Archive for January 2008

The persistent persona

January 26, 2008

I have to admit not getting the fuss about personas. With a raft of new UX books out in recent years, including 2 books on personas in 2006 alone, I am always amused at the extent to which we (in UX, but also in design generally) believe we must re-invent everything. As if its better than some previous generation.

Personas are tools for describing the users attending to the products and services we are designing for. They are basically user profiles, succinct depictions of the salient characteristics of a given user type. Personas capture a set of meaningful properties around a given user categoru, with a name and fictitious background that personalizes it as a representation of a customer.

They have somehow become a big deal. Forrester conducted an international consultant’s study on the best practices in personas in 2007, and now they even offer a persona design course. There are blogs just about personas, such as this one that promotes the Forrester study.

Scott Berkun’s (oops – Joshua Porter’s, of course – and thanks for visiting, that’s one more thing I did not know about you!) So Joshua’s recent discussion about personas (and designing for yourself) spurs my title question, and answers it. I agree with most of what he’s saying, and he outlines a kind of essential history and context of personas which is worth reading, (and if it were in fact the only thing you would read on personas). And he switches from taking on personas as a communication tool within the design team to the notion of the designer finding their own empathy for the user, persona or no-persona. And that essentially designers can design for themselves if so enlightened (which they always have anyway, and often do a very good job if they know the domain). But designers don’t need the personas for themselves – maybe I missed this (it is a long piece) – but designers construct personas for everyone else, and then continue with design work after having wowed the team with their bit of research presented in persona format.

As far as the axioms of designing for yourself, it depends. It seems people in UX are often not trained in Human Factors, or understand the psychology of tacit knowledge. You cannot do knowledge elicitation on yourself, and you cannot measure your own responses to interaction. If you are considering product design, it helps to have separation and empathic understanding. If you are a designer, you are NOT an expert in your user’s work practice, but you can become a kind of participant observer if you are a good researcher. I design for doctors sometimes – I’m not a doctor, but have learned a lot about their work practice and everyday drivers and constraints. So I advocate research-design cycles so that designers can learn over time.

I also quibble with the provenance of Alan Cooper as the formulator of the method. As with everything in UX, there were many historical priors. Cooper only appropriated the the term persona, as part of a best-selling book. We called them User Profiles for many years (those years before Alan transformed from Visual Basic guru to UCD/UX guru). We all adapt tools of the trade. So it seems in UX, everything is new again, all the time. But as kids of the 80’s, some of us “invented” User Profiles because we needed them, and we used them to describe representative users in sufficient detail to support design rationale arguments to developers and product managers. I don’t recall ever using them as major design artifacts though – and they were and are communications tools. To promote them as more seems to demote other methods that we ignore in our attempts to perfect personas. Just look around – How many personas have you seen with well-developed user scenarios describing an ecologically valid use situation? Now that’s something useful.

Sorry to be such a curmudgeon, but that’s what blogs are for. I suggest that the fascination with personas is a way of elevating our methods to an importance they don’t deserve, perhaps just because they are so simple and representative. After all, they are a tool our internal customers in marketing actually understand about our UX deliverables. Try explaining activity theory to them, and framing the user in their context of social activity. They will ask us to stick with the personas, no doubt.

Finally, we should recognize that in order to publish something (like another book or post that promotes personas) we have to create some differences, otherwise there’s no real contribution. But if we have nothing new to say, why print more books about personas? Blogs are a more ecologically sound approach anyway. The fields comprising user experience are starting to feel like electronica genres, with their dozens of nuanced categories that only DJs care about. I know, breakbeat is very different from broken beat, but who cares, if you just want to dance! So let’s dance! (And when you’re in Dayton or Toronto, come dance with us).

The Innovator’s Long Nose

January 7, 2008

Bill Buxton, Toronto’s-own design luminary and Microsoft principal scientist, writes up a first thesis on The Long Nose of Innovation in the current Business Week.

My belief is there is a mirror-image of the long tail that is equally important to those wanting to understand the process of innovation. It states that the bulk of innovation behind the latest “wow” moment (multi-touch on the iPhone, for example) is also low-amplitude and takes place over a long period—but well before the “new” idea has become generally known, much less reached the tipping point. It is what I call The Long Nose of Innovation.

Such clarity of concept. The mirror-image of Long Tail is intriguing here, since the Long Tail is largely about adoption and deep reach across expanded markets. The Long Nose idea suggests we don’t hit the sweet spot overnight. This is certainly true for many technological innovations – I can think of a few startups that might be today’s winners is they had a long range plan that allowed for a 10-year pop horizon. (Remember Firefly?) Wouldn’t it be good to predict which classes of systems so that we might set our strategic sights toward reality?

This seems similar in diffusion process to the dreaded idea of incremental innovation, (which I believe is a powerful competitive force). Incremental has been out of favor in recent years mainly due to its lukewarm appeal in a hypercompetitive Web-saturated marketplace. You will find few executives willing to stake their jobs on incremental innovation when they can drive and demand “disruptive innovation,” and have it now – or at least within the year. It takes an organization to innovate (as in “bring ideas to market.”) Regardless of soundness of theory, innovation is visible to us from the marketplace results, and marketplace dynamics have a lot to do with the uptake of incrementally developed or rapid breakthroughs.

