true because of our limited perceptions? The west was quite sure the earth was the center of the universe before Copernicus and Kepler provided the theory with Galileo and Brahe providing the evidence that the sun and not the earth is the true center (of course with even a little more perspective we “know” that the universe’s center is everywhere and its circumference nowhere, making all of these guys right but for varying wrong reasons–but that’s a topic for another blog).

Daniel Scocco at Innovation Zen posted something that got me thinking about what the CNN articles really means, which reminded me of this chart from Barry Ritholtz.

I’ve looked pretty carefully, and despite Welch’s book being widely read, none of the stars from 89-99 continued to shine between 02-06. As Ritholtz says in an earlier post, old stars don’t lead new bulls.

Furthermore as Kaplan and Foster point out in Creative Destruction (and as Scocco points out in his post, and as you can read in this pdf):

In 1987, Forbes republished its original “Forbes 100” list and compared it to its 1987 list of top companies. Of the original group, 61 had ceased to exist. Of the remaining thirty-nine, eighteen had managed to stay in the top one hundred… They survived. But they did not perform. As a group these great companies earned a long-term return for their investors during the 1917-1987 period 20% less than that of the overall market. Only two of them, General Electric and Eastman Kodak, performed better than the averages, and Kodak has since fallen on harder times… Similarly, of 500 companies in the original S&P 500 list in 1957, only 74 remained on the list in 1997 and of these only 12 outperformed the S&P 500.

With this sort of long-term failure rate something must be wrong in our theories of prudent business management as wrong as Ptolemy was about the sun going around the earth, and as wrong as the Catholic Church for adhering to such dogma for over a millennium despite centuries of glaringly obvious contradictory evidence. Scocco suggests what’s wrong: MBA programs are about administration, not innovation. And I’d go a step further by adding that administration and innovation are not just different but antithetical (like puzzle problems and wicked problems).

Urban Redesign Mumbai Style

I live in an area close to what you’d probably call skidrow. It’s denizens are beggars, junkies, strung out prostitutes, the homeless, and the mentally ill. Most of these folks own nothing and have no income. And most of them depend on the neighbourhood’s various social services for bare survival. Most Vancouverites shuddler at the thought of coming to Main and Hastings. But despite the area’s deep social and moral problems, it hardly lives up to (or down to) its reputation. Indeed most of these sallow wandering souls are harmless and pass right through you on the street.

My neighbourhood lies right on the edge of a spreading downtown gentrification. Vancouver’s isn’t really the planned-and-scheduled-land-developer-mega-project sort that most cities buy (I saw this in Dallas recently, and it felt about as natural as a snowy Christmas tree in Tucson). Rather, Vancouver’s is a more organic gentrification, the kind that happens as the city’s physical core fills and expands pushing its edges out slightly further with each year.

However my neighbourhood might not be gentrifiable. All of the social service the homeless and desperate need are right here. So it will be very interesting to see how the tension between the homeless clinging to the few entitlements they feel they have and the aspirations of a new neighbourhood wanting to realize its larger, cleaner potential.

I bring this up as a paralell to what seems to be happening in some Indian cities when information age riches clash with stone age poverty over the right to live in the same place. In Mumbai developers who take land to build fancy new condos have started to set aside some of the land to build homes for the shanty dwellers they displace–a strategy that would find more than a few supporters here.

However its not all milk and honey in India’s free-homes-for-the-destitute experiment. The new living arrangements apparently destroy the intimate social connections that grew like weeds in the old shanty–connections that in many ways were the only things of value those people had. Well the old shanty dwellers ain’t exactly thrilled with their new digs as a results.

This is interesting because…

  • its a great lesson in unintended consequences
  • its also a great related lesson in the limits of design and human intentionality
  • and lastly it makes me wonder about how any similar homes-for-the-homeless plans might work out here

Knowing The Cause Can Prevent Exploring Solution

Recent I came across this picture from an old Ikea catalog that shows a brilliant, non-technical solution to the problem of dishwasher puddled that does not impact the indent’s functional purpose. One simple little cut in the bottom rim allows the water to drain out of the indent. Poof. Problem solved.

Then something ocurred to me. Perhaps knowing the reasons why something sucks can prevent you from exploring how to make it better. Indeed after Victor explained the history of the indent, I just accepted it and resigned myself to the fact that I’d forever splash water all over the floor every time I emptied the dishwasher. Instead I should have thought “how can I make this better”. Ikea did.

