Are Your User Personas Growing With You?

by Sheena Lyonnais

posted on 08-17-2017

We chat with anthropologist and UX professional Natalie Hanson about how designers can keep up with users as they evolve and change throughout their lives. Do your user personas still speak to who your users are?

UX designers can spend a lot of time thinking about user personas, but when was the last time you considered if the persona you created still represents the person your user is today? Just as a product or an experience can evolve over time, so too can your users. They are, after all, real people, and people change.

We live in a time where we grow up with our digital experiences. I recently “celebrated” 10 years on Facebook, and I couldn’t help but to reflect on how much I have changed as a person since I first logged on to the platform (from my then-mandatory university email address) more than a decade ago. We are growing up with products that have become integral parts of our lives, and in order to maintain success and retain users, companies such as Facebook continuously have to innovate in order to provide value for mature users and new users alike.

Don’t Let Your User Personas Collect Dust

Natalie Hanson, an anthropologist by trade and the associate principal of user experience at ZS associates, has spent the better part of her career working in user experience. Though she says many UX researchers love creating user personas, many anthropologists do not favor this method because personas can become “static.”

She prefers looking at user journeys, which examines user behavior over a period of time.

“In our company we do a lot of work in healthcare and we do a lot of work on patient journey, which shows their relationship to their condition and their health overtime. This aspect of time becomes so important. Making sure you have a way of thinking about your users that isn’t frozen is hugely important,” she said.

“If you do good if you do good user research you should have good personas, but those personas should not be collecting dust.”

When You Favor Features Over People

Hanson encourages designers to imagine creating a persona at the beginning of a patient’s journey and a persona at the end of the patient journey.

“It’s a very different person that comes out the other side of that journey,” she said.

Healthcare may not apply to all examples, but it illustrates how vast a user journey can be and how much a user’s needs and wants can change as they enter new phases in their lives.

It’s something that can be neglected when designers are eager to get new features out the door, or when they gather usability feedback too quickly.

“We may not take the time to reflect in that way and I think it’s important to think about what artifacts are you creating and making available that makes sure that people don’t lose sight of that. I don’t think there’s any magic bullet.”

Back to Basics of User Personas

This is arguably a complex notion, especially given that developing user personas takes a lot of research and time. They become pillars that designers lean on when imagining new features or implementing changes.

“You hear these stories about people, they’re planning a sprint and they’re talking about Betty or Joe. Those personas become integral to how they think about the product. But then the job of that researcher, or that design researcher, or whoever it is, is to say hey you know, Betty just retired, and here’s Joe who’s 25 and we’re back at the beginning of this journey again. What are we going to do differently for this feature?” Hanson said.

At the same time, Hanson cautions UX professionals not to get too far ahead of themselves.

“We’ve got to internalize some of the basics first, like that we have users and that those users have needs that are not the same as theirs. People are in all different stages of maturity in terms of introducing user-centered design. This idea, this dimension of time, maybe something that is needed by more sophisticated teams, and for teams that are just in the beginning of this change journey, it might be too complex,” she said.

How Can Designers Keep Up?

As an anthropologist, Hanson is a big proponent of ethnography but recognizes that this method of research isn’t always the top choice. Though it can provide rich insights and tons of data, it is just one form of user research that is available to designers.

To start, Hanson recommends better understanding where you as a designer or where your company as a whole sits on what Hanson calls the new UX maturity model.

The New UX Maturity Model

This model describes four levels of user experience:

  1. Unconscious design – You have limited knowledge or your users, or you’re not thinking about your users at all.
  2. User interface – You’re beginning to understand the design in terms of its aesthetics and brand alliance. What does it look like?
  3. User experience – You’re starting to look at how the experience provides “measurable business impact” and whether or not users are doing what you want them to do.
  4. End-to-end experience – Finally, it all comes together. You have the product, the interface, the UX and the goals and now you can dive deeper into conducting research and analyzing whether or not the experience is meeting your user’s expectations. This stage asks, do you know enough about who your users are?

This model can help provide context into where you’re at in relation to your users, and the user personas you have created to represent them. If you’re in the early stages of UX maturity, the things we’ve discussed may not apply to you, yet you still must ask if your user personas accurately reflect who your users are now at this moment in time, and who they’ll be once they reach a certain milestone.

“The point of all that is to say that the research that you need depends not only on where you are in that maturity model, but where your business is and your customer is in that maturity model. Do you need usability testing or an expert review? Do you need a competitive assessment? Do you need ethnography to look at end-to-end experience? The method you need is different depending on what you’re trying to accomplish based on the product lifecycle and the maturity of the context you’re in as a designer,” she said.

As you gain experience as a designer and move through your career, you may find you start thinking about these things anyway.

If you think about it, Hanson says, there are a lot of parallels between a user’s journey and that of the career of a designer.

“In the beginning you design a single screen, and then you design a set of coherent screens, and then you design a set of screens with a business context and business outcomes in mind, and eventually you become interested in how does that set of screens fit into the broader experience of that user? That’s a natural sort of progression I think,” she said.

After all, you’re only human—and so too are your users.

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, Design

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