Archive for the ‘Research Methods’ category

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).

Semantics of Innovation

July 3, 2007

“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone. “When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.”

Lewis Carroll (1872) Through the Looking Glass

What twists and turns we put to the word “innovation .” We make it mean everything from original invention to “good design,” to creativity, to product development. We all think we know what it means, from our own experience. But we rarely do the rather churlish academic thing of stopping someone and requesting “What do you mean by innovation?”

I like primary research, so I tend to go with definitions that support Rogers’ (1962) Diffusion of Innovations. Innovation differs from invention in that adoption is implied. An intentional invention must end up somewhere useful to qualify, or at least be “overlooked” by the market of the time – the implication being that its adoption failed due to poor timing.

In 2002 I wrote in the DMI Review: When Successful Products Prevent Strategic Innovation

First, let’s define innovation, a misused concept assigned to a range of meanings from “creativity” to the vendors’ “making new versions of the same product.” I express innovation as significant invention with the capacity for transformation. Strategic innovation sustains business strategy through significant invention, designing new or breakthrough products to fulfill strategic intent. And not all innovations are successful. Market success also requires fulfilling user intent; innovations must map to known user needs or emerging user desires.

Another definition I like is clear and yes, academic: Garcia and Cantalone (2001). A critical look at technological innovation typology and innovativeness.

“Innovation’ is an iterative process initiated by the perception of a new market and/or new service opportunity for a technology-based invention which leads to development, production, and marketing tasks striving for the commercial success of the invention.”

So what seems to be happening today? First, business culture and then popular culture has held an extended love-in with the very idea of innovation. So back in 2001, when I was wondering whether we would see (e.g. early forecast) the Next Big Thing coming our way, I admit I did not think it would be the Same as the Last Big Thing. Where other late-90’s trends peaked and expired, Innovation came back to stay. (So maybe it made sense after all to study and get the doctorate in Design and Innovation Management in 2000.) After all, Knowledge Management didn’t survive the purge very well, and now isn’t Web 2.0 and user participation the height of innovation?

Maybe, maybe not. There’s a principle in socionomics (social macroeconomics) forecasting that suggests that when pop culture picks up a tech or business trend and exploits it to the extent that it appears on magazine covers, your 15 minutes may be up. Market timers use such indicators to call tops (and bottoms). Innovation may be due its morph into its next phase as soon as the business cycle changes (resulting in disappoint with the last cycle’s memes). And we’ll we looking for the NBT again. Hint: Look for those disappointments to reveal the next trend. Is the new Transparency already an early indicator of the disappointment with the technology-driven lifestyle? Or will it morph into more of the same?

IDEO Smart Space – A transformation of what?

February 25, 2007

IDEO’s Urban Pre-Planning

Can its “Smart Space” practice shake up the lumbering world of infrastructure, zoning, and public process?
IDEO gets so much press on their approach to architectural projects – perhaps because its a relatively new space for design, and few other firms are taking it on in the way they can. They have the size, the rep, and a diverse mix of design disciplines. They have balls, you have to give them credit – their developing practice in urban planning, land use, and housing planning is taking on a complex, hyper-sensitive, “sprawling” territory where results will be hard to measure, because cities and new initiatives in urban spaces take time and community commitment to happen. IDEO does not have to care if they design it, and nobody comes. So they can reach far with ideas and aim for excitement and inspiration.

But it is not innovation of urban planning, it seems to be a innovation of urban packaging. This has implications for design strategy, because IDEO gets to set the top bar for the profession. If conceptual design planning is the product and deliverable, how does this actually lead to better urban spaces? And who is the ultimate customer – the city planners and developers? Or the people living in the community?

