Hannah Donovan from last.fm held a session called “Design as Service” at Zap Your PRAM last week. One of the things she talked about was designing for what she called “personas,” essentially made-up people with certain characteristics that a designer holds in their head when creating something.
I’d encountered a similar concept through a recent information architecture exercise we went through with a client and an IA consultancy: one of the things they had us do was to concoct three archetypal users that embodied some of the different characteristics that a possible user might — “Sally, a 42 year old mother of three children, works out of the home, technically savvy, drives a Volkswagen and travels twice a year” and the like.
Both in Hannah’s description of the process, and in the actual carrying out with our client it seemed rather odd and uncomfortable and imperfect, partly because people like Sally don’t actually exist (we’re all unique and special and cannot be typified, etc.), and partly because it seems vaguely like the sort of racial, ethnic and economic profiling that’s become insidious of late.
But mostly because it didn’t seem to remind me of the way that I actually create things.
It’s like this: There’s only one person in the world whose needs and problems you really understand and whom you know exactly how to satisfy: that would be you. So build something that you use all the time, and, unless you’re really weird and different from everyone else, you’ve got a potential winner.
This resonates with me, and make me recall a non-digital example of this, an example that I used when asking Hannah a question on this issue.
Several years ago I was working for a local retailer. The previous manager of their shop was a woman who knew their customer intimately, because she was one of them: you had only to see inside her living room to know that the approach, the aesthetic and the product mix of the store reflected her tastes. And that was a good thing: the store had an attitude, a position, a editorial point of view (so to speak). It felt like more than the sum of its parts. Because it was: the manager had merchandised a store for people like her.
Later, when she’d moved on to other things, the store fell under the management of a much different group, of which I was one: middle-aged men who could only try to imagine what products, styles and merchandising would appeal to our customers. While we managed to get this right some of the time, we were, at best, making educated guesses and, at worst, relying purely on fictional stereotypes of what we thought our customers were like.
The store survived, but it has never been as good as it was in the very beginning because, as Tim Bray says:
Sometimes you can guess what people want, and you might get lucky. But probably not, so go ahead and build what you know for sure one person needs.