How to Boost UX with Persona Research: An Interview with Nellie LeMonier

[interview]
Summary:

Nellie LeMonier shares firsthand experience with persona research and why its time and cost are well worth everyone's effort. By making sure that everyone is on board with persona research and is aware of its importance, you will help ensure that your project's UX is truly something special.

Noel : I've been focusing a lot on the UX lately, mainly because it feels like so many companies have bumped the UX of their website or mobile app higher up their ladder of importance. I think users are expecting more out of software these days, and I'm wondering if persona research could be the key to really nailing that perfect UX. Why would companies think they didn't have time for this research—or worse, that they "already know enough about their users," as you state? This seems like a horrible error to make!

Nellie : During the process of hiring a new UX manager for my group I asked the candidates how they did their research to back up their persona hypothesis, and I was shocked to learn that at least three out of four said they did no research for various reasons. This prompted me to ask your same questions and inspired me to conduct a survey of UX practitioners. The results are posted here: wp.me/p1zgeU-T, and under question 8 I added all the reasons people cited. If you have the time, please read through these. I think it boils down to fear and lack of experience or understanding of research methods and the knowledge that can be uncovered. The main thing I want people to take away from my talk is that research is important and you should not develop a product without it.

Noel : Your abstract for your session "A UX Strategy for Persona Research" mentions that persona research can often be done in as little as two weeks. That sounds very fast! What are some of the ways that this can be accomplished this quickly?

Nellie : When your development team is nimble, quick, and ready to start coding, they don't have time to wait for your research results, so we can't afford to be slow in UX, either. The way to achieve quick results is to be very focused on what you want to find out. Once you have a solid hypothesis for a product persona, you find two or three people that match the profile and interview each one for an hour or so about their daily tasks, their skills, background, and what's important to them. These interviews validate that the persona you envision actually does the tasks you think they do and you're not completely off. Plus, you'll learn a lot more about the users than you may expect. During my presentation I speak about a case study where one of my colleagues reworked the product personas in a two-week period and gave the team a significant amount of details that they did not have about the type of users for which they were developing.

Noel : You presented this session at the 2013 Agile Development/Better Software Conference West. Does persona research have a special place in agile development? Are there any specific strategies that should be used when incorporating persona research with agile?

Nellie : There are a number of strategies and each should be adjusted to the needs of the project and team. Quantitative methods such as user surveys can be good to identify key path use cases or priorities of features to users. For more detailed information, I've been successful at doing one-hour sessions with existing or prospective users where I provide an overview of the product, demo current functionality, and conduct a Q&A session to validate that the need we're trying to address is perceived as a success.

Noel : I noticed where you also mention the need to ensure that "your research results are shared throughout the software team so that everyone has a common understanding of what your users care about." That level of communication, collaboration, and knowledge sharing is such an agile undertaking. Have you ever seen where this sharing falls short, and what are the dangers of not making sure everyone is on the same page?

Nellie : If we do the research and come up with personas and only the designers know who the personas are, then we haven't shared our findings. If only designers and developers know who the personas are but marketing and sales are not in the loop, then our right arm and left arm aren't "speaking," so to speak. My happiest moment in the development of the last set of personas was when I shared them with the marketing department and the head of corporate marketing said, "Wow, these are great, can I have a copy to put up on my wall?" That is good, because now I'm confident we all have a shared understanding of who's going to use our product.

Noel : Lastly, when I was thinking about your session, especially in regards to mobile apps: Do you feel like the current propensity for mobile device users to download and quickly delete their apps can make persona research a hard sell? Or can persona research be done so quickly, and even cheaply, that even with an app that may not be guaranteed to last forever, are the odds for success so much stronger with that research that the research should never be undervalued?

Nellie : I wouldn't think about it in terms of the type of application, but rather the amount of effort involved in developing your application. If you are going to spend a significant amount of time in development, you owe it to yourself to spend at least a fraction of that time validating the users and their needs.

 

A user experience researcher and designer since 1998, Nellie LeMonier began her career at Accenture working with clients in diverse industries—from high-tech emerging e-commerce companies to replacement systems for low-tech welfare programs. Currently at Perforce Software, Nellie passionately designs user experiences that align with customers’ mental models. When not doing things UX, Nellie participates on the board of directors of the Breast Cancer Emergency Fund (bcef.org), a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that provides quick and compassionate financial assistance to people undergoing breast cancer treatment.

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