Embodied Personas for a Mobile World

Lisa Meloncon, University of Cincinnati

Abstract

Purpose: Personas have long been an important tool for technical communicators to use to understand audiences. However, a recent critique of personas questioned their usefulness as a tool for audience analysis. This article takes that question as the starting point to offer a re-conceptualization of persona creation.

Method: A comprehensive review of the literature with a case study as an extended example provides insights into the necessity of updating update how technical communicators create personas.

Results: The literature review exposes major gaps in the research about persona development that, when compared to the case study, shows the need for technical communicators to update the dimensions of how personas are created and to reclaim the emphasis on goals and purposes of the user’s practice.

Conclusion: Technical communicators need to re-conceptualize the creation of personas by incorporating additional dimensions that create embodied personas for a mobile world and that reclaim and refocus the persona’s emphasis on goals and purposes rather than simply a focus on audience. These changes allow technical communicators to meet the needs of users of complex information systems and, thereby, to contribute more meaningfully to user experience projects.

Keywords: Audience analysis, personas, prototyping, user experience

Practitioner’s Takeaway:

  • Expands persona creation to include more embodied dimensions: culture (global and local), ability status, and emotion
  • Incorporates mobility (e.g., smartphones) into persona creation
  • Renews call for greater emphasis on goals of users rather than simply the user’s task
  • Re-conceptualizes personas to make them three-dimensional and more practical for complex information problems
  • Provides a worksheet to incorporate the persona creation method developed

In a recent commentary, Tharon Howard (2015) wondered, “are personas really usable?” (p. 20). Howard acknowledged the past usefulness of the persona in user-centered design, but he then pointed to recent empirical work (Friess, 2013) that found designers rarely referred to the research-based personas as a tool on which to base decisions. Instead, the designers relied on their own opinions. Acknowledging the limitations of a single study, Howard does not specifically answer his own question about the usability of personas, but his skepticism “reminds us that we can’t become complacent in our use of [tools]” (p. 25). Howard’s challenge for technical communicators to not become complacent instigated my own re-examination of personas and their use.

Let’s start by defining personas as detailed descriptions of real people and users who technical communicators write for and designers design for. Personas help the project team stay focused on the needs and goals of the people who will use a product, service, or information. Howard’s commentary intersected with my own critical reflections on persona creation and use. Why was I thinking about personas? As a long-time advocate and user of personas on design projects of all kinds, I was reflecting on a consulting project where personas that we created using existing guidelines from the literature were not adequate to accurately convey the complexity of our users and their goals.

I was working with an American non-profit with around 110 employees. Over the previous two years, it had doubled in size in terms of resources, transactions, and employees. The non-profit provided a range of services to a tri-state area, and a large part of their work involved the distribution of a wide variety of donations. The organization had three distinct locations: the administrative office, the warehouse, and the customer center. I was asked to develop a knowledge management system for their employees that would include the selection of an appropriate content management system, to create an appropriate information architecture of main topics and sub-topics, to design an interface, and to develop a strategy for gathering information and writing the content that would populate the system. I would report to the executive vice-president responsible for day-to-day operations, and the primary team that I would work with included the chief financial officer, chief technology officer, managers from the warehouse and customer center, and a student team from the local university who were working with the technology officer on information technology solutions by building custom applications.

With a substantial deliverable and a large, diverse, and distributed team, personas seemed to be the perfect solution to keep the entire team focused and keep our users in mind throughout the process. Based on a number of interviews (18 in all) that represented many of our target users, personas helped to bring together similar users, to create identities for different users not available for interviews, to represent some of the major goals the knowledge management system needed to incorporate, and, more importantly, to educate all team members on the different audiences.

What I determined during this project was that the existing studies on current practices of persona creation are limited and, as Howard argued, potentially not useful. For example, while it may be implicit in current heuristics that users are diverse and complex people, excessive reliance on basic demographic data such as age, gender, and ethnicity disembodies those people. Starting with practices that had worked, as found in any number of templates or heuristics that one can find in any number of resources in print or online (e.g., Nielsen et al., 2015), I then moved outward to account for the complexity of information and the user interactions with those complex systems and associated information. Thus, my aim was to re-conceptualize personas to account for this situation. To do that, I offer three modifications to the current way that technical communicators approach persona creation. First, personas must be embodied and become three-dimensional replications of real people with real bodies, problems, and emotions. Second, the persona must take into account the increased mobility of audiences. Third, the persona requires greater emphasis on the goal-orientation and purposes of users.

