Beyond big personas and power points

25 Jan 2005 - 1:46pm
9 years ago
10 replies
990 reads
Lada Gorlenko
2004

[Inspired by the two threads, particularly, by recent Robert
Reimann's comments]

Has anyone got any data/observations/stories on how the persona method
works in different cultures?

I have none. However, my gut feeling (based on years of research in
cross-cultural communication) tells me that there should be
differences.

Robert Reimann:
> By necessity of narrative, personas contain some non-essential
> details, but the vast majority of information contained in a
> persona should be relevant, sharply focused, and derived directly
> from actual observed behavior patterns of multiple individuals.

Once again, this tells me that personas are not about *content*, but
about *form* - a form of presenting user research data (functional and
usability requirements; context definition; potentially, user metaphors
and a high-level outline of a cognitive model). The same data can be
presented in other forms, such as specifications, tables, object models,
flow diagrams, and so on. So, if I am not mistaken, personas are a
human-friendly way to present user research data. Correct?

I don't know who coined the method, but I'll give my job up and become
a nun if I am wrong: it was a person with either American or
Scandinavian cultural heritage. The concept of presenting sharp data
that feed technical (design) solution through a personal story just
screams out loudly about its cultural load.

Russia (and most post-Soviet states), Germany, India, and many other
nations are technocratic cultures. They are societies that value
technical expertise above any other expertise. You can easily spot
them: degrees in "humanities" are regarded as no-brainers and,
therefore, are not highly respected; there is no such thing as "soft
skills" on a resume; a cabinet Health Minister is a qualified medical
doctor; a proper textbook has five formulas on the second page or
half-page long paragraphs thtoughout. And so on.

Decision-makers in those cultures like complexity. A diagram
beats a narrative story. A heavy report beats a bullet-point
presentation. If you want to impress someone, you show how damn
difficult your work is, *not* how seemingly easy and intuitive the
final result appears. You don't make things particularly easy,
otherwise it looks like everyone else can do them.

I painted it in dense colours for the sake of argument. Hopefully,
you've got the right mood behind my concerns:

1. Personas are a heavily culture-loaded technique and should be
treated as such;
2. With all their benefits in mind, personas may not work universally,
because in some cultures seemingly complex things may be preferred
over seemingly simple things;
3. All tools of our trade (especially those working with qualitative
information) have to be considered for their cultural applicability,
before being preached as universal.

Does this make any sense to anyone else?

Lada

Comments

25 Jan 2005 - 5:00pm
Robert Reimann
2003

Lada,

Thanks for your very thoughtful comments.

I'll try to address each point with thoughtful comments of my own:

> Once again, this tells me that personas are not about *content*, but about
*form* - a form of presenting user
> research data (functional and usability requirements; context definition;
potentially, user metaphors and a
> high-level outline of a cognitive model). The same data can be presented
in other forms, such as specifications,
> tables, object models, flow diagrams, and so on. So, if I am not mistaken,
personas are a human-friendly way to
> present user research data. Correct?

To some degree, I agree with this. However, personas also distill goals
and motivations, as well as behavior patterns, of users in a manner
I haven't seen in other models. So there is some unique content as well.

> 1. Personas are a heavily culture-loaded technique and should be treated
as such;

I think your arguments may to some degree be conflating the procedure of
creating personas with the results personas may obtain.

>From the point of view of the design practitioner, personas can be
created regardless of cultural boundary, though risks exist during
the gathering and interpretation of observational data, just as they
did for anthropologists practicing ethnography on unfamiliar cultures.
Ethnography has been heavily critiqued due to the biases that the
observer may bring to his observations and analysis, however, if
the observer is aware of this, and takes appropriate measures,
such as including members of the culture on the research team,
these issues can be overcome.

Assuming issues of cultural bias are dealt with, the process of
creating personas should be no different when dealing with different
cultures. Analyzing observed behavior patterns and extrapolating goals
follows the same process, and should yield similarly useful models,
as long as behaviors are properly interpreted within the cultural
context.

