Research-based personas and the resulting user/customer journeys simplify requirements and product development enormously, as they help to identify optimization potential. This in turn helps make informed decisions about product features, interactions and navigation paths as well as to facilitate the prioritization of functions.
Often there are many different opinions within a team and company about who the users or customers are and what their wishes, needs, questions and goals are. As a result, the term “user” or “users” is used in a relatively vague way. However, these “users” are very malleable and can adapt perfectly to the opinions and presuppositions of the person who is currently talking about the “user(s)”. Alan Cooper, the “inventor” of personas called this phenomenon “The elastic user”.
Instead of the users’ perspective, decisions and priorities are made on the basis of opinions and assumptions, or even from the perspective of the technology, as to which functions are planned or which features are implemented when.
The result is systems that are not developed with the users in mind and may be overloaded, do not offer any real added value, do not stand up to competition or do not provide anything new in the sense of innovation.
Research-based personas offer a solution here. Research-based personas can serve as a starting point for journey maps, which in turn reveal the optimization and innovation potential of products and services. This makes requirements and product development, as well as the prioritization of functions, much easier and based on informed decisions rather than opinions.
What are personas?
Personas are prototypical descriptions of representative users. They are created based on qualitative interviews and, if necessary, contextual observations. In short, personas are a way to summarize user research results. They are neither real people nor an “average” user, or should even be based on stereotypes. They are user models.
Fig. 2: This is what a persona profile might look like: The persona has a name, goals, preferences, concerns, and questions.
But what does it mean anyway – “model” ? George Box, a well-known statistician once summed this up in his famous saying “All models are wrong, but some are useful“. Burnham and Anderson (2002) explained models as “ (….) a simplification or approximation of that of reality (…) they therefore do not reflect all of reality.” In short, models are used to represent complex things such as brain science , the universe, or subway maps with a useful abstraction.
Personas are user models
Why do we put so much emphasis on this here? We believe it is very important to clarify that personas are seen as models , because this means that we are aware at all times that they do not reflect 100% of reality, but are an abstraction of this complex reality. They can be seen as tools to communicate research results and help for a shared understanding of these results within the team or the company.
This abstraction leads to the question: why do we use models and not simply use reality?
The BVG subway plan is an excellent example of a model. The plan contains the most important information for getting to the desired destination: unique names and colors for each line, the order of stations on each line, the interchanges between lines, etc. But the less important details for us as passengers – such as the depth of each tunnel, the exact distance between stations are ignored. A civil engineering company, for example, needs other models for this, as it wants to do something other than simply drive from A to B. For us as passengers, such a level of detail in the plan would not be necessary, it could very likely even make it enormously difficult for us to read and make the plan incomprehensible to us.
Fig.3: A model of the BVG subway network with meaningful abstractions of reality.
Also, models of the universe do not explain how the universe works in “reality,” but they make the concept tangible to non-astrophysicists and save us from poring over technical journals to get an understanding about the subject area.
Likewise, user research can be used to create descriptive models of users. These models help to communicate the complexity of the interview data to the team in a more understandable way. Models show how things work in a consumable form that is accessible and easy to communicate. It is easier to communicate a few personas than to read all the ethnographic reports.
Personas inform the ACTUAL state of a user or customer journey
The research-based personas provide insights into questions, needs and concerns, but also into typical usage scenarios. From this information, it is possible to derive an ACTUAL state of the customer journey – with all its positive and also negative experiences – the pain points. These pain points are exactly what is of great interest – because this is where the potential for optimization and innovation lies.
What are Journey Maps?
A journey map is a representation of all interaction points (or: touchpoints) between your users/customers (represented by the personas) and your product or service. Journey maps thus represent the current user experience and are ideal for uncovering optimization potential. Through the personas based on the interview data, the respective interaction points / touchpoints are determined. Then, per touchpoint, the actual state of the user experience is “mapped” to those touchpoints. These can be positive as well as negative experiences such as worries, fears, questions or concerns that were evident from interviews. This mapping reveals where the potential for optimization lies: often precisely in the “gaps” of a positive user experience.
All of this is summarized in an overview so that it becomes clear exactly where the greatest need for optimization exists.
Fig.4: An example of what a user/customer journey map can look like
This exposition of the user experience with the product/service then represents a valuable starting point for the following idea phase(Future Scenarios/ Maps) as well as for the prioritization of functions and further product development.
Research-based personas and the resulting journey maps are excellent tools for subsequently developing well-founded ideas for exploiting optimization potential. This in turn forms a solid basis for user-centric and prioritized requirement and product development, because with a cross-departmental understanding of your users and customers, you ensure that the entire team has a shared understanding of users and their goals and needs, and make informed decisions about what to implement and when, thus reducing your cost risk in a new or redesign process.
- Alan Cooper , Robert Reimann , Dave Cronin, About face 3: the essentials of interaction design, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, NY, 2007.
- Burnham, K. P.; Anderson, D. R. (2002), Model Selection and Multimodel Inference: A Practical Information-Theoretic Approach (2nd ed.), Springer-Verlag.