Howard was right to ask if personas are really usable, and in giving thoughtful consideration to his question, I have decided that the answer is, “yes,”—but only if technical communicators create them differently than they have in the past. Personas need to have a greater awareness of embodiment (e.g., to include the possibility of disabilities), to include explicit attention to mobility (to account for our increasingly mobile world), and to refocus attention to goals, purposes, and context. Adding additional criteria for persona creation means technical communicators are encouraged to consider the underlying meanings and reasoning of intended audiences. Also, updating persona creation in this way will make them more useful in traditional technical communication fields but also make them useful in other areas where technical communication and design are becoming increasingly important (e.g., healthcare).

Situating the Current Discussion

Personas occupy an interesting place as a tool that has been discussed frequently and in detail by both academics and practitioners. Because personas bridge the theoretical with the practical, this section will discuss the literature written about personas from both viewpoints.

Definition and development of personas

First developed by Alan Cooper (1999) to help create usable software, personas have evolved and been adapted to be useful tools for a variety of products, applications, websites, and interactive systems. From Cooper’s original description, others have elaborated on the idea in more comprehensive ways (e.g., Adlin & Priutt, 2010; Goodwin, 2009; Mulder & Zar, 2007). Personas provide the design or product team a way to envision users of their end product; they help to communicate key user requirements to all members of a project team; they provide a key orienting device throughout the project to keep members on the same page; they provide a useful way of communicating decisions to internal and external audiences; and they are a key component in helping to structure appropriate and usable interfaces, designs, and information. “Most technical communicators also see part of their role on a team as being the users’ advocates” (Redish, 2010, p. 196), and, for a long time, this has meant advocating for those users through creating personas that can be used by design and development teams.

In general, personas should cover three basic areas (cf. Getto & St.Amant, p. 30):

  • Who the audience is and what knowledge they have
  • How they feel about the product, service, or information they will be using
  • Why they would be using this thing
  • More specifically, personas will typically include:
  • Name and other descriptive information
  • Motivation and needs
  • Scenarios of use
  • Behaviors
  • Features of the product, service, or information and how they relate to the user’s motivation
  • Technology comfort level
  • Personal background
  • Photo that encapsulates these characteristics above and gives the persona a human face (summary of Brown, 2011, Chapter 2)

For a current and thorough overview and comparison of common templates, one need only look to Nielsen et al. (2015). They took 47 descriptions from 13 companies and the recommendations from 11 templates in the literature and created an overview of the content they found (see Table 1 on p. 48 of Nielsen et al.). This is an important work for technical communication because it brings together recommendations from a wide-ranging literature across multiple fields and disciplines. Even though they did not include templates or heuristics that may be known in the US (e.g., Redish, 2012), the global emphasis of this review makes it impressive and important work.

How personas are currently being used

Personas have long been used to guide the development of user interfaces (Cunningham, 2005; Lindgren et al., 2007). In this sense, user interface can mean websites as well as other types of online systems such as content management systems (Dharwada et al., 2007; Henderson, 2009), mobile systems (Hussain et al., 2009), children’s websites (Hisanabe, 2009), education products (Ketamo et al., 2010), and even car design (Marshall et al., 2015). This work generally reports on case studies in the development of interfaces and the ways that personas were used in that work. While useful to the overall corpus of persona literature, it is not particularly useful for work by technical communicators since this work is mostly using personas as a limited heuristic rather than an integral part of designing the user experience.

Practitioners often publish in this area, and some recent and relevant work includes two general overviews about what they are, how to create them, and how they can be used (Bedford, 2015; Filippo, 2009); an explanation of why they are still needed in design (Edeker & Moorman, 2013); how they can be used successfully (Hart, 2011; O’Connor, 2011; Spool, 2005); and how to use them specifically in user experience design (Sauro, 2012; Young, 2016). These are simply representative samples because a seemingly endless number of short articles, how-tos, case studies, tips, and techniques on personas can be found on the Internet. However, this sampling shows the vitality and continued use of personas as they are conceived for workplace use.

Important work in the field of computer human interaction (CHI) includes studies by Chang et al. (2008) and Matthews et al. (2012). Chang et al. discuss ways that practitioners actually use personas and conclude that “designers use personas in creative and flexible ways not always in line with the original intentions of personas” (p. 442), but since this was a short paper option for the proceedings of the CHI conference, the reader is left wondering what “not in line with the original intentions of personas” actually means. On the other hand, Matthews et al. (2012) provide information about actual use by practitioners by reporting on interviews they conducted with ten designers and four user experience professionals. The big takeaway from their study is that practitioners “do not use personas in their own design processes. Rather, they use personas mainly to communicate with others, to build support for a chosen design or more generally to advocate for user needs” (p. 1219). These two studies intersect with Erin Friess’ (2013, 2015) work, which was done in a technical communication context. Friess (2013) found that personas may not be a helpful tool for making decisions in design meetings. Though Friess was taking a rhetorical approach, her findings seem to contradict that of Matthews et al. when it comes to communication between practitioners on a project team. Friess’s conclusions do, however, support Matthews et al.’s and Chang et al.’s findings that personas are not necessarily used consistently during the design process.