As far as acceptance of personas as a tool in other cultures, though
some cultures may be technocratic, etc., engagement through the use
of narrative is seemingly universal. All cultures learn/communicate by
telling
stories, as is evidenced by the near-universal popularity of narrative
forms of discourse and entertainment, regardless of culture. I believe
(based on personal experience) that if they are presented appropriately,
stakeholders within other cultures can be positively engaged.

> 2. With all their benefits in mind, personas may not work universally,
because in
> some cultures seemingly complex things may be preferred over seemingly
simple things;

Here is where I believe you might be conflating process with result. In a
culture
in which complexity is valued over simplicity, one would expect user goals
(extracted from observed behaviors) to reflect this, and thus personas would
as well. The risk is in proper cross-cultural interpretation, as mentioned
earlier,
but this can be addressed.

> 3. All tools of our trade (especially those working with qualitative
information)
> have to be considered for their cultural applicability, before being
preached as universal.

This is certainly true, but I'm not that worried about cross-cultural
applicability
of personas, at least in European cultures. In fact, they were quite
well-received
by decision-makers at a very large, technocratic, German client of mine in
years past.
I'd be very interested to hear about people's experiences using personas in
Asian
cultures.

Robert.

-----Original Message-----
From:
discuss-interactiondesigners.com-bounces at lists.interactiondesigners.com
[mailto:discuss-interactiondesigners.com-bounces at lists.interactiondesigners.
com] On Behalf Of Lada Gorlenko
Sent: Tuesday, January 25, 2005 2:47 PM
To: IxD
Subject: [ID Discuss] Beyond big personas and power points

[Please voluntarily trim replies to include only relevant quoted material.]

[Inspired by the two threads, particularly, by recent Robert Reimann's
comments]

Has anyone got any data/observations/stories on how the persona method works
in different cultures?

I have none. However, my gut feeling (based on years of research in
cross-cultural communication) tells me that there should be differences.

Robert Reimann:
> By necessity of narrative, personas contain some non-essential
> details, but the vast majority of information contained in a persona
> should be relevant, sharply focused, and derived directly from actual
> observed behavior patterns of multiple individuals.

Once again, this tells me that personas are not about *content*, but about
*form* - a form of presenting user research data (functional and usability
requirements; context definition; potentially, user metaphors and a
high-level outline of a cognitive model). The same data can be presented in
other forms, such as specifications, tables, object models, flow diagrams,
and so on. So, if I am not mistaken, personas are a human-friendly way to
present user research data. Correct?

I don't know who coined the method, but I'll give my job up and become a nun
if I am wrong: it was a person with either American or Scandinavian cultural
heritage. The concept of presenting sharp data that feed technical (design)
solution through a personal story just screams out loudly about its cultural
load.

Russia (and most post-Soviet states), Germany, India, and many other nations
are technocratic cultures. They are societies that value technical expertise
above any other expertise. You can easily spot
them: degrees in "humanities" are regarded as no-brainers and, therefore,
are not highly respected; there is no such thing as "soft skills" on a
resume; a cabinet Health Minister is a qualified medical doctor; a proper
textbook has five formulas on the second page or half-page long paragraphs
thtoughout. And so on.

Decision-makers in those cultures like complexity. A diagram beats a
narrative story. A heavy report beats a bullet-point presentation. If you
want to impress someone, you show how damn difficult your work is, *not* how
seemingly easy and intuitive the final result appears. You don't make things
particularly easy, otherwise it looks like everyone else can do them.

I painted it in dense colours for the sake of argument. Hopefully, you've
got the right mood behind my concerns:

1. Personas are a heavily culture-loaded technique and should be treated as
such; 2. With all their benefits in mind, personas may not work universally,
because in some cultures seemingly complex things may be preferred over
seemingly simple things; 3. All tools of our trade (especially those working
with qualitative
information) have to be considered for their cultural applicability, before
being preached as universal.

