about 3 years ago by Claudia Matera

Personas: The User-Centered Approach Within Technology


Around four years ago, I was working in a research lab at a university designing and developing interactive and intelligent objects for educational purposes. Our main aim was to provide a digital experience for the audiences, as a way to explore works of art, navigate images and link and play with objects and concepts.

I was working on an interactive table for a Museum and my senior asked me to work on the personas. I didn’t reply immediately at his question as I was trying to think about what he was asking me to do. “Personas” didn’t mean anything to me at that time, I just thought “I like this Latin sound, a touch of old fashion in new tech, maybe?”.

At that specific phase, we were working on the design of the interactive table after many focus groups with the targeted audiences and my head was full of “kids have to explore the Museum” or “accessibility! Accessibility is the word!” or “we want to increase our international exposure” and “What about young people? What about people with disabilities? What are we going to develop for them?”. I went to sleep with all these voices running in my head and I dreamed of a soft Museum made with candyfloss full of extremely bizarre objects: cars without handles, umbrellas made in stone, teapots with holes at the bottom, galoshes open at the top of the feet… All useless objects: the car was inaccessible, the umbrella too heavy, the tea was continuously dropping out from the pot and the feet were not protected at all by the galoshes. Everyone was complaining to me saying “accessibility! Accessibility is the word!”, “Why have you developed this useless stuff?”.

I woke up, drank an extremely strong espresso and started googling “personas” to clarify my mind.

I found out that a persona is a key design output commonly used in the Interaction Design, software design, as part of the user-centred approach, and in marketing as a fictional description of customers. The user-centred approach considers the user from many perspectives such as the behaviour, the habitat, the preferences based sometimes on the age (teenagers, for instance, are more likely to use interactive tech) or the type of devices.

Usually, we use the expression “user-centred approach” or design but it is also correct to use the word “ergonomics”. Ergonomics is an evidence-based scientific discipline that applies elements from many other disciplines such as physiology, anatomy, psychology, social sciences, statistics, engineering, design and organisational management to better understand the nature of human-technologies interactions and to ensure that a product or a service is perceived as a simple tool to use by people. In fact, rather than expecting people to adapt to a design that forces them to work in a stressful or uncomfortable way, ergonomists seek to understand how a product, a service, but also a workplace or a system, can be designed to suit the people that will use it.

It seems to be an easy task but, believe me, it is not because you need to understand and then to design for the variability represented by your audiences which sometimes is the global population, as it was in my case. So, to achieve the goal designers develop the personas as a way to describe a set of typical customers covering the range of age, cognitive ability, prior experience, cultural expectations and goals.

This memory came up while talking with a candidate for a User Researcher role within the public sector reflecting on the importance of developing appropriate personas during the design phase of software.

We agreed that usually we don’t notice good design unless it is spectacular, but we do notice poor design because of its impact. For instance, if you get lost at the airport it could be for poor signage or if you cannot purchase online tickets it could be for incomprehensible instructions to follow. Both are bad customer experiences caused by poor design.

Within the public sector, the user-centred approach is a key component in designing good services for customers. In healthcare, for instance, designers are working with clinicians, managers and IT specialists to improve communications and ensure that teams of doctors and nurses work together to make effective decisions and reduce the likelihood of harm.

So, personas give a concrete sense of the potential users of a product, a service, a system or a place providing useful details about customers to designers and developers.

This article was written by Claudia Matera, PhD, a Consultant at The Difference Engine TM.  Claudia is passionate about technology, the arts, non-formal education and is very particular about her espresso!  

The stretched "car" that you can see in the accompanying blog photo is a sculpture called UFO (2006) by Austrian artist Erwin Wurm.