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.