Does this make any sense to anyone else?

Lada

25 Jan 2005 - 8:29pm
Lada Gorlenko
2004

RR> To some degree, I agree with this. However, personas also distill goals
RR> and motivations, as well as behavior patterns, of users in a manner
RR> I haven't seen in other models. So there is some unique content as well.

Well... yes and no. There are others methods that collect and distill
goals, motivations, and behavioural patterns. In our team, we run
"Roles&Goals" workshops with stakeholders and power users, do focus
groups and contextual enquiry, build task models, and so on. Most data
get captured somewhere in one form or another (budget permitting).

RR> As far as acceptance of personas as a tool in other cultures, though
RR> some cultures may be technocratic, etc., engagement through the use
RR> of narrative is seemingly universal.

I buy quite a lot of rationale behind personas. What I don't buy
wearing a cross-cultural hat is the very "personalisation" bit, the
cosy wrapping "Hi, I am uncle Ben" stuff. Personas are averaged images
of their respective groups, not a particular user - this is exactly
why they often feel so sleek, so commercialised, so.... American.
[Please forgive, no offence was meant]. There is no doubt in my mind
about the benefits of persona material, such as distilled goals,
behaviours, motivations, etc. But the presentation form still doesn't
exactly feel universal across cultures.

No concerns about compiling high-quality personas in technocratic
cultures, that's fine. *Selling* them there is another matter. With all
enthusiasm in the world, I cannot picture myself selling Uncle Ben to
a 50-year old Russian or Indian exec or chief engineer (you know,
those guys who live outside Moscow and New Deli, have local education
and speak no foreign language). The Russian exec would smile, call
me "my dear lady", offer an espresso and a comfy chair, and ask to see
someone technical to "talk about serious matters". The Russian
engineer would grin, light up his sigarette, pull another chair, and
the two of us would discuss Nietzsche (maybe Orwell) while waiting
for the "serious technical guy" to show up.

Well, that's probably why I don't do design there, although I miss
casual chats about Nietzsche a lot :-)

RR> All cultures learn/communicate by telling
RR> stories, as is evidenced by the near-universal popularity of narrative
RR> forms of discourse and entertainment, regardless of culture.

Absolutely. Do all of them take those stories seriously at work?

RR> I believe (based on personal experience) that if they are
RR> presented appropriately, stakeholders within other cultures
RR> can be positively engaged.

That's exactly what I am after: tales from native persona authors
and their experiences with native execs. Our own experiences in other
cultures count less; it's a biased experiment. If you as an American
designer had successful experiences with international clients, it may
well be *because* your clients wanted an American designer to begin
with.

RR> In a culture in which complexity is valued over simplicity,
RR> one would expect user goals (extracted from observed behaviors)
RR> to reflect this, and thus personas would as well.

Yes, but the presentation style (anthropomorphised tales) may spoil
the complexity by looking too down-to-earth.

I'll tell you my story to explain the paranoia. For several years in
mid-90s, I worked alongside British management consultants on
transferring Western management knowledge to the post-Soviet space.
The idea looked all brilliant: we'd take top UK management development
classes, get best UK trainers to deliver them in Russia (through an
interpreter), and translate the materials. Locals would love
everything we say, be ever so grateful for the exposure, and everyone
would live happily ever after.

It never happened. What happened was something that very few Western
consultants could predict. Russian managers laughed. They thought
they were being taught "management for dummies" [when explained
otherwise, they assumed those who'd designed them were dummies]. Yes,
they appreciated some content and new interpretations, but they
struggled to take them seriously, because most of it looked too
simplistic. The presentation style, the structure, the coffee breaks
three times a day, the easily digestable language, the "lets play"
activities and "let's share feelings" revelations met a strong
resistance. Sometimes, too strong to get through in a couple of course
weeks. I saw it happening so many times all over again. Being squashed
between the two sides was an eye-opening, but a damn hard experience.