Beyond Friess’ work, there has been only a handful of scholarly work in technical communication published in the last 15 years: a case study on evaluation of an interactive museum exhibit (Kitalong et al., 2009), two examinations from a pedagogical standpoint (Dayton, 2003, 2009), and connecting personas to Web design (Coney & Steehouder, 2000). The one work that holds the most promise in moving conversations on personas forward is a recent piece on global users. Getto and St.Amant (2014) have suggested that personas can be useful for addressing the needs of international users since they must be able to navigate online interfaces easily and successfully (St.Amant, 2005; Sun, 2012). Getto and St.Amant offer technical communicators a useful starting place to update and re-conceive our approach to personas, which is discussed in more detail in the next section.

The purpose of a thorough summary of the existing literature is to illustrate that technical communicators can play a vital role in advancing both theoretical and practical knowledge about persona development. Currently, typical personas do not include all the aspects that would make them more realistic, richly described people. Including more details in persona development could potentially increase their usefulness in the design process. The next section details the three ways that I propose technical communicators should re-conceptualize the persona development process.

Embodiment, Mobility, And Reclamation

When faced with trying to understand how to design and write for complex information systems, some of our familiar approaches come up short. For example, existing persona literature and templates do not fully account for users with disabilities nor do they consider localized cultural issues (such as regional variations in language use). Moreover, existing models for persona creation do not take into account the increasing mobility of users and what effect that has on design. Complex systems in this sense are systems that include multidimensional challenges of information content, environment, or technologies that are “embedded in our physical, social, and work environments” (Quesenbery, 2011, p. xiii). This was exactly the situation that I faced in the opening story. Trying to determine how best to design and write this type of system means that technical communicators need a complex audience analysis system because “naming the audience is not the same thing as understanding it” (Hailey, 2011, p. 33), and, more importantly, “complexity is not so much an attribute of a product or process itself as it is an attribute of the interaction between that product or process and its users. Thus, complexity is audience specific” (Redish, 2010, p. 199).

For technical communicators, personas and persona creation should be part of audience analysis for development and testing of the user experience. With the increasing complexity of systems, the need to understand audiences becomes even more important, though more difficult. Complex systems and complex knowledge work are not new to technical communication (Albers & Mazur, 2003; Albers & Still, 2011; Mirel, 2004). Further, “within a complex system, the individual elements have high levels of interaction and multiple feedback paths between each other, the user, and the environment” (Albers, 2011, p. 6), and, in many cases, complexity moves across work environments, technologies, topics, and information contexts (Quesenbery, 2011, p. xiv). In an era when the technical communicator should be seen as a problem solver in a knowledge worker environment, these complexities are normal occurrences being faced on the job.

So how can we address some of the issues of complexity from the opening project I described? After considering the problems from that project in light of complexity, I came to the conclusion that personas did not work on three levels:

  • Expansion: The current limited approach to developing personas needs to be expanded to include embodied dimensions (such as disabilities and emotion).
  • Mobility: Personas need to account for issues of mobility (e.g., the growing importance of mobile phones and other portable devices).
  • Reclamation: Technical communicators need to reclaim and refocus the personas’ use on goals and purpose.

I discuss these three ideas in greater detail in the next three sections.

Embodiment

In explaining why they wrote their book on “persona lifecycles,” Adlin and Pruitt (2010) claimed that even though people were excited about using personas, “no one had described, in practical terms, how to create” them (p. 2). Many of the resources that discuss ways to create personas accept the fact that assumptions about users, contexts, and use are embedded within the initial creation of personas. This is most likely caused by the fact that current templates and heuristics on persona development focus on the ideal user. Thus, the initial data-gathering phase needs to expand to include dimensions of culture, bodily ability, and emotion.

Getto and St.Amant (2014) have done some of the important work in moving technical communicators forward in re-conceptualizing how we develop personas by insisting on adding a cultural component. They argue that existing scholarship does not adequately consider other cultures and global contexts and, as my literature review and the case study used as an example here suggests, they are absolutely right in this regard. They offered a heuristic that takes traditional persona development one step further and created a contextual map that includes four quadrants: local and technological, global and cultural, global and technological, and local and cultural. These quadrants, they posit, “identify four key contextual aspects/factors that can affect use in different cultural settings” (p. 34). The explanation and list of questions to get one started in this sort of analysis (pp. 34–36) offer technical communicators the first step toward expanding persona creation to include an overlooked component of local cultural dimensions.

