Should Personas Get Some Social?
Even when they aren’t part of the deliverables, I write up personas to guide most of my interaction and experience design work. They keep me tuned into motivations and needs that aren’t strictly intuitive to me.
Personas are necessarily artificial; they present a single, fictionalized instance to stand for an entire audience of customers. Despite the assumptions that such abstractions come with, they earn their keep by reminding the development team what’s important to the people they’re building for.
Lately I’ve been wondering about the single-person focus typical to personas, and whether they need to be expanded to capture the real-world social existence of users even when the design doesn’t have socialization as a primary objective.
Software for Social Beings
When we think human-computer interaction, we usually think one person, one computer. The model has dominated interaction modelling for so long it feels like the air: it’s just there. So isn’t it funny that we don’t actually work or play in that isolation? That is, the things we do almost always involve other people in some way.
Let’s look at working life through this lens. Even those who work solo get requests and inputs from other people and deliver the results to the same people or others in the network of that project. That applies to the short order cook using a stove and cutting board as much as it does to the accountant using spreadsheets and calculators. Where software is involved, operation is in individual hands but the context of what the operator is doing will almost always be filled with relationships that influence the decisions of that person.
In modelling we’ll sometimes touch on those other people and call them stakeholders. We’re aware of them, but I rarely see software that accounts for their presence in actual features and functions. We pay them courtesy with an important-sounding word, but don’t support the interactions between the operator and other stakeholders as well as we could, and certainly not as well as inherently social software does.
The Boss Key
What can happen when the social context of a persona is considered? My favourite example comes from 1980′s. Yes, the 80s! What a crazy time: Knight Rider was on tv, and decidedly less-impressive computers were becoming personal workstations. Those machines ran their applications one at a time, always in full-screen glory. A handful of games boasted a feature called the Boss Key, a keyboard shortcut that disguised the game with a screen that appearing to be some generic work-related application.
The use case is simple: look busy when the boss walks in. While mostly tongue in cheek it was a great example of a feature designed in response to the customer’s social context.
These days, the best we get in social features are either explicitly social (like in-house Twitter clones that tell you what your colleagues are working on and encourage reciprocal self-surveillance), or exporting into apps like email, web posting and so on. These export features behave in a very dumb way, rarely making the effort to predict recipients, collaborate on parts of a project or other natural things that could be learned by being more aware of the social context.
None of that is very easy, but it’s all very important to get us past the idea that productivity is something that happens in pure solitude, between one person and one computer.
Evolving Socially-Aware Personas
I don’t have a comprehensive approach, but something I’ve been doing when creating personas is adding a few categories to capture some of the relationships important to the context:
- Reports To
- Depends On
- Collaborates With
Pretty simple, but very helpful. Along with everything that personas help keep in mind, these categories keep the relationships most germane to the user in focus. And when they’re in focus, I’m more likely to spot opportunities to reflect the social reality of work and play in the software we use to reach those ends.
I’m interested in hearing about other ways of incorporating relationship data into personas, as I think they’ll become more important as the line between the network and the isolated workspace further dissolve. If you use personas, how does the social context come into play for you?