With all my heart, I want be proved wrong in my concerns about
personas and other culturally-loaded methods. It's not to say they
won't work, it's just to warn that they might need a whole new
packaging when shipped overseas.

Lada

25 Jan 2005 - 9:30pm
Dave Malouf
2005

Lada,

As I read the cross-cultural critique of personas, I can't help but to be
taken back to my first year of cultural anthropology grad school where all
we were taught (besides the foundations) was why anthropology is in and of
itself is not possible b/c in the end the emic and the etic cannot be
reconciled and the very methods of anthropology are disqualifiers for true
objectivity.

That being said, I believe that personas are only useful for the researchers
whom it makes sense for. That is it sounds like you are critiquing the tool
from the x-cultural perspective from the researcher. So if the research
can't resonate with the tool, then it means the researcher/designer needs to
find a different tool that does resonate.

On the other side (the subject) I don't think there is a tool that would be
x-culturally sufficient to break through the emic/etic struggle that is at
the heart of ethnographic anthropology.

-- dave

26 Jan 2005 - 1:08pm
Anirudha Joshi
2003

Anirudha Joshi from Mumbai, India. Hello.

I must confess that till about three years ago, I did not like to use
personas. I also chose not to teach the technique in my HCI class.
However, after some introspection, reading and discussion with
colleagues, I changed my mind.

The reason why I did not like personas was many designers I knew (at
that time) tended to use personas as a 'data collection tool'. It seemed
to say 'I know my users. I know how they want, how they would behave.
Why should I go and meet them again? I need to just write up personas
and convert my knowledge into something other people can use.'

What changed my mind was the realization that personas need not (indeed
should not) be used as 'data collection tool'. But they were interesting
as a 'data representation tool', as a design aid. When used in
conjunction with techniques like scenarios, story-boarding and
body-storming, personas have the power to humanize the process of
interaction design (where hi-tech stuff inevitably plays a role), to
keep the feet of the designers on the ground, to help evaluate new
design ideas and to communicate them to others not in the design team.

But yes, I agree with Andrei, personas are not useful to generate
designs, just to inform and inspire designers.

With regards to Lada's points about personas being suitable for only
some cultures - all cultures use stories and understand
realistic-but-fictitious characters. So I feel that the persona
technique should be easy to learn for people from all cultures. Some of
the powerful tools in the designers' repertoire are simple - sketching,
brainstorming, observation. One need not berate the tool just because it
seems easy to use. 'If used appropriately', personas have the ability to
help us to design for people 'not like us'. It (they?) can be
particularly useful if one is designing for multi-cultural environments.

These days I teach personas in my class. I also use them in my
consulting projects. But whenever I talk about personas, I recount my
original fears and emphasize that personas should not be used for data
collection.

Anirudha

26 Jan 2005 - 4:22am
Mitja Kostomaj
2004

Lada said:
LG> Has anyone got any data/observations/stories on how the persona
LG> method works in different cultures?

In his book "Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting", Syd Field
suggests for character building developing a character biography.
Technique is very similar to personas, which is discussed here.

He suggest as the first step of writing screenplay to write a
biography of main characters. In this biography the screenwriter
should address several issues: from three basic components
(professional, personal & private life) to the need of the character,
behaviour, attitude, and personality. Many storytellers use this
starting point or they also build the fictional worlds around the
characters.

I use this technique in my class "Writing for Interactive Media",
where one of the first exercises is to write a short screenplay for
interactive game, where students have to develop characters using
"Biography".

This helps them with their main project, which is development of
Information Portal. For this project they have to use Persona, both
for the content and design.

To continue comparing techniques of character biography and persona
from storytelling;
Neil Simon, American writer (Biloxi Blues) in the interview with James
Lipton for Inside Actors studio said that he was very surprised when
he heard a doorman in a theatre (Afro-American) saying that a
character in a play is just like his father, while the character in
the play was Jewish.

My hypothesis would be that if one uses persona only on the surface
that there might be greater difference in different cultures than if
the persona is more complex?