The quadrant analysis offered by Getto and St.Amant (2014) for global audiences also works well in situations where local users may have different cultural backgrounds. For example, in the case study I described earlier, the project was located in Cincinnati, which means that it has an Appalachian (both rural and urban) culture, a Southern culture from those who live in Kentucky and commute into the city, and a Midwestern culture. Even though this borders on over simplification, these local, cultural differences must be accounted for in persona creation. In addition, there are cultural differences within an organization, such as the difference between managers, technical support staff, and customer-service staff who work with donors and recipients of donations. In other words, what Getto and St.Amant could have stated more directly and more forcefully is that cultural considerations, both local and global, are a key audience characteristic that must be considered in any complex information project, and they are an important step in embodying the user.

Technical communicators need to also remember that users have a physical and psychological presence. As I have argued, technical communicators have “too long assumed an unproblematic and disembodied body” (Meloncon, 2013, p. 69), which means “technical communicators have made the ‘normal body’ the focus of the user-centered experience” (p. 75). This emphasis on the “normal” is problematic in two ways. First, since the US Census Bureau (2010) reports that roughly 19% of the population has a disability, and the World Health Organization (2015) estimates that 15% of the worldwide population has some form of a disability. This means that a large number of users we may be designing for would not fit the “normal” parameters. Second, disability scholars have challenged this idea of normal in an effort to encourage a different view of people with disabilities.

The theoretical perspective from disability studies is helpful for technical communicators to think of their typically “normal users” in a different way. This is particularly important given that, in the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act (http://www.ada.gov) has recently celebrated its 26th anniversary and, in December, 2015, the European Accessibility Act (http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-15-6147_en.htm) was passed.

Disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thompson (1997) coined a new word, normate, to “designate the social figure through which people can represent themselves as definitive human beings” (p. 8). According to Garland-Thompson, normate gives people with disabilities the power to step into the position of authority since they have more control over their own identity. For technical communicators, it provides an alternative viewpoint to “normal” and reminds us that we need to design beginning with accessibility in mind. As Slatin (2002) reminds us, “Accessibility is fundamentally a rhetorical issue, a matter of fleshing out (literally) our conception of audience to include an awareness that there are people with disabilities in that audience and developing effective skills and strategies for addressing the entire audience” (para. 37).

Since I’ve been reading theoretical work generated by scholars in disability studies, I’ve begun to realize the importance of bodies to technical communication. Users are often reduced to a one- or two-dimensional persona after performing a task analysis. In everyday acts and in everyday being, “the body and its specific behavior is where the power system stops being abstract and becomes material. The body is where it succeeds or fails, where it is acceded to or struggled against” (Fiske, 1992, p. 162). But if technical communicators begin to re-conceptualize personas as three-dimensional people with feelings, emotions, and bodies that may fall from the center of the bell curve, the field can expand the way we think of users and purposes in a way that is more inclusive and useful to complex projects.

Resources for persona creation have not adequately and consistently considered issues of accessibility. For example, Adlin and Pruitt’s (2010) book includes one page on this topic even though they had previously acknowledged (Adlin & Pruitt, 2006) that their personas are limited by a failure to account for a full range of ability levels. While the Society for Technical Communication (STC) has a special interest group on accessibility, it only contributed one persona for the STC Body of Knowledge in 2008 (http://www.stc-houston.org/stc-body-of-knowledge-the-age-50-persona/), which was a limited view of accessibility and could not adequately prioritize the need to incorporate an awareness of disability and accessibility into persona design. As an example, let us return to the case study with which I began this paper. Levels of ability were paramount because several employees had physical disabilities that limited their ability to interact with the knowledge management system, such as color blindness and an impairment that reduced the user’s ability to consistently use a mouse. These access limitations were only discovered when we specifically asked questions about ability that would directly affect interface design decisions, even though some researchers (Halbach, 2010) and practitioners (Chisnell & Redish, 2005; Horton & Quesenbery, 2014) are moving toward creating personas that pay attention to disability and accessibility concerns. However, much more work needs to be done, and accessibility and disability must be included in the creation of personas. Particularly, personas need to focus on the abilities of the intended users.

If we are to embody users, technical communicators also need to ensure that they understand that the embodied users are complicated, affective beings with a range of emotions. Countering the historical formation that positions emotion as less than reason, Micciche (2007) argued that “emotion is part of what makes ideas adhere” (p. 6). It is this idea of taking emotion and using it as a productive leverage that not only is appealing but also useful to understanding the expansion of personas to include an affective dimension. To place affect in the forefront of discussions of persona creation is to ultimately create more innovative practices that adequately represent the users, their bodies, and their emotional states at the time of use.

Some practitioners, such as Aarron Walter (2011) and Geoff Hart (2011), have argued more broadly for the inclusion of emotion in design, and Alan Klement (2014) has made overtures toward integrating “anxieties and motivations” into the creation of personas (which Klement wants to replace with “characters”). Sara Wachter Boettcher (2016) goes as far as to say, “You also don’t get to decide the state someone ought to be in when they use your service, or the feelings they ought to have along the way” (n.p.). These practitioner voices, when combined with theoretical voices from academia, illustrate the growing importance of accounting for emotion in the design process.

