The Use of Personas in Danish Companies – 2012/13 (Part 1)

Articleed by & filed under Personas (UK), Scenarios (UK).

How Danish companies apply personas

part 1

 March 2013

Introduction

This report is based on a project initiated and financed by Infinit – the IT Innovation Network.

The report is based on 18 interviews with 28 participants from 13 companies, obtained from December 2012 until January 2013.

The aim of the project is to investigate how personas are established, communicated, used, and maintained in Danish companies, and, from the survey, to extract recommendations on how to develop, design, and use personas.

The company experiences will be addressed from two perspectives: with a focus on how personas are developed and maintained, and on how and to which purpose they are used.

Personas are descriptions on fictitious users that are used for design. The descriptions are based on data on end users of a given product. A set of personas normally consists of 2 to 6 descriptions. Within a design process personas are used to get ideas of use and use situation and to describe the possible use of a new product. These descriptions may vary from elaborate narratives to use cases or early descriptions of prototypes. In this report narratives, use cases, and prototypes will be referred to as scenarios.

Lene Nielsen, Associate Professor at the IT University, Copenhagen (ITU) and Research Assistant Kira Storgaard Nielsen, ITU.

Recommendations

The following recommendations are based on the interviews and the participants’ experiences of when the personas method is a success.

Thorough data gives credibility
There is a tendency towards that a thorough qualitative data material is convincing. At the same time the probability that the method will resonate with a larger part of a company’s employees is greater if there is reference to thorough quantitative data.

Have support in the organization from both employees and management
To succeed with personas, it is necessary to have support from both project participants and management. Furthermore, to not prevent resistance against the method, it is necessary to consider how the persona method is to be disseminated – it should from the beginning of a project be considered how project participants should use the personas and how a positive attitude towards the method can be created.

Consider which tasks the personas have to solve
It is a recurring theme in the interviews that personas help project teams to create a shared understanding of the end users and to create a shared language for describing the end users. However, in order for the persona method to be successful it is important that the project team accomplish more than the understanding of end-users. It is therefore advisable already from the outset of a project to consider to which purpose and for which specific tasks the personas are created.

The method is described as a success when:

  • The personas become a design tool
  • The persona descriptions can be used to create scenarios
  • Personas are used directly in the developing processes e.g. for design or sales.

Separate persona and scenarios
Even though personas are first fully successful when they can be used as design tools and to create scenarios, the method seems to function best when there is a strict distinction between personas and scenarios. If the persona description and the scenarios are too intertwined the description is locked to the specific situation described. This makes it complicated to adapt the persona description to new scenarios.

The descriptions should enable empathy
Personas are successful when they can be perceived with empathy, e.g. when the employees refer to the persona descriptions almost as people they know. This is not the same as saying that it is necessary for the personas description to gain sympathy. But rather that it is necessary for the employees to feel a wish to develop for the personas. Even joking about personas creates a focus and makes it clear to the developers that their users are different from themselves e.g. the personas’ level of IT proficiency.

Make the persona descriptions visibly different
This can be done by means of color-coding, pictures, tag lines etc.

 

Example of tag line from Aarhus Library: ”Expectant user/quality-conscious”. See all descriptions at http://www.aakb.dk/files/att/slipbrugerneloes_personas.pdf

The persona method should be incorporated as part of the toolbox
In the interviews it is described how personas are ‘in the back of the head’, instead personas should be an internalized part of the company’s method toolbox.

Share knowledge about personas in the organization
Organize way to share knowledge in order for the persona method to be visible in the projects – and not just located in the individual project participant’s memory.

The study shows that the personas are often linked to, used, and understood by individual employees rather than shared among the whole company. This might result in lesser value and that knowledge disappears if an employee leaves.

Keep the method alive
Consider how to maintain the personas and make them live. This can be done by e.g. hanging persona posters at visible places.

Summary

Personas are used for a multiple of purposes and to solve many different types of problems. They are used for product design, IT-development, communication, and marketing. The method is also used in projects with a variation in length, both weeklong projects and projects that span over several years.

The interviewed perceive the persona method as well established in their companies and the persona descriptions as something that sits in the back of the head is articulated in several interviews.

There is a span between how this foundation of the method is carried out e.g. in how often the method is used and how standardised the method is. The method is mainly perceived as one tool among many and most companies have an ad hoc approach to the development and use of personas.

Some companies experience resistance towards the method. From the employees perspective this often stems from unclear strategic decisions. From management the resistance stems from insecurity in the validity concerning qualitative methods. From this last issue it can be concluded that quantitative data has higher impact than qualitative data and is considered of more value.

There is no connection between the amount and depth of the data upon which the personas are grounded and how satisfied the companies are when using the persona descriptions. There is a tendency towards that the companies with little data are less satisfied with the method than those who have an extensive data material and – more surprisingly – less satisfied than those who have created the persona descriptions without data. This might be explained as a consequence of that those with a narrow data set are confronted with what they don’t know and that they do not find answers to their questions in the material.

Companies that operate on a global market use personas too. They report the same benefits by using the method as those operating solely in a national context, and they perceive the advantage of getting a common language across departments in many different countries with the personas as even greater.

In connection to the use of personas in a global perspective two models can be observed:

  • To let the different personas represent various nationalities thus cover as many geographical areas as possible.
  • To have persona descriptions that are general and versatile thus cover as many geographical areas as possible. This is mainly done by providing the descriptions with English names

These strategies work within a Western context, but several describe that it is difficult to develop persona descriptions to an Asian market as they lack knowledge on culture and procedures.

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