Personae gratae

A group of us who are involved in developing the future learning system plans for the Open University are using a range of techniques taken from “User Centred Design” and User Experience (UX) to help us create the future systems for the OU and also to explain the complexity of the systems developments to senior management in a way that is easily understood and powerful. I wanted to share some of these techniques that we’re using without going into any of the detail which may be business sensitive.

man with hammer image

First of all what we’re doing is using a combination of Personas (some people suggest personae as the plural but I’ll use personas to describe these) and scenarios. There are many websites and blog posts going back years which talk about the power of personas and scenarios to design and development. JISC have used it within their design workshops and they’re used in different ways by different groups, for example here’s a post on “Web Design from scratch” by Ben Hunt which describes their use in design.

We’re using these in a slightly different way than for design but rather to describe areas of functionality to be developed to meet particular needs. In the persona development we adopted a range of persona’s that were created by the Online Communications team to describe target users for OU websites.

Here’s an example snippet of one of the persona’s to help explain them…

Jason
Gamer
Age/personal:  18, lives in Glenrothes with his Mum
Job:  Works in Dixon’s part-time
Education:  Highers
Studying aim: Degree in Computing/IT
Online likes:  Interaction, multimedia,
customisation and iPhone apps
Web games, chats, texts; surfs fast, but without
direction

Jason?

We use a set of personas to describe a range of target users and they test the system through a typical use case. We also have some high level scenarios to describe the depth of a particular system in supporting users from end-to-end. Scenarios in our case describe the environmental elements not possible easily through personas, so our scenarios are focused on direction setting and understanding where the OU should be going to meet the demands of new learners. for example we have scenarios based around informal learning becoming prevalent and another scenario around the need for key skills.

Personas are powerful because they:-

  • Allow systems to be developed to meet specific user types
  • Afford consistency of development across different systems
  • Are a useful tool for describing how people will use the services
  • Are useful for testing and benchmarking services against requirement, i.e. are useful for usability and accessibility testing.
Scenarios are powerful to us because they:-
  • Describe the full end-to-end functionality of a system
  • Take socio-economic and other environmental factors into account
  • Set direction of development
  • Describe the strategic value and business benefits

We are using these to map through to a set of “Roadmaps” which describe how we intend to deliver the changes. The roadmaps, programmes and projects within it are along the lines of the JISC P3 model which itself is a variant of PRINCE 2 methodology and therefore well established. The creative bit is how we’re describing this through the combination of personas and scenarios. We have been through this process once before with a programme called RAP (Roadmap Acceleration Programme) where we used a world cafe approach to gathering requirements (see my previous post on Future Learning Systems ). We used the user testing sessions to “validate” the personas against real people to ensure that they’re accurate and complete and the testing informs the system development, this was particularly useful to establish what works in the less clearly defined areas of the roadmap such as the development of Google gadgets through the JISC DOULS project.

The next steps are to build in the marketing knowledge that we have received through consultancy reports on segmentation which can help us plan out which personas we particularly want to target, and  secondly to get areas of the OU to adopt sub-set of the personas and ensure that they refresh them to keep them relevant. We already have some success with this since Student Services have adopted a persona approach to describe the “targeted services” which they want to provide through StudentHome the OU Student portal.

I can’t stress enough though how important it is to have a single coherent set of OU personas. The power comes from system developments being mapped holistically i.e. when values are shared across the organisation about meeting specific user needs and creating, buying or customising systems to meet those needs.

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Nevolution

Nevolution = Evolution through networking

Star Trek

Borg - Are we evolving into them?

Since listening to a keynote by Grainne Conole recently at MoodleMOOT I’ve been thinking about the concept of people and technology co-evolving. It’s not that profound a concept really and links to a previous post about the “hidden influence of social networks” we adapt to technology probably more profoundly that the technology adapts to us.

In the case of Twitter this is becoming somewhat of a concern to me because I’m starting to become the type of person who will try to make his posts witty and engaging (perish the thought), this leads to a tendency to exaggerate or enhance. You have this kind of hyper-reality dynamic played out in Twitter where there are the seedlings of truth but couched in the attention grabbing advertising blurb that gets them noticed, you then run the risk of becoming obsessed by ego rather than the topic. It’s not true of all interactions of course, and there is a lot of very good factual information provided without hype, but I’ve been on twitter now for a number of years and it’s only recently that I’ve started noticing the ego-centricity of Twitter.

I think blogging is similarly an egocentric method of communicating and I remember when Martin Weller first encouraged me to blog many years back I was concerned at the time about it being all a bit of an ego massaging exercise. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that when I started my blog I tried deliberately to blog about things that I’d refer back to and find useful for me and my work so treated it like a diary and reminder. A “To-Do” of research ideas. I did originally intend to blog about all things but technology is the predominate subject within many of my posts and perhaps it because my “other life” is one I’m still not comfortable in sticking into blog posts because that does seem rather egotistical. I do occasionally do put family stuff up on Facebook.

So that leads me to another evolutionary trend which is that I’ve noticed now that I’m CATEGORISING my online persona and using different media to reflect different parts of myself and to interact in different ways with different groupings of people. In Facebook the club of followers is quite narrow and when people are flagged to me as “mutual friends” that perhaps I should friend, I don’t tend to do that unless I have a close connection with them in the real world.

So Facebook is, for me, only a group of real friends and close colleagues, and where I feel safe to share personal information.

Twitter on the other hand is more like a pub where I have some close friends that I’m out with and where there are various other interesting people who I know or ‘follow’, some of which are celebs and where listening to them is amusing. The pub persona also means that I do a bit of boasting and bragging and ‘hyper-reality’ is the norm.

Blogging for me is that part of me that wants to remember things which I find useful and may also be useful to others, so my use of blogging is a kind of therapeutic method for me to relieve myself of some thought that I’ve been struggling to articulate. It is like revision classes where I’m repeating stuff that I may have mentioned in class (in a tweet or on Facebook) and trying to explain it, mainly to myself, so that I can work out if it’s got any validity.

This persona building is happening constantly and it’s evolving over time. I also have my “linkedIn” and my “academia.edu” and various other elements of myself expressed online.

How much though is the media I’m engaging in changing me? …am I becoming ‘hyper-real’?