By thinking through the affective states of users, technical communicators are better positioned to design and deliver more usable products, services, and information. For example, in the opening case, thinking through affect and how users may be using the system, we realized that some of the customer service employees would be talking to clients who were particularly upset and facing some stressful situations. Listening to those types of stories all day can be an emotionally draining experience for the employees. By considering users in trying to solve the organization’s communication problems, we realized that the customer service representatives needed shorter shifts when dealing with clients to enable them to process the emotional aspects of their job. By expanding the persona in an embodied way, we enabled the team to see this dimension and address this complex communication problem.

Critics of this proposed expansion will likely counter with the idea that personas are not meant to describe every possible user or use case of the system or product. Others (c.f., Cooper & Reimann, 2003) go as far as to construct a singular persona who represents the primary user of each interface because such personas are helpful for maintaining focus on the general, primary user. However, my answer to these critics would be: How do you know that your primary persona, the one who represents the general user, is not disabled? How can you tell whether they are stressed and not thinking clearly because of their situation at home or even on the job?

Technical communication involves people who have feelings. The information and knowledge that technical communicators work with is often mediated through technology. For people with disabilities and also those experiencing emotional distress, technology often enables mediation of their interaction with the world around them, including technical communication. And embodiment often means more to people with disabilities. They have often been forced to pay more attention to their bodies than is required of able-bodied people, and they are often prevented from succeeding by our failure to consider their needs. All this is to say that technological embodiments matter, and they matter a great deal. Expanding persona creation to ensure that the process captures a more diverse and complex image of the user provides greater opportunities for technical communicators to move beyond idealized subjects who are expected to act in only one way. But, we have to do more than just embody the criteria used in the creation of personas. We have to make sure we are creating personas that account for the increasing mobility of users.

Mobility

As of October 2014, 64% of US adults owned a smartphone, and as of January 2014, 32% of US adults owned an e-reader and 42% owned a tablet computer (Pew, 2014), which represent the latest reliable, large-scale data on use of these devices in the US. Users are mobile, which is an issue that will have considerable impact on the future of the field.

Technical communication scholarship, unfortunately, has not taken up the issue of mobility in any sustained way. The few scholarly approaches to this topic are several years old and are mostly confined to theoretical (de Souza e Silva & Frith, 2012; Swarts, 2006, 2007) and classroom practices (Kimme Hea, 2009). Though technical communication scholars have been slow to study mobility, it does not take much work to find scholarly approaches in other fields (e.g., Cresswell, 2010; Farman, 2012; Merriman et al., 2013; Urry, 2007). Much of this scholarship argues that movement is one of the defining features of contemporary life, and that various forms of mobility should be placed at the forefront of any cultural analysis (Coulter, vanHam, & Findlay, 2016). Mobility, thus, means taking into full account the environment or location where users will be using, sending, or viewing the product or information and the fact that this environment changes as the user moves. In a growing number of cases, that environment or location is mobile. From tablets to mobile phones to smart phones to netbooks, much of the information is delivered while the user is in constant motion. For example, in the opening case study, I was continuously struck by movement—from workers in the warehouse on mobile phones to iPads being carried to clients in the waiting area. The warehouse manager from the case study in which I opened this paper uses an iPad to log inventory, while members of the customer service team send text messages to clients as part of the intake system. Thus, mobility is encapsulating both physical movements as well as movements enhanced by technologies and a combination of both.

Current personas tend to be static and stationary, which limits their ability to fully capture the modern lifestyle. The inclusion of mobility into the conception of what personas are and how they can be used ensures that they are being used in intra- and inter-contextual way. As Farman (2012) has demonstrated, mobility “is less about the devices and more about an activity” (p. 1). The usefulness of moving as a way of understanding user experience is negated if specific questions about users’ activities are not included in persona creation. Movements are direct practices and can connect the development of personas back to the need to create embodied personas. “Mobility is practiced, it is experienced, and it is embodied” (Cresswell, 2006, p. 3). In other words, we have to pay attention to how bodies move at and between locations and how bodies may be moving when using a product, service, or information.

Now that personas have been embodied in a mobile world, technical communicators should consider one additional change to existing persona development: reclaiming and refocusing personas on user goals and purposes.

Reclamation

Personas have always been used as a tool to help in the audience analysis process. The increasing presence of complex systems and complex information has meant that these contexts need to be analyzed in new ways (Albers & Still, 2011). One way to address audience concerns as users of complex systems is to shift the emphasis away from the characteristics of the audience and to focus more specifically on what the users will be doing. This focus on doing allows a more sustained and deliberate focus on the user’s goals and moves technical communication beyond simply focusing on task analysis. Even though much of the persona literature focuses on what the user will be doing, it is often confined to limited task analysis or constrained use cases. What I am arguing for here is for technical communicators to reclaim and refocus persona creation on goals and purposes. One way to do a better job of accounting for differences in ability and issues of mobility would be to start by considering the requirements to use a product, service, or information and asking whether any potential users might fail to meet those requirements.