Best
Mitja

26 Jan 2005 - 5:09am
Lada Gorlenko
2004

DH> anthropology is in and of
DH> itself is not possible b/c in the end the emic and the etic cannot be
DH> reconciled and the very methods of anthropology are disqualifiers for true
DH> objectivity.

Oh, don't go there, just don't, please :-)

DH> So if the research
DH> can't resonate with the tool, then it means the researcher/designer needs to
DH> find a different tool that does resonate.

My point indeed. However, one has to realise first that the tool is
not as efficient in a setting B as it is in a setting A.
Unfortunately, realisation often comes at a hefty price.

Having said that, I don't like giving up on good tools and ideas, but
believe in their modifications for different audiences. That's why I
am *not* against personas in different cultural settings, I am just
trying to find local outfits (maybe, some table manners, too) to dress
appropriately the otherwise beautiful creature.

DH> On the other side (the subject) I don't think there is a tool that would be
DH> x-culturally sufficient to break through the emic/etic struggle that is at
DH> the heart of ethnographic anthropology.

Have to admit, I have a hidden agenda in my pushing the subject. I am
teaching a class at this year's UPA on intercultural design and
usability. Part of it looks into *how to select* research/evaluation
methods for a given culture. Another teaches *how to adjust*
the methods one likes for different settings. I would like to use
personas as an example among other techniques, since it is relatively
new, becoming increasingly popular in the community, and fairly
controversial. All thoughts picked up here are highly appreciated
and all contributions will be gratefully acknowledged.

Lada

26 Jan 2005 - 6:03am
Dave Malouf
2005

Lada, I would be really interested if you could highlight an example where
cultural a persona would work, and another where it wouldn't as a technique.

Since the tool is for the designer, I'm not sure why the "setting" is a
relevant determinant of successful use of the tool?

BTW, something that might interest people is an article posted on the blog
for cheskin.com (a design/research studio) about proper use of anthropology.
Just b/c you observe people doesn't make you an anthropologist, is the gist
of it.

http://weblog.cheskin.net/blog/archives/000586.html#more

And I will end with a little quote from my medical anthropology professor
...
"There are more differences within any group (culture, sub-culture, etc.)
then there are those that define the separation between any type groups."

-- dave

26 Jan 2005 - 6:19am
Lada Gorlenko
2004

DH> Lada, I would be really interested if you could highlight an example where
DH> cultural a persona would work, and another where it wouldn't as a technique.

Dave, I cannot. I haven't worked with personal in different cultures
myself, and I cannot claim anything. So far, my argument is built on
intuition (call it educated guess) and experiences with other
techniques. That's why I want to hear personas stories from others.

But if personas end up in my class, supported by examples from this
list or other sources, you'll have a full account of it, I promise.

DN> And I will end with a little quote from my medical anthropology
DN> professor
DH> "There are more differences within any group (culture, sub-culture, etc.)
DH> then there are those that define the separation between any type groups."

Two randomly picked males with different blood types have more
differences than a male and a female? Did he study anatomy alongside
anthropology as well :-)

Lada

31 Jan 2005 - 3:38pm
Andrei Sedelnikov
2004

Lada,

you've made an interesting point!

Here is my experience: I have successfully used personas in a [well,
rather small] german company. I know that many of my german colleagues
have successfully used personas in projects for big technocratic
german companies (like DaimlerCrysler). I My russian colleagues use
them intensively with their clients.

So it seems that despite of technocracy, the method is working. And
actually why it should not? The persona - in it's core function -
should look like a description of a real human being. I suppose
everyone is able to understand and accept it: description of a human
is the same thing either in technocratic or non- technocratic culture.