Environment and Learning

I took a photography class a little while ago. It was held at a local high school. I has been a few decades since I’ve even been inside of a public school.

I’ve never been a fan of public school. The only thing I can say I learned in high school was how to type. Now that’s a pretty valuable skill, but it doesn’t take 3 years to learn.

My time back in a high school class room seems to have revealed something both mundane and interesting: The chairs are incredibly uncomfortable.

Now that might seem obvious and trivial, but its not. Because they were so so uncomfortable I found that I simply couldn’t concentrate on anything the instructor was saying. Sure I heard him, but I didn’t have the attention to internalize it. Most of my attention seemed to be going to finding the least uncomfotable position in these chairs.

So my experience of a typical school room is that the design and planning of it physical environment has direct and powerful consequences on learning.

I wonder how much more I would have gotten out of high school if the chairs weren’t tools for mass torture?

Hero’s Journey into TRIZ

Recently I’ve been cleaning out my file drawers and closets, going though a lot of old material I haven’t seen or thought about in some time. Some work I had collected on TRIZ (a Russian innovation methodology) struck me with its connection to my “Remote Associations” post back in early February. Just as a refresher, here’s the diagram central to that post, and then here’s a diagram of the TRIZ method.

This isn’t a perfect mapping of quadrants; since these quadrants are measuring very different things (the first measures two continua, while with the second organized four discrete items into sequential flow). That said there are some pretty strong connections between what each of these diagrams says.

Moving from specific problem to generalized problem is abstraction; it is to see the metaphorical behind the actual. It is in a sense inductive. In terms of the first diagram, it is the ability to see similarities between things that seem different.

Moving from generalized solution to specific solution is concretization; it is to designate an actual from the metaphorical. It is in a sense deductive. In terms of the first diagram, it is the ability to see differences between things that seem similar.

Recognizing the similarities between apparent differences, moving from the actual to the metaphorical, is like bridging to other places. It is in a way like the archetypal hero’s journey Joseph Campbell (expert in comparative mythologies) describes.

The hero’s journey begins with a sickness in the village, a sickness the normal medicine cannot cure. This is the actual problem. Fortunately there is a magic elixir that can cure the village, but it is far far away. So a hero must be chosen to journey beyond the village and beyond everything that is known. This is the journey from actual to metaphorical. Along the way the hero gains many magic items and companions. These are the generalized solutions. And finally the hero must secure the elixir, and return to the village with it. This is the journey back from the metaphorical to the actual with the specific solution–the solution no one else could come up with.

Now here is the problem: according to my scheme here, TRIZ puts design (seeing the similarity between different things) *after* research (seeing the differences between similar things) the in the sequence of innovation. Clear this doesn’t make sense, so clearly I’ve made a mistake somewhere–but where?

So, what’s my point? Well, I’m not sure I have one really, certainly not beyond just pointing out an interesting connection between Campbell, TRIZ and an earlier posting of mine. But this connection does seem to suggest that there is a point buried in here somewhere – a point worth trying to figure out.

Algorithms vs. Humans

There’s an increasing trend I’ve been noticing out here on the net: a growing army of jabbering zombies regurgitating the same slavish uncritical adoration of Google. This level of uncritically always makes me a bit uneasy. Finally I’ve come across a refreshingly different take on Google. Perhaps the great Google might end up being more like the Great Oz. I especially like:

On the Network, The power of people will kick the backside out of algorithms. While computer sciencey solutions are almost always gameable, communities are equally almost always resilient, adaptive, and intelligent.

Philosophically its a very compelling position. Indeed algorithms can necessarily only deal in data (dead letters so to speak). Meanwhile human communities share information, knowledge, wisdom and surprisingly little data. Admittedly wiki’s are not exactly communities of people, their content is socially created and cultivated–no algorithms.

This could explain some of my own personal experience. After reading this I realized that I’m using Google less and less frequently, in favour of Wikipedia. If I need to know something, Wikipedia is now the first place I turn. I still use Google to help me find websites, but for information or knowledge Wikipedia is my engine of choice.

Here is a visualization of the self-correcting/self-healing properties of social information software like wikipedia. I found this by following a link from’s october 12th posting