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The ‘Object Oriented’ revolution driven by the UML (Unified Modeling Language) at the start of the 21st century (so, so long ago) first positioned people at the center of the software development universe. Until then, the data-centric approach to software or Information Engineering from the last decade of the 20th century (antiquity!), required users to not only obediently serve the systems that were meant to serve them, but also required them to undergo an agonizingly steep learning curve just to operate and manage these systems. Indeed, that was the era of the user-guide that paradoxically required users to guide systems instead of the other way around!
Those were confusing times; analogous to the Medieval dogma of a geocentric universe, where assuming the earth at the center of the universe necessitated complicated equations that painstakingly described the planetary orbits of each and every planet. It took the great mind of Nicolaus Copernicus who employed the heuristic of Occam’s razor – that the simplest explanation is probably the most correct – to discover a perfectly simple description of elliptical orbits common to all planets - when one assumes a heliocentric model (the solar system).
By positioning people at the center of the software universe – thanks in part to Donald Norman who first coined the term “User-Centered Design” - software finally came of age. The ‘data-centric’ paradigm shifted to the ‘people-centric’ paradigm, which in turn, changed the focus of design from process driven to action driven … and so we began talking about the user experience: empowering people to take action and accomplish their goals in the most satisfying way possible. Where data and functionality once existed independently of users, designers now model data and functionality based on the needs and requirements of real users. It is not surprising therefore, that Alan Cooper (father of Visual Basic) who championed the use of personas also championed Interaction Design.
The introduction of Service Design in the mid 2000’s served as a bridge between User-Centered Design and the current, state-of-the-art Design Thinking. Service Design was a holistic, multi-disciplinary methodology driven by a collaborative stakeholder culture that emphasized how and what the user does with a product (or service); including their journey and experience. Design Thinking supplemented Service Design with its methods for practical, creative resolution of problems and the creation of solutions.
Personas are fictitious instances of different user roles and types that approximate real-world characters that use a site, brand, service or product. They encapsulate behavior patterns, goals, skills, responsibilities, attitudes, and the environment, with a few fictional personal and demographic details to make the persona a realistic character. Most significantly for design purposes, personas include applicable tasks and pain-points with current systems, or lack thereof.
In a perfect world, UX designers proactively elicit relevant information regarding the different personas by researching users of a system. Persona related activities and methods include among others: behavioral mapping, empathy mapping, ‘fly-on-the-wall’, shadowing, contextual inquiry, ‘a day in the life’, surveys, interviews and most significantly, observing users performing their tasks (on existing systems) while noting ‘pain points’ and other obstructions in the way of a smooth and satisfying experience. But we live in the real world, and the fast-pace world of business is far from perfect. In the real world, tight budgets, uncompromising delivery dates and limited human resources define the software development playing field, where a comprehensive user research and persona study is an elusive luxury.
The next best thing…
Where comprehensive user research is not viable, social media is the next best source of reliable information. For example, if we’re designing an application for a healthcare agent, there is a wealth of information to be mined by searching for, “healthcare agent” in LinkedIn. The Job search will yield the role description, responsibilities, qualifications and requirements of a healthcare agent. The People search will yield actual agents’ profiles including their job descriptions, skills, education and experience, while the Posts search enrich our understanding with related information.
It doesn’t end with LinkedIn…
Posting a question or searching Quora for specific information like, “what are the responsibilities and tasks of a healthcare agent?” typically returns relevant information, while Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are excellent sources of demographic information.
The use of social media to develop personas takes a mere fraction of the time and a fraction of the cost of a real world persona study, and while the result may be one degree removed from the real world, a social media driven persona that is reviewed and approved by the client/customer is surely a wise and solid design tactic.