“It’s not clear that works, mostly because it’s too early to tell—but also because the team at IDEO is messing with the DNA of the planning process. They’re changing it from a concrete process of infrastructure and building to an imagined one of narrative and identity; they’re exchanging the idea of a place for place itself. In an urban realm already threatened by privatization—not just by developers but by a broader trend toward place-making as marketing—IDEO’s approach could be seen to further erode the idea of city-building as a democratic process (if it ever was) because of the way it applies the shiny language of marketing to the gritty mixed-up world of the city. As IDEO emphasizes, its communication skills have been honed in the corporate world, and its “user centered” approach is often cast as a particularly empathetic version of market research.”

This is a case where process has implications for everybody involved. As a zoning board member in an Ohio township, I know the regulatory and planning processes are not sexy, and its hard to get real citizens engaged in designing their own future. It should be easier going getting people involved in a gritty, hip location in a large city. But who IS the user here, if this user-centered? This is the problem of transformation design – if a design process is not democratic or even participatory, who then has the rights to design, package, and market on behalf of the citizens? The “client” – the planners, or in many cases – the developers of Potemkin village greens that are becoming popular at the edges of failed urban centers such as my Ohio town?
My last post engaged Liz Sanders’ Design Research article, with her model differentiating between designer (expert)-led and participant (user) led generative design. It may be very cool to have IDEO design your urban area’s brand package based on “user” research, that may have included real people like you that live in the locale. But they seem to fall short of actual planning, and drop off before working with the political grind and zoning/use negotiations that establish the affordances for building, infrastructure, service delivery. At the end of the day, the trade-offs between officials, developers, and the public lead to livability and community. This is an interesting front-end approach, but it could lead to high expectations that do not become realized in transformation of community space.
So to what extent can people be empowered to direct the planning and design of their own communities? To what extent can they – community dwellers – mobilize the tools of design – with design facilitation by IDEO-like firms? And should innovation firms take on the slog through architecture, zoning, and planning to engage themselves as committed players in such projects? If they don’t “have a dog in the fight” now, how would the level of trust and possibility of real community-centered design be actualized if they did have such a commitment to results?
One of the most inspiring practices I’ve encountered in the world of conceptual arts is Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s total commitment to a project, often involving years of negotiation with planners, public official, and public hearings. To a great extent, this is where the art happens – its a multi-year, mixed-temporality performance, leading up to an event and land sculpture. Ands the real takehome lesson for me is that their process is participatory, in the very real sense that when they take on a wrapping or public space project, they engage fully in the public hearings and discussions as a type of community-sensitive collaboration. Its behind-the-scenes participatory art.  As designers considering public or transformative work, should we at least be working with local planners and educating people in public hearings, if not reflecting on the full range of stakeholders in our design processes? Who do we collaborate with to make this happen? What design research methods do we use?

Architecture as Social Research

February 19, 2007

Critique of Pure Research: A new graduate program at London’s Goldsmiths College explores architecture as a tool of social and political practice.

Metropolis Magazine just keeps getting better – their editorial policy has strengthened their social focus with each issue.

The Centre for Research Architecture is as concerned with politics and human rights as it is with architecture. It dispenses with the practice of building and delves into the profession’s more political and theoretical applications. Eyal Weizman, the founding director, derived his approach to architectural research from his own study of conflict zones in Israel. The laws and restrictions on space were often so vague on paper that they provided no guide to policy; to determine where Palestinians could and could not rebuild after their homes were destroyed, Weizman worked with a nonprofit organization to reconstruct them and see how the government would react. “The law was unpredictable,” he says. “You had to provoke to reveal the government’s internal logic.” At Goldsmiths, Weizman has brought these lessons to the classroom, turning the traditional detached academic perspective on its head. “Practice is not the result of investigation,” he says. “It is the tool of investigation.”

Do we (UX) have any programs like this? And what will it start looking like if UX champions social research as an outcome of practice? Are we improving work conditions, enhancing the humanity of everyday life? (For example, could over-optimized information structures lead to cognitive efficiencies at the wrong levels of use? By levels, meaning organizationally or socially? Have we tested hypotheses that suggest some value in information friction?)