I love the conclusioon (not to steal thunder, its a short article and you should be reading it instead of myblog about it):

Instead, perhaps we might focus on developing a more balanced approach to innovation—one where at least as much investment and prestige is accorded to those who focus on the process of refinement and augmentation as to those who came up with the initial creation.

To my mind, at least, those who can shorten the nose by 10% to 20% make at least as great a contribution as those who had the initial idea. And if nothing else, long noses are great for sniffing out those great ideas sitting there neglected, just waiting to be exploited.

Perhaps there are several different innovation diffusion curves, depending on the case studies we use to describe their variations. Depending on how we define innovation , the curves may differ. Some innovations have significant impact, but are infrastructural – so they have long curves and sharp breaks when they finally break through. Others are more market-based, as maybe the mouse could be. As one writer said, Doug’s mouse was good enough in the 1960’s. But with no PC market, no need for mainframe mouse. (It’s not the innovation’s fault the cycle was so long!) This is a really valuable contribution.

Socializing Business Decisions

January 6, 2008

What are the most effective ways to coordinate organizational transformation? Theories and experiences differ widely. Nearly all schools of strategic transformation assume a top-down decisionmaking style that wreaks “transformation” like a plague of new process changes across the organization. When the dust settles, it’s often the case that it was just another re-org, and now the very notion of transformation is relegated to a management fad. You cannot do “transformation” twice in the same organization.

Complexity scientists and strategic thinkers both speak of the  dynamics of emergence in change processes. Emergent strategies are powerful for smaller firms, that can prepare for contingencies with strategic options that can be selected over time. Emergent strategy leverages a bias toward environmental scanning and opportunism in the marketplace. Not bad, but not transformative. In the same way, transformation that’s emergent seems a misnomer, the very notion of transformative change implies bold design.

How else can true organizational transformation occur? How about laterally, through locally designed interventions guided by strategy, and energized by the socialization of agreement?

Socialization is a type of organizational routine applicable to any business practice where there’s a need to develop a model routine or new set of skills before rolling it out enterprise-wide. Rather like a real-world scale simulation of the social interaction, tacit rules, and division of roles for a new knowledge practice, a new process, or even simulating the impact of major decisions such a new product or business strategies. Richard Anderson recently cited U of Toronto’s Dean Roger Martin from Connecting, which led me to a 2005 article I wish I had seen 2 years ago: Why Decisions Need Design (which Dean Martin extended in an IIT interview in 2006, Designing Decisions.) He poses some interesting questions, which may not have been answered anywhere since:

These are all manifestations of badly designed decisions. What’s the root cause? The fundamentally flawed design of the decision factory.

Typical decision design demonstrates few of the features of great design, which starts with deep user understanding. The designer dives well below the surface to fathom exactly how someone will use the artifact to be designed. The designer goes beyond understanding the user’s physical and functional needs to determine the user’s deeper emotional and psychological needs.

Do decisions even have “users” who need to be deeply understood? Indeed they do: Anyone whose subsequent decisions and actions are shaped and constrained by a given decision is a “user.” So if corporation decides that all divisions will cut costs by 10%, or deploy Six Sigma, or adopt a shared-services model for info tech, many divisional managers will be users of these decisions.

Socialization provides a testbed for social prototyping, allowing new routines to be simulated before they become operational. If they succeed in the dynamic prototype of a product team, we can circulate that successful practice laterally to other projects, teams, or cross-functional groups. Its a decentralized way to accomplish the goals of institutionalizing, without the high-profile risks and communication management necessary in the top-down approach.

Socialization provides a way for organizations to adopt and diffuse reliable, resilient capacities for new knowledge-based practices, such as the high-knowledge value skills of User Experience. I thought the familiarity of “socializing,” which the literature references as an HR onboarding process, would inspire its adoption in large product companies, where new management approaches may be perceived as threatening established orders or as fads. Socialization is based on research and practical consulting, and it passed both tests – making it a stronger Some of these ideas were published in a recent business research volume (Jones, 2007, Socializing a Knowledge Strategy), and an upcoming Boxes and Arrows article, We Tried to Warn You, based on last year’s IA Summit panel on Learning from Failure.

From Socializing a Knowledge Strategy, just published in Abou Zeid: Knowledge Management and Business Strategies: Theoretical Frameworks and Empirical Research:

Socialization presents a meaningful alternative to formal management and institutionalization of user experience and IA practices, to either establish or improve a core competency. Socialization developed from two different directions and drivers, and its satisfaction of both shows its reliability. One driver was for organizations to rapidly create a new business function or process requiring unique, often rare knowledge-based skills that require significant development time and investment. Socialization allows organizations to leverage their current capacities by supporting a bottom-up formation of skills and practices optimally suited for the organizational setting. We have found that when externally developed processes are “imported” into established organizations, they are often likely to fail. However, functionally similar practices can be organically co-designed and accelerated within the course of state-of-the-art consulting support within the context of a significant project.

All that is to say, those closest to the practices should develop and own the practice, sharing its value both laterally andks.jpg

vertically. Minimal, but loyal, executive support is necessary to legitimate the practices as they interfere with established practices and traditions, thus allowing the new process to take hold and become sustainable over time.

If you’re interested in the theoretical foundations, see support from Ciborra, Orlikowski, Christensen, Raynor, Boland, Zack, and Penrose,