Let us return to the opening case study. The first area of the knowledge management system we addressed was the intake area. This is where all donations were logged into the main system and coded to include what type of donation it was. There were seven women who worked in this area (the users for whom we were developing personas), and they looked quite similar to us in terms of their user profiles. A typical persona would capture the fact that they all had the same basic skill levels on the technology; they had been with the company from 2–5 years; they had no specific cultural differences that impeded their use of the system; and they needed to interact with the system in similar ways. However, what we discovered was that they were indeed not interacting with the system in similar ways. They had developed their own system for distribution of work. For example, on any given day, four of them may log in donations (including who donated it, where it came from, and what it contained), while two others would then process all the internal coding and meta-information, and the last would check for errors before formally entering the information in the system. Thus, they had begun to differentiate tasks, which meant that on any given day users interacted with the system differently. Without reclaiming an emphasis on goal and purpose, this sort of detail would have been lost.

Even though existing persona heuristics and templates often ask for a task analysis or development of use cases, what I am advocating for here is a more involved and more nuanced consideration of purpose. The women had adapted to the complex system in ways that were outside of the norms but, in fact, made the system more useful for their day-to-day jobs. What this means for technical communicators faced with complex user experience analysis is that we have to consider the multiple ways a system can be used even in a seemingly homogenous context and account for those ways within the persona development process.

Here is another example from the same organization. The organization hosts a large fundraiser every year. This fundraiser is responsible for funding more than 50% of their annual operating budget. One woman is in charge of a master spreadsheet that houses all of the people who have contributed to the campaign. Information for this spreadsheet comes in from a variety of sources: mail, online donations through the website, small events held throughout town to market and promote the actual event (credit card, cash, and check transactions), and local organizations who help with marketing. This is a record-keeping nightmare in some ways since none of the process other than the online payments is automated, and even the online payments have to be copied into the master spreadsheet. Thus the woman who is in charge of the spreadsheet is constantly having to check and double-check her entries against a number of other forms that come to her a variety of formats. Trying to capture the “use case” for her job and how it needed to be automated into the new complex system that was being built depended not on her per se but on the multiple purposes of her job. Her job could not be captured through task analysis alone, because it involved a complex network of tasks that were fluid and ever-changing. Being able to shift the focus from simply audience analysis and task use to a consideration of her multiple and dynamic purposes that a new system would need to meet helped guide the design of the complex information system. The idea of reclamation reminds technical communicators to focus on broader purposes and goals when developing personas. By not limiting considerations of goals to a simple task analysis or use case, we are better positioned to capture the complexity involved in the goals and purposes of information systems.

I have put forth the idea of adding an embodied and mobile dimension to persona development, as well as a re-conceptualization of the full spectrum of a user’s purposes. In that context, the question now becomes: What are the full implications of these proposals in practice? The answer to that question is discussed in the next section.

Implications

In their current state, the usefulness of personas is limited because they lack necessary dimensions (embodiment and mobility) and, as importantly, the emphasis on goals and purposes needs to be reclaimed and more explicitly emphasized. While it is possibly true that many experienced technical communicators may already be integrating these proposed changes in their daily practice, it is important to the development of the field to articulate changes to practice that will explicitly advance the field’s knowledge. In my own work, I was able to come to these conclusions when I was forced to adapt existing persona practices to address the complexity of a knowledge management project and then to work toward articulating not only what I had done but also why it was important.

Overall, the benefits of the proposed reconceptualization of persona development include that it

  • advocates for a wide variety of users
  • addresses concerns of emotions and affect in design
  • considers accessibility
  • provides a user-centered focus for the entire team
  • expands the traditional problem-solution dyad into a three-dimensional model in which where actual users (and their bodies) are not forgotten, and
  • connects all decisions to the overall goals of the project.

This reconceptualization of the persona development process will afford technical communicators additional language to make business cases for persona development or interface changes within their organizations because “personas are predicated upon the idea that designers require some sort of detailed description of a person, rather than just a body of ‘users’ . . . personas . . . can be invoked to reduce conflict or win certain political disputes within the design team” (Massanari, 2010, p. 411).

Moreover, when this case study is placed alongside the existing persona literature, there are several implications for both theory and practice. First, persona development is useful to do during and after the interview process because it is the best way to get realistic and relevant personas that can be shared with the entire project team. In the case study described here, the personas that we developed were based on a series of interviews and observations, but incorporating an emphasis on embodiment, mobility, and goals and purposes should become a primary focus even when technical communicators are unable to interview potential users. My proposed enhancements to the persona creation method will make the approach more suitable for situations in which the problem is ill-defined, because persona development involves multiple scenarios that should encompass most of the arenas of the problem and should also encompass situations in which projects require additional characteristics, such as disability, of audience analysis.

