Bring Your Personas to Life!

Most UCD (user centred design) companies now create personas – profiles of representative users – to guide their designs. After all, to do UCD you need to get the ‘U’ in focus right from the start. So you’ve got your persona set all neatly defined and documented, now what? How can you ensure the persona isn’t ‘just another deliverable’?

It’s in the Method…

You may have heard of ‘Method Acting’ and how Robert DeNiro spent several months on the streets of Manhattan in a cab to prepare for his role in the movie Taxi Driver. He did this to understand the life of a taxi driver, so for movie-goers, the character felt realistic. He didn’t get advice from the drivers on how to act the role, he simply observed and eventually ‘became’ a taxi driver, enabling him to have empathy and see the world from their unique perspective.

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While your persona profile might describe the user experience, actually trying it for yourself can open the door to better design decisions.

Method acting is an acting technique in which actors try to replicate (in real life) the emotional conditions under which the character operates, in an effort to create a life-like, realistic performance.

“The Method” typically refers to the generic practice of actors drawing on their own emotions, memories, and experiences to influence their portrayals of characters.

Your persona is your ‘character sketch’ – and for software development projects may include information about the persona’s demographics, attitude, goals, environment and how they will interact with your software in the context of their day.

More advanced personas will also include detailed descriptions of activities or scenarios – these become the scripts for your persona to follow.

So, I figure that the typical persona profile has just enough ingredients to enable our own version of “The Method”.

“The Method” was popularized by Lee Strasberg at The Actors Studio and the Group Theatre, in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s. It was derived from “the Stanislavski System”, after Konstantin Stanislavski, who pioneered similar ideas in his quest for “theatrical truth.”

Strasberg’s students included quite a few of America’s most famous actors of the 20th century, including Paul Newman, Al Pacino and James Dean.

A basic persona profile is all you need to get an idea of the persona's characteristics, goals and context of use.

Method acting combines a careful consideration of the psychological motives of the character and some sort of personal identification with and possibly the reproduction of the character’s emotional state in a realistic way.

The best way to gain this understanding is to spend time with the people you’ve identified in the user requirement brainstorm – at the very least try and imagine what it would be like to be that person – and then that person in the act of using the software or system you’re designing.

Those trained by Strasberg often tried to experience all sensations as the character would and often used personal experience on stage to identify with the emotional life of the character and portray it.

Stella Adler, an acting coach whose fame was cemented by the success of her students Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro, broke with Strasberg and developed another form of Method acting.

Her technique is founded in the idea that one must not use memories from their own past to conjure up emotion, but rather use circumstances from their imagination. She also emphasized, like Sanford Meisner, the all-importance of “action” within the theatre. She often preached “we are what we do, not what we say”.

Sound familiar? Those of us working in the user experience field often comment…

“it’s about what users do – not what they say”

Putting the Method to Practice

Below I’ve roughly outlined some of my techniques for Method acting with personas.

Heuristic (usability) reviews can be extended beyond traditional checklists and tested from the users perspective.
Heuristic (usability) reviews can be extended beyond traditional checklists and tested from the users perspective.

While many usability professionals claim they “do this by default”, explicitly documenting user scenarios in the test script makes the results more measurable and relevant to the persona.

This can be done with a team of one (just you), or a team of many, all depending on how many personas you have and how many people are on your project team.

  • Your project team are your troupe of actors.
  • In larger teams your lead designer becomes the Director, and the other project team members are the actors.
  • Take your primary persona – this is the character sketch for your lead actor (if you have more than one primary persona you’ll need several leading – or possibly ‘supporting’ – actors). Because I work in small teams of 2-5 people both the Director and lead actor role is usually given to the lead designer (the person who will be calling the shots for the design of your software, website, intranet or device).
  • Assign the acting roles for the secondary personas to other members of your team – those not so involved in the core design process. You can call on these people as you need them to do a ‘reality check’ on your designs.
  • It’s the responsibility of the actors to ‘become’ the personas. They should read the persona profile as a starting point, if possible meet with and observe users who are represented by the persona, and get inside the ‘head’ of their assigned persona.
  • At your design meetings the actors consider how any decisions will affect their particular character – any questions which come up for the persona can be directed straight to the actor. Of course this process can become fun and enable better teamwork, depending on how enthusiastically your actors embrace the Method.

Of course, you will get good actors and bad actors, but what the Method does is to get the personas out in the open rather than being locked away on paper – a bad actor is better than leaving a big hole in your plot. In software design a hole in your plot is when the user experience breaks because a personas requirements have been overlooked.

Over time your actors should get to know their persona profiles (or character sketches) so well that the acting becomes second nature – they essentially become a user advocate, and not as an outsider, but an insider.

Method acting is just one technique to be
tter enable user centred design, and is not intended to replace observational usability testing, but it can (and should) work in unison. For each observational user test your actors will gain even more insights to the real world and can refine their Method.

You can’t beat real customers for creating an authentic user experience – but then again, actors do a pretty good job most of the time!