Why smart personas are actually dumb

Personas have been a staple of UX design and Information Architecture for many years and the development of personas has become an increasingly sophisticated discipline.

Matthew Gibson

So what’s the difference between a sophisticated persona and a real person? The truth is that personas are often ambitious and try hard to differentiate user types when, in real world interactions, people behave with more in common than we like to think.

 

Interaction budget

In order to take this discussion forward, let’s start talking about the concept of a person’s interaction budget. This is the amount of personal and professional investment a person is prepared to make to complete a given interaction; the amount of energy they can give before an interaction becomes tiring.  

 

Example: Shopping

Imagine taking a product to a cashier, you have the product in your left hand and money in your right hand.

What are your expectations of the interaction you are about to complete in order to purchase the product?

How complicated do you think the interaction will be?

How much do you value the skill of the person completing the interaction on behalf of the store?

How many different ways do you think the interaction could complete?

Typically we probably approach this sales scenario with a low interaction budget. We expect to hand over the product, to have the price confirmed, to pay and to take the product away. There are a small number of variables we expect – we may be offered a bag, the cashier may need to remove a security tag, we may be asked if we have found everything we were looking for.

If our experience of shopping stays within these expectations then it is likely that our interaction budget will be enough to service the experience and we will leave happy or satisfied.

If our experience stretches outside of these expectations then we may spend all of our interaction budget, and become tired and irritable, We might not compete the interaction, or at least we may finish it feeling disappointed and unsatisfied.

In terms of the shopping experience described above, stretching the experience might involve the cashier trying to sell add-on products or ask for personal details to add to a mailing list, or offering a store card. Too much of this and the interaction budget can become overdrawn and this becomes a poor user experience.

From a persona perspective, the experience of shopping doesn’t depend on whether the persona is an executive, a labourer, young or old. It doesn’t matter whether they have the skill to cope with a more complicated shopping process. It matters what their interaction budget is.

Interaction budget can be defined as the total patience and persistence that a user demonstrates when engaged in an interaction.

 

Example: Gas station

Imagine filling your car with fuel.

What are your expectations of the interaction you are about to complete?

How complicated do you think the interaction will be?

How much do you value the skill of the person completing the interaction on behalf of the store?

How many different ways do you think the interaction could complete?

We approach this scenario with a modest interaction budget. We expect to manage filling our vehicle. We might expect to queue to pay. We need to take some care to avoid spills. We need to be careful of traffic when walking on the forecourt. We need to protect our vehicle from theft when we are away from it.

Let’s just say this again.

From a persona perspective, the experience of taking fuel doesn’t depend on whether the persona is an executive, a labourer, young or old. It doesn’t matter whether they have the skill to cope with a more complicated process. It matters what their interaction budget is.

 

Dumb digital interactions

Let’s qualify interaction budget for digital by asking the key questions again.

What are the expectations of the interaction being performed?

Any digital product used by non-expert users must compete with the simplest and most commoditized digital experiences found in all mainstream services. Expectations are for simple, obvious, relevant interactions.

How complicated do we think the interaction will be?
Different digital products will merit different levels of complexity but from a user perspective added complexity means added time: complicated interactions take longer to complete than simple ones. Complexity is not an excuse for confusing, divergent or irrelevant interactions. Relevance is paramount in complex interactions. A user will follow an obvious and relevant path far further than a path that disappears around corners.

How much do we value the skill of the system completing the interaction?
We might hold our own digital products in high regard but, from a user perspective, a digital product is a robot slave. We might invest heavily in developing digital products but the end user can be very unforgiving of any mistake or missed expectation.

How many different ways do we think the interaction could complete?
It is human nature that once we have completed a task successfully we are most likely to repeat the task in the same way, rather than try a new way. With this in mind, we tend to imagine only one way to complete an interaction – the way that works.

Looking through the evaluation above we have to recognise that there is a strong weighting towards end users having a base view of digital products.

Interactions need to be simple, obvious, relevant, focussed, obedient and reliable.

 

Dumb personas

When we look at any product or service we need to evaluate the interaction budget and align our UX thinking.

We can start by developing personas as before. We can still identify social and economic groups. We can add richness to our personas and bring them to life as much as we desire. Then we need to add the interaction budget.

Let’s look at the definition again.

Interaction budget can be defined as the total patience and persistence that a user demonstrates when engaged in an interaction.

Patience and persistence are not the same thing so for a true persona we would want to see both noted.

Patience in this context is the threshold at which a person will become irritated by a process or experience. This is driven by previous experience and expectations.

Persistence in this context is the amount of effort a person will make to achieve an outcome. This is driven by desire and necessity.

By applying these dimensions to our personas we put the persona in front of the digital product or service. We ground the persona in the unforgiving realism that is the real world of digital interactions. We force ourselves to work harder at UX.

Dumb personas require smart UX.

 

Summary

Enthusiasm for the science (and art) of UX can overlook that experience is always grounded in a specific interface. Understanding the reality of an interface through dumb personas will always be more powerful than developing rich personas that are decoupled from an interface.

Smart personas are only as smart as the task they are performing.

Next time you look at a persona, ask yourself, “How dumb is this persona?”.

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