Secondly, the re-conceptualization that I have proposed answers critics’ concerns that say personas may not be effective in actual design situations (e.g., Friess, 2013). The tool is only useful if those who developed personas are actually using it fully, so it is probable that the reconceptualization of personas that I have put forward may fail in the same ways existing personas fail. We have known (e.g., Adlin & Pruitt, 2010; Goodwin, 2009) that one reason personas fail is that “the personas were not credible and not associated with methodological rigor and data” (Adlin & Pruitt, 2010, p. 2). Matthews et al. (2012) reported that the practitioners in their study did not use personas because they were too abstract, impersonal, misleading, and distracting. Including dimensions of embodiment and mobility have the potential to mitigate these problems.

Third, adding an embodied dimension accounts for the users physical and mental abilities, and accounting for their emotional state makes users more real and more plausible, which can potentially offset the criticism of stereotyping (e.g., Turner & Turner, 2011). Also, by adding more emphasis on the purpose of the complex system and then incorporating the mobile dimension, technical communicators can incorporate a more realistic use scenario in which embodied personas affect how users use and interact with complex systems.

Fourth, traditional persona creation cannot adequately take into account shifts in purpose or goal-orientation, which are typically dictated by organizational and structural factors, such as the changing of policies and procedures or the personality of managers. This was a point made recently by St. Peter (2015), as she described the failure of a communication project in an intercultural context. St. Peter notes, “as a user-focused tool, personas do not address—or even necessarily represent—these structural issues” (p. 25). However, creating personas that reclaim the emphasis on goals and purposes can mitigate the structural problems of changing policies or changing leadership that she notes. With an emphasis on goals, the persona can be easily updated if there are major changes during the project. Moreover, matching the reclamation on goals and purposes with issues of mobility could have solved part of the problem found in St. Peter’s case study. In that project, which was field-based, the team did not adequately capture in the persona the need for users to have to travel to the site. Had the team included mobility as a key question in their initial persona creation, it is possible that the project could have had a different end.

Beyond addressing some of the direct criticisms in the literature, another implication is that enhancing personas gives technical communicators opportunities to improve user experience design by adding value beyond simply stating whether something is usable. “The technical communicator is the person in the development process who focuses on the end user. Technical communicators see themselves as the user’s advocate. And, traditionally, it is the technical communicator who shoulders the responsibility of making sense of a confusing or complex feature or interface” (Redish & Barnum, 2011, p. 95). Usability and technical communication have always been a combined role. Thus, technical communicators need to intercede and use their audience analysis skills to craft multi-dimensional, embodied personas.

The sixth implication of re-conceptualizing personas is being able to open up roles for technical communicators in new areas—outside of design-centric fields and software settings. One of the areas where personas are being used much more is in the area of health care. Peter Jones (2013), in his book Design for Care, advocates for the use of personas (see Chapter 3), and recent health-related studies (e.g., Hensely-Schinkinger et al., 2015; Phillips, 2016; Serio, 2015) used personas as a way to better understand patient populations. This new conception of personas has the potential to advance efforts in health care settings, particularly in the area of patient experience design (Meloncon, 2016). Being able to understand patients and their contexts through the creation of personas affords health care professionals with a better opportunity to improve patient care in more personalized and potentially effective ways. If one creates rich, detailed personas that embody users and account for their emotions, then any project—no matter what type—will benefit from the ability of personas to help define the problem, direct ways to find solutions to the problems, and keep the entire team focused and on track.

Finally, the last implication is in future directions for research. Though the changes to persona development that I have proposed were directly influenced by changes I needed to make on a specific project, my literature review suggests that more research is needed to support efforts such as mine. The single case study presented here needs to be supported by research done at other sites and in other situations, which can lead to research findings that potentially affect the theory and practice of persona development. Additional research could also specifically look into better defining the disadvantages of personas by using empirical studies, such as the one Friess (2013) completed.

Conclusion

Returning to where we started, Howard’s (2015) recent criticism of personas was valuable because it started a dialogue about a popular but unproven tool of technical communication. If technical communicators want to continue to add value in their organizations, then it requires us to regularly reconsider and update some of our long-standing practices to ensure that these practices are really helping us to meet the needs of users, clients, employers, and organizations. In the case of personas, technical communicators have long used this tool in a limited capacity, and the time is overdue for us to re-conceptualize what a persona is and how it is can be used to improve the value of our work.

