listeningTo: some NFL show my husband is intently watching that I don’t care about…

inRealLife: I’ve been playing Destiny 2 on Xbox for a few months now, I’m not super good at it, but it is reeeeally fun. It’s also really stressful. Anyway, I need a break, so let’s talk about some personas, hm?

whatIReadThisWeek: I finished Dark Age! And it was fantastic. I powered through the entire final part last night and couldn’t stop. I’m undecided on what comes next, though I have been carrying around a (sort of) self-help how-to-be-more-productive book with me to the beach all summer and have yet to crack the spine, so, it may be time. (I can see it now: “how to be more productive? actually open this book…”)

Though I did not read it this week – at this point it’s been a few weeks back, actually – I do want to explore more about personas, which spun from a MoT Power Hour with Cassandra Leung.

whatILearnedThisWeek: I had a lot of takeaways from the Power Hour. I’ve wanted to delve into personas for a long time now, but I never had the time to devote to it or the support of the rest of the team to find that time. I think my site lends itself very naturally to identifying personas – we have different member types relating to the profession of the member, we have different levels of service relating to the size (and value) of the publishing house. At a minimum, I want to be identifying trends and shared behavior and start to define these better as a way to better understand how they may use the site, how they may break it, and how to prevent that from happening.

The first thing I learned was, really, what a persona is. My small understanding going into the Power Hour was exactly as I wrote above – different kinds of member types. It’s so much more, though, and much more important than gleaning behavior based on how a user identifies themselves. I never was sure how a persona even comes to be, but one of the responses indicated that the role usually falls on the UX designer. To a point, I do think UX is designing with many different “kinds” of users in mind, but, nothing is formal, UX, like me, is a team of one, and I’m sure all the personas, in any varying degree, just live inside his head and come out from time to time when he’s stuck on a design.

The other interesting points made are about diversity, brevity, and edge cases.

There were a few comments and questions about how diverse personas should be. We have a lot of data on our users, but not much insight into how diverse they are. One poster wondered about simply leaving gender, race, and age out of personas all together, as a way to not apply any biases. Leung, though, recommended against this. In her opinion, there will always be an implicit bias and we, as humans, will always fill in those gaps even if they’re not there. It’s better to define the things that make each persona diverse and be aware of where the gaps or assumptions are.

One of the most intriguing points was the questions about how detailed personas should be. I did not get to post a question before the Power Hour began, but one thing in the back of my mind that led me to reading the thread was exactly that – what do these personas even look like? How detailed should they be? Should they be vague to encompass more users? Should they be very detailed and pointed to hit at our exact user? As I said, I wasn’t alone, and there were a few questions that were similar. In one response, Leung suggests:

I find it much more helpful to get straight to the point of why a piece of information might be useful.

I love this advice – not only for persona writing, of which I still have no experience doing – but also just for testing in general. (Hell, just for life in general, right?) I reflected a lot on this when musing about proposing a persona-writing project, but also this week, as I’ve been writing and rewriting and rewriting test steps – is this useful, or is it fluff? (Hey, another topic to write about in the future, I’ve read a loooooot about “to automate or not to automate”).

More concrete advice, however, did come later. Leung recommends starting off small when writing a persona. Pretend you’re writing the user’s Twitter bio or dating profile, not autobiography. As the persona grows and can benefit from more information and detail, add it, but it is not necessary to start. I love this advice as well. It makes starting a persona project like this from scratch much less daunting.

And, finally, edge cases. We have a lot of these. In fact, I have never heard the phrase “edge case” until I started working here, and now I use it probably three times a day. If they’re all edge cases, are any of them? (Deep)…

Personas are there to remind us of our users, and if we are reminded that we are excluding some people, then we should be reminded. 

Sure, we’re being more detailed by including all our edge casers, but, they can be brief! Let’s just acknowledge they exist, give them a cute Twitter bio, and rest easy knowing we didn’t leave anyone out in the cold.

whatIAmThinkingAbout: My wheels have been turning ever since reading this thread originally. I want to do this project, I want to find the time to persona-fy my users and I want to discover how they break the site.

I think my first attempt will be just that – to try and identify the bad eggs. We have so much data, we even have reports that are updated daily with a list of our “unusual” users (they’re bad, let’s be real) so support can monitor their behavior. Maybe they just don’t know how to use the site. I know how to use the site – I know how to use the site in a creepy kind of way (seriously, if you need to know anything at all about how even the most obscure feature works, I’m your girl). What don’t I know? How to break the site! Getting into the minds of these users, taking the time to think about and write their personas, will allow me to see things through their eyes and can only benefit my testing strategy.

We started planning a new feature a few years ago – I think just over dinner at a Hack-a-Thon – about tiering our members. The idea was our best members would be rewarded for being the best (get access to new books sooner, get a badge, etc), our average users would continue to grind along as they always do, maybe see some incentive to strive for to become a top tier member, and our poor users would be punished (that’s harsh, I don’t think that’s the word we used) and maybe have access to less titles, or have a cap on how many titles they can try to get access to from the publishers. Anyway, that project was abandoned for many reasons, but not after hours of brainstorming about what the criteria for each tier would be. Now, I’m not the most organized person, sure, but I’m one hell of a note-taker and I know I have those tiers defined somewhere. What better place to start identifying different personas than from work that someone else already did?! (Sure, not helpful to my fellow DIY testers, but, as I said, I’m here to learn from and I’m happy to share the work that someone else did to you, too)…

recommendationsAndTakeAways: I’m gunna do it! I’ll report back. I need to find a block of time that I can devote to some heavy thinking and planning, which is few and far between, but maybe this how-to-be-productive book will give me some good guidelines on how to get shit done. I’m ready.

As for recommendations, well, apart from reading the Power Hour thread, I suggest pausing and thinking about how to break your site. Could you do it? Can you get in the heads of those bad users? If you can, I’m jealous. If not, have fun trying to break it!

2 thoughts on “personas

  1. On personas: I test specialist timetabling software for universities. So in my test databases, I use a lot of personas, which simply started out with my thinking “I need x students and y lecturers, and where’s the fun in just calling them ‘Student 1’, ‘Student 2’ etc.?”

    So my staff are all characters from the Culture novels of the late Iain M. Banks and the students are all characters from the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake. This immediately gives you not only names, but the whole range of personalities and possible diversity profiles. (Though given that I need more students than lecturers, if I’d thought about it more I’d have done it the other way around as there’s more characters in the Culture novels.)

    Still, it has enabled me to start with a name and then fill in further details as the testing demands it, without having to think too hard to make stuff up about my personas. What’s more, a degree of consistency is guaranteed. If you choose some of your favourite fictional characters, you’ll never be at a loss as to their identities or their character traits, and indeed you may even be able to visualise them, adding a different dimension to your testing. And it has the added advantage that if any of your test material ever escapes into Real Life, no-one will be able to accuse you of using personal data for test purposes. After all, how many people do you know IRL who are called Cheradanine Zakalwe or Shohobahaum Za?


    1. This is a fantastic idea, thank you for sharing. You’re making coming up with testing personas sound so enticing now, I appreciate it 🙂 Now to obsess endlessly on what favorite fictional characters I want to make use of…


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