How we use Personas

Personas, scenarios and narratives have a long history in user centred design. Within the OU the intention is to use personas, scenarios and narrative as a methodology underpinning the production life-cycle of new learning systems, from conception through to design, development, testing and post production promotion.

We are confident that personas, scenarios and narratives can be used in this way as historically they have been used in formal development through Unified Modelling Language (UML). UML methodology has been applied to enterprise project partnerships with SUN Microsystems, Microsoft and IBM to create systems that were mapped and tested against use cases developed during the design stage. We also know from research within the OU that personas have been used as a method of explaining complex systems without requiring users to have specialist knowledge. Workshops using personas were successfully used in 2002 by Alexander Muir to explain complex system changes to the S292 module team.

Personas: A tool that helps build a picture of users

A persona, based on available data, is a fictional but relevant and realistic user.  In most cases, personas are synthesised from a series of interviews with real people, then captured in one page descriptions that include behaviour patterns, goals and skills, with a few fictional personal details to bring the persona to life.  Personas state situations in student terms, which are easily understood, as opposed to theoretical-educationalist terms, which require specialist knowledge.

A persona is a description of a person that defines a target user group. The best way to define a persona is to talk to real learners and use their feedback to build a persona for each target group. For example:

  • Jane Smith, 35 years old
  • Has 3 children, all in secondary education
  • Works full-time as a research assistant making a decent living
  • Separated from her husband
  • She has limited disposable income and no real savings

It is important to remember that personas define a range of user types and, when applied with attributes (below), should create a spectrum of target users of your services, hence you should avoid overtly stereotyping based on bias rather than factual data. “Stereotyping a persona is a danger that should be avoided, as stereotypes are based on bias rather than on factual data. Personas explore ranges of behaviour rather than seeking to establish an average user.” (Cooper & Reimann 2003).

Within the OU we have conducted interviews with learners to identify typical student types, we have also revised the persona set based on the information from the Monitor report and we have tested the personas against real learners visiting the labs to conduct user testing on our products. This ensures that the characteristics and methods of interaction are correctly described.

Personas: Attributes

Personas may have additional attributes applied to them to bring in an additional contextual element which can be applied across the whole range of personas. For example within the OU we’re considering the extent to which we should apply accessibility attributes that describe the range of accessibility challenges that people face with using OU technology. These attributes can then be added to test a scenario against a wide range of people with accessibility issues. Attributes may also include other contextual information (location, ethnic background etc.).

Scenarios: A description of the learning system needed to achieve a particular goal

Typically scenarios describe the experience that a user (persona) has with an organisation. In our context however we’re using scenarios as the description of the type of service being provided for a user to achieve a particular goal. So, in our context the scenario is a ‘system’ in a UML use case and the persona is the ‘actor’ who is using that system.

OU scenarios are shaped by conditions that will have an impact on the future system landscape outside of the user conditions; these include socio-cultural considerations, economic conditions and internal and external drivers for change. A scenario in the OU sense describes a ‘possible future’, for example systems that support qualification rather than modular study.

Scenarios then are not mutually exclusive and the learning systems must support the full range of scenarios that are delivered through the roadmap.

Narrative: Focus on activities that help achieve these goals

The key to a good user experience is to build a lasting relationship between the organisation and the learner. You do this by focusing on activities that will help the learners achieve their goals. To do this, walk through a scenario for a persona and see where they require your assistance to move toward their end goal. Start by defining the activities they might do, and then identify touch points where they interact with your organisation (e.g. public web site, Twitter, iTunesU, Openlearn). Next think about the services your business can provide to help them and what underlying structures you need to provide those services. To start the scenario for Jane, it may look like this:

  1. I want to research financial plans for college funds…
  2. Uses Google to search “financial plans for college funds” and one of the results points to an article on your website…
  3. I want to know what things I need to think about for college funds…
  4. She reads the article and clicks on a link for a planning calculator…
  5. I want a calculator that is easy to understand and use…

This is just a small part of a narrative for Jane. It describes the activities Jane is doing and the supporting services the organisation is offering to help her. This example is very high level.

