A Case for Personas

August 16, 2009     by Brien Applegate

An effective user interface employs an intuitive design to facilitate the target audience. The user experience, however, should be geared towards pleasing an individual.

To investigate the differences between interface design and experience design, let’s first consider the iPhone. This slick multimedia device employs a number of revolutionary interaction design mechanisms. Millions of people spanning a broad demographic are able to achieve advanced tasks without ever picking up a user manual. But suppose one user named Sam drops his iPhone a mere 3 feet from the ground, and consequently the screen shatters because it’s made of glass. Sam then discovers that Apple Care - an insurance plan that costs 30% of the iPhone price – does not cover this damage. For this individual, the user experience has been greatly diminished, even though millions of other users continue to enjoy their iPhone (they haven’t dropped it yet).

But the next day, Sam walks into the Apple Store and buys another iPhone. Sure he’s mad that his first one broke so easily and that he wasted money on Apple Care and that he now has a 4 year contract with AT&T. But he really enjoys showing off his iPhone while drinking over-priced coffee in trendy cafes.

The point is that Sam’s experience occurs on a level that transcends the user interface. The user experience can be described by how adequately the expectations of an individual user are met and how successfully the goals of that user are accomplished. And this includes everything from the sales pitch to the eventual retirement of the product: the physical interaction, the aesthetics, the support calls, the user manual. Even showing off the product at a local coffee shop.

In a user satisfaction study for the iPhone, 91 percent said they were satisfied with the product even though nearly 100 percent of these users complained about at least one major problem (such as crashing regularly). Users of the device are willing to overlook its many shortcomings because it possesses many desirable attributes as well. It’s easy to use, it offers exciting features, and the product is branded extremely well, both aesthetically and commercially. The net result is that it yields a positive user experience.

When a user evaluates his or her level of satisfaction, there are many variables at play. Not only do individual users often have unique goals and expectations, but they also employ different metrics for weighing the desirable attributes of a product or service against the less desirable ones. For the UX designer,  these evaluation factors underline the importance of utilizing techniques which seek to produce predictable and desirable effects in a specific person. The persona - an archetype comprised of target audience habits and characteristics - allows us to measure the success of a design from the standpoint of a specific individual.

A UX designer must acknowledge that the average user doesn’t exist. Personas empower us to design with the individual user experience in mind without diminishing our ability to leverage generalized information about a target demographic.

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