I had the opportunity to attend the 2008 EPIC conference in Copenhagen, Denmark last October. A hot topic there was the use of “Personas” in usability research, with the idea that it was an effective and quick way to communicate the results of the research to the client. Personas are fictional characters developed as a representative of the research subjects as a whole in order to identify the characteristics/patterns of the subjects and as a way to “get to know” the company’s “typical” customer on a more intimate level so that the company may make better operational decisions to fit the majority of their customer’s needs and wants.
This was a somewhat controversial item because, in my group at least, half of the anthropologists disagreed with the effectiveness of a personas. The argument was that personas are just characters, and although they are developed from real anthropological research, they are still fictional. Those who supported this viewpoint suggested that the actual research data should be reported to the companies in lieu of persona (confidentiality protected of course). After all, why should someone make up a fictional person when real living people had been studied and could serve as [more valid] representatives? They believed that the clients should view the data of the real consumers in order to get the most effective results.
I certainly understood the viewpoint of those anthropologists that supported presenting the actual data rather than a representative character, however, I personally support the viewpoint of the companies/researchers that use personas. I’ve heard, and although I have no first-hand experience with clients consulting with me for usability research, and from the explanations provided from the Copenhagen research companies I visited, I believe that personas are an important and effective mode of communication of the data from the researcher to the client. The reason I take this stance is that companies, and more importantly the executives with the ability to commission such research, usually have absolutely no time, or often desire, to read some long drawn report of findings or statistics. This is why they hire consultants to do the research so that they may gain the intimate understanding of their customers without having to expend their non-existent time researching it themselves. There are critical pieces of that data that they do need to take the time to review and I’m not saying they need not receive a full report of the research results, however, having a persona allows them to “get the point”, so to speak, of who exactly their typical target customer is and what their needs and frustrations are, in a very brief amount of time. And I believe the reality is that many of the executives will not read the full research reports because of time, disinterest, or other factors and therefore making the efforts of the whole project useless because without implementation it becomes only interesting [but operationally ineffective] information. As an Office Manager for a non-profit organization, I certainly understand, from experience, the lack of time available to do this research, even though it would significantly impact the quality of the operations or client services. Furthermore, personas are an easy tool to communicate research results to employees.
As a side note, the EPIC participants were able to visit multiple that do usability/business research projects. Copenhagen has many of them and they are highly respected. The ones I visited did projects for the Denmark hospital system, police force, and a variety of other organizations. There was also a wide variety of company types/projects that these companies were hired to do research for. That says to me there is great hope for the future of this type of research.