Narratives: Cover more than websites

Defining narratives for learners is about more than just designing a learning system; it is about all the ways they can interact with the OU. A learning system website doesn’t stand alone – it’s the entire cross channel experience and it needs to be seamless. By creating personas and defining scenarios and user narratives, you can create your student learning experience to meet the needs of your target groups of learners (backed by the research conducted by Monitor) and how individual learning services are interrelated with the rest of the OU business communication channels.

Narratives and Personas: Using these to test and ensure quality

Through a series of iterative user testing cycles you can test the services being developed against the range of personas. You can do this through ensuring that the users interacting with the system cover the range of target learners and through conducting expert peer testing using the personas to ensure that the systems achieve high levels of usability and accessibility.

Personas, Scenarios and Narratives: A method to promote and explain

Narratives and personas are important and effective tools for professional development and disseminating changes within systems, which have been used successfully in the OU previously  as a method of describing complex system changes (e.g. see S292 above). These techniques were also used during the 2011 Learn About Fair to explain complex learning systems by describing a set of scenarios in a simple but effective way. We expect to continue this work by incorporating elements of personas, scenarios and narratives within Learn About Guides, Learning Design and Curriculum Business Modelling work, alongside other professional development resources, using them to describe changes more effectively to both academics and learners. The diagram below describes a learning system life-cycle.

System life-cycle diagram for using personas

Conclusion

The main risk when applying these techniques is that the people involved in the design, creating and dissemination of services don’t engage or understand the concept of personas and narratives and their importance in creating better services, this leads to a further risk that the tools are not applied holistically. To use these tools effectively you need to have all stakeholders fully briefed and trained in applying these within your organisation. Within the OU we conducting three personas workshops during September and October 2011, co-ordinated by Online Communications, to explain the concepts to all OU stakeholders and to explore the best methods of applying these within the OU. We  also held an eLearning Community event in October where personas were applied as a tool to help people begin the process of creating the stories that accompany the scenarios. (further blog post on that event to come).

The real power of the methodology described above is realised when it is applied to system engineering and design, and applied throughout the whole system life-cycle, and through this establishing systems and processes that are proven to meet the needs of the users. These techniques aren’t new and some of the concepts date back over eighty years however the application of these methods within the OU is new and therefore needs careful nurturing to ensure they are correctly embedded into OU practice.

References and further reading

Cooper, A., & Reimann, R. (2003). About face 2.0: The essentials of interaction design. 2nd Edition. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons

Cooper, A. (1999) The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, 1st Edition: Sams

Norman, D.A. (2002) The Design of Everyday Things. Basic Books

Krug, S. (2005) Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 2nd Edition, New Riders Press

Neilsen, J. (1994) Guerrilla HCI: Using Discount Usability Engineering to Penetrate the Intimidation Barrier http://www.useit.com/papers/guerrilla_hci.html

Neilsen Norman Group, Usability Return on Investment http://www.nngroup.com/reports/roi/

Pruitt, J., Tamara Adlin, T. (2006) The persona lifecycle: keeping people in mind throughout product design, Elsevier

A list of scholarly articles on “Personas and scenarios” http://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?q=personas+and+scenarios&hl=en&as_sdt=0&as_vis=1&oi=scholart

JISC (2010), Assembly on personas and User testing: Blog post http://academic-networking.blogspot.com/2010/03/assembly-on-personas-and-user-testing.html

Woods, W. (2011) Personae Gratae: Blog post http://technocrapy.wordpress.com/2011/06/26/personae-gratae/

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About willwoods
I'm Head of Learning and Teaching Technologies at the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University.

3 Responses to How we use Personas

  1. Pingback: Community Engagement « Weblog of Will Woods

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