You will definitely get in a trouble, if you allow an interaction
designer from one culture to create personas for another one. But the
"native" designer creates personas already culturally-referenced. Thus
I would not write "Hello, I'm uncle Gans" for a german persona :)

--
Andrei Sedelnikov
http://usabilist.de/en

On Tue, 25 Jan 2005 19:46:42 +0000, Lada Gorlenko <lada at acm.org> wrote:
> [Please voluntarily trim replies to include only relevant quoted material.]
>
> [Inspired by the two threads, particularly, by recent Robert
> Reimann's comments]
>
> Has anyone got any data/observations/stories on how the persona method
> works in different cultures?
>
> I have none. However, my gut feeling (based on years of research in
> cross-cultural communication) tells me that there should be
> differences.
>
> Robert Reimann:
> > By necessity of narrative, personas contain some non-essential
> > details, but the vast majority of information contained in a
> > persona should be relevant, sharply focused, and derived directly
> > from actual observed behavior patterns of multiple individuals.
>
> Once again, this tells me that personas are not about *content*, but
> about *form* - a form of presenting user research data (functional and
> usability requirements; context definition; potentially, user metaphors
> and a high-level outline of a cognitive model). The same data can be
> presented in other forms, such as specifications, tables, object models,
> flow diagrams, and so on. So, if I am not mistaken, personas are a
> human-friendly way to present user research data. Correct?
>
> I don't know who coined the method, but I'll give my job up and become
> a nun if I am wrong: it was a person with either American or
> Scandinavian cultural heritage. The concept of presenting sharp data
> that feed technical (design) solution through a personal story just
> screams out loudly about its cultural load.
>
> Russia (and most post-Soviet states), Germany, India, and many other
> nations are technocratic cultures. They are societies that value
> technical expertise above any other expertise. You can easily spot
> them: degrees in "humanities" are regarded as no-brainers and,
> therefore, are not highly respected; there is no such thing as "soft
> skills" on a resume; a cabinet Health Minister is a qualified medical
> doctor; a proper textbook has five formulas on the second page or
> half-page long paragraphs thtoughout. And so on.
>
> Decision-makers in those cultures like complexity. A diagram
> beats a narrative story. A heavy report beats a bullet-point
> presentation. If you want to impress someone, you show how damn
> difficult your work is, *not* how seemingly easy and intuitive the
> final result appears. You don't make things particularly easy,
> otherwise it looks like everyone else can do them.
>
> I painted it in dense colours for the sake of argument. Hopefully,
> you've got the right mood behind my concerns:
>
> 1. Personas are a heavily culture-loaded technique and should be
> treated as such;
> 2. With all their benefits in mind, personas may not work universally,
> because in some cultures seemingly complex things may be preferred
> over seemingly simple things;
> 3. All tools of our trade (especially those working with qualitative
> information) have to be considered for their cultural applicability,
> before being preached as universal.
>
> Does this make any sense to anyone else?
>
> Lada
>
> _______________________________________________
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>

3 Feb 2005 - 1:28pm
Alexey Kopylov
2004

On Wed, 26 Jan 2005 02:29:17 +0000, Lada Gorlenko <lada at acm.org> wrote:

> No concerns about compiling high-quality personas in technocratic
> cultures, that's fine. *Selling* them there is another matter. With all
> enthusiasm in the world, I cannot picture myself selling Uncle Ben to
> a 50-year old Russian or Indian exec or chief engineer (you know,
> those guys who live outside Moscow and New Deli, have local education
> and speak no foreign language). The Russian exec would smile, call
> me "my dear lady", offer an espresso and a comfy chair, and ask to see
> someone technical to "talk about serious matters". The Russian
> engineer would grin, light up his sigarette, pull another chair, and
> the two of us would discuss Nietzsche (maybe Orwell) while waiting
> for the "serious technical guy" to show up.
>
> Well, that's probably why I don't do design there, although I miss
> casual chats about Nietzsche a lot :-)
Lada, we (in Moscow) use personas both as the sell tool (our services)
and as the work tool and have no problem in apprecicate them from our
cutomers. I couldn't say we deep involve personas in development team
- we use them mainly for us, but we test peronas on stakeholders
before concept creation stage.

Alexey Kopylov
UIDesign Group
http://uidesign.ru

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