Agile Personas

One of the most consistent patterns I see among those integrating UX and Agile is a business-as-usual approach to Personas, i.e. continuing to create them largely in the same way as in a traditional waterfall practice.  Doing so, in my opinion, is a mistake, and reflects a lack of understanding both of the purpose behind Personas and the thinking underlying an Agile practice.

Personas are research artifacts based on real people and real research data that humanize and capture key attributes about archetypal users.  What are their goals?  Preferences?  How do they work? And so on.  They serve both to inform design decisions and, maybe even more importantly, increase designer empathy.  In other words, they are a reminder that these are real people.

So what’s wrong with that?  From a user experience design perspective, what could be more important than to understand your users?  Yes, that is all good and well. The problem with Personas is that they can become an excuse to not work face-to-face with real users.  In a traditional waterfall model, Personas effectively function as a surrogate for being able to interact with flesh-and-blood humans while designing the product. The expectation is that you will spend the majority of your time away from the real users and therefore need something to evoke who they are, so that you don’t fall into the trap designing who you imagine the user to be and not who the user is, or worse, end up designing for yourself. (And don’t get me started on designers who create “Personas” out of thin air based on imaginary users rather from actual research data. At that point, you may be creating a nice reminder that you’re designing for real people, but the persona itself is basically useless or even misleading.)

But in an Agile model, you should be in regular contact with the actual people for which Personas are intended to serve as surrogates.  That means that your approach to creating Personas should shift significantly from how they might be approached in a traditional model.  Depending on how frequently you are in direct contact with actual users, the persona can be correspondingly light-weight.  In other words, if you meet with users every day or every few days, a light-weight persona can contain as little as the person’s first name, a picture of the person in the actual environment in which they will be using the product, and a few bullets re. goals, motivations, and perhaps a “money quote.”  But that’s it.  Anything longer or more detailed, such as this very polished Persona and you’re back in waterfall world, spending more time on designing documents than designing software.

Btw, the name of the persona should be a real name and just a first name, for two reasons.  Referring to someone only by their first name is both more intimate, and also provides that person with a bit of privacy to those outside the project who may see a persona posted on an information wall. Additionally, by having a real name, the name itself becomes a shorthand for the persona, since all you need to do is say their name during team meetings and team members, who in an Agile model all will have met this person, will have a clear image of the persona you are referring to.  In other words, in an Agile model, Personas are…real people!

Being able to glance up at a persona on your information wall to remind you of that real person can be valuable.  A possible downside is that you may end up designing for only the people you are working with and not the archetypal user, but that can be mitigated in a number of ways, such as ensuring that you have a regular cadence of a wide range of users interacting with the working software.

Furthermore, traditional Personas are also based on a sampling of the overall demographic.  And since they often only are created once, as part of a discovery phase, they are effectively a freeze-frame of a real person. But real people are quirky and weird and often inconsistent in their behavior and maybe you caught them on bad day or whatever during the discovery phase.  By working the actual people over time, you get a more normalized version of a traditional persona, one that reflects all of people’s normal fluctuations in character and temperament over time.  An Agile Persona, in other words, can be easily updated throughout the project as you continue to discover new things about your users.

Yes, sometimes you will not have the ability to work face-to-face with actual users, but in those cases I have found lots and lot of pictures of a wide range of users in their normal environment to be far more valuable than text-heavy Personae.  (And I just had to throw that ultra-nerdy plural usage in there at the end…)