Personas must be embodied with considerations given to the limitations of those bodies through disabilities or temporary inaccessibility (e.g., due to the emotions evoked by stress), while also remembering the affective dimensions of users at all times. Moreover, in our increasingly mobile world, personas must be able to move as a way to consider issues of mobility and how users may use a product, information or service while on the move with mobile devices (such as mobile phones or tablets). Finally, for too long, personas have been used solely focused as an audience analysis tool, but with the growing complexities of systems and information, we need to think of personas as a way to understand the user’s purposes and actions.

Persona creation should not be about a checklist or about ensuring that different characteristics are included. Rather, persona creation involves overlapping concepts and ideas that lead to three-dimensional representations of users who have bodies and who move for specific purposes. Until the day comes that incorporating actual users into the design process is an everyday occurrence, the enhanced persona development proposed in this paper provides technical communicators and other members of the project team with a more flexible and adaptable tool that helps us to design a wide variety of tools, applications, and information to better to meet the needs of its users.

Note: This project was a case study and as such was not “human subjects research.” However, as a condition of the work I did with the company, I have intentionally kept the details generic so the organization, its employees and clients cannot be identified.

Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank the three anonymous peer reviewers who provided feedback that greatly improved this piece. In particular, I have to thank Reviewer 3, who provided meticulous comments that enhanced the clarity of the ideas. Finally, I need to thank Komal Chandhoke, who was essential to gathering data for the literature review.

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About the Author

Lisa Meloncon is an STC Senior Member and special projects coordinator of the STC-Academic SIG. She is an associate professor of technical communication at the University of Cincinnati. Lisa’s award-winning research focuses on programmatic issues in the field, research methods, and health communication. She also owns a technical communication consulting firm. She is available at meloncon@nulltek-ritr.com.

Manuscript received 3 March 2016, revised 15 June 2016; accepted 22 September 2016.

Persona Creation Starter Guide

Project and Organizational Goals

Clearly state what the purpose and goals are for the product, information, or service. This statement helps to focus the project team on larger organizational and business goals and provides a reference point for each persona that is developed.

Persona Development

Personas are based on research. The type and kind of research conducted varies according to organizations and projects. Doing surveys, interviews, or focus groups with real people who might use your product, information, or service is always the most desirable. If that is not possible, then market research, analytics, or published research is the best place to start.

Name

Helps to personalize the process. Keep in mind that a single persona represents a group of people that you want to use your product, information, or service.

Summary/Quote

Captures who this persona represents and what the end goals are.

Personal characteristics

  • What does the persona already know about the product, service, or information?
  • What is the persona’s comfort level with the product, service or information?
  • What demographic information is relevant for the product, service, or information? (Not all demographics have a bearing on all situations; only include relevant demographics in the persona creation based on the overall goals.)
  • What educational levels and background knowledge are relevant for the product, service, or information?
  • What tasks is the persona being asked to perform with the product, service or information? How do personal characteristics affect the performance of those tasks?
  • What cultural considerations (such as language and ethnicity) should be made for the persona? What considerations regarding organizational culture should be made for the persona?

Embodied characteristics

  • How might the persona’s disabilities (or abilities) affect use of the product, service, or information? For example, does the persona have a specific physical limitation that would affect the design of the interface or a mental limitation that would mean more specific attention to language choices and information design?
  • What design considerations are necessary to accommodate the persona’s emotional states? For example, based on past experiences or personal experiences, will the persona enter the experience in an emotional state of anger, disappointment, or success?
  • What, if any, other considerations of the persona’s real body and emotions should be considered? For example, is the persona tired, overly busy, rushed, or distracted?
  • How does the persona’s embodied characteristics affect performance of the required tasks?
  • What motivates the persona to consider using the product, service, or information?

Mobility

  • Where might the persona be located while using the product, service, or information? What characteristics of that environment affect performance of the required tasks (such as noise, bad lighting, etc.)?
  • Will the persona be using the product, service, or information on a mobile or portable device (such as a smart phone or tablet)?
  • What, if any, other mobility-related issues need to be considered?

Goal orientation

  • What would motivate the persona to use the product, service, or information? For example, what are the motivations behind the primary goal identified in the persona summary?
  • What support does the persona need from the product, service, or information in light of personal and embodied characteristics?
  • What challenges (personal, embodied, mobile) must be considered to enhance the persona’s ability to reach the goal?
  • How do the persona’s goals match the overall purpose for the product, service, or information as set forth by the client or organization?

Ethical Considerations

  • Does the persona capture the humanity of the individuals represented?
  • Does the persona cultivate respect for the human dignity of the individuals represented?
  • Does the persona avoid exploiting the frailties (ignorance, prejudices, etc.) of the individuals represented?

*Incorporates the ideas presented in Embodied Personas for a Mobile World, Technical Communication, Volume 64, Number 1, February 2017, with adapted concepts from Chapter 2 of Dan Brown, Communicating Design Communicating design: Developing web site documentation for design and planning (Second ed.). Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

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