Why Personas and Scenarios Matter in User Experience Design

Why does user experience design depend on understanding users and their scenarios? Because it’s just like buying a house.

User Experience DesignEvery once in a while, I’ll be working with a client on a UI design and they’ll get tired of me badgering them with questions about the application’s users, goals, mental models, and scenarios. It’s easy to tell when my client has got to that point because they usually say something like, “Can’t we just put a grid on the page and move on?”

I do sympathize and I feel obliged to stop and explain to my clients why I can’t simplify the process and make their users happy. If you’re having the same problem with the people you work with, here’s the analogy that I use with my clients: Designing a user interface is like buying a house.

I begin my analogy by asking my client if any of his co-workers has a house that he’d prefer to have. I ask my client to use, as a test case, someone in the office much older or younger than they are. If my client is married, I ask for a co-worker who’s single, and vice versa. After that test question, I then ask whether my client would like to have the house that the head of the company has (the usual response is “I wish! But I couldn’t afford that place”). With that groundwork in place, I launch into my spiel.

Demographics and Life Style

If I was a real estate agent, I say, and looking for a house for a family with four children, I’d better look for a very different house than a house that will suit a young couple with no children. Even if I know that the family has four children, much will depend on how old the children are. A family with four children, none of whom are older than ten, needs a different home than a family that also has four children but whose youngest child is sixteen.

But not all young couples without children are alike. Even once I know that I’m looking for a house for a young couple, I’ll want to know if the couple eats out a lot or if one or the other (or both) love to cook. I’ll ask if they’re homebodies who, at night, want to curl up together in front of their home entertainment or if they expect to go out every night looking for the next hot club. Perhaps, rather than going out, they entertain frequently and love having lots of friends over?

There’s just as much variation among the families with children, I point out. Some families (not mine!) are physically active and have lots of sports gear. Other families (like mine) are digitally oriented and need to support every electronic entertainment device in the world. The first family needs a big garage; my family needs a den we can exile the children to. Much also depends on the children’s social network. Does the family have gregarious children with lots of friends or does each child just have a few BFFs? Does the family want a garden? Room to put up a climber in the backyard? Does the yard need to be fenced because the family has a dog?

And any good realtor will want to know about the buyer’s personal preferences in a house: Are the buyers looking for something with “charm” (whatever that is)? Or do they want something that looks hip and modern? Do they prefer the country or the city? How do they feel about living in the suburbs?

There are No Constants

In all of these decisions, is there anything that’s constant across all of the houses?

The house must have a roof…unless, of course, it’s a condo and on the fourth floor of a twenty story building. A house must have walls…but some buyers will be looking for an open concept design while others will want something more “cozy.” For exterior walls, some buyers will want as much glass as possible to let in light; others will want to secure their privacy.

You can count on building codes making certain things essential about every house but, quite frankly, those requirements are almost invisible to a homeowner. While buyers will want to know if there are enough electrical outlets in the kitchen, they won’t care about the electrical codes any more than my clients care about the SOLID principles of programming. And, quite honestly, even those building code requirements will vary from one location to another (where I live, for example, houses don’t need to be designed to deal with earthquakes or floods).

If the house has two floors you will, of course, need some way for people to get from the first floor to the second…but what’s the best way to do that? Is it a stairway? Or is it, as in many Dutch houses, something more like a ladder? How about a spiral staircase to conserve floor space? Is one of the family members unable to climb stairs and going to need a lift installed (wouldn’t it be great if the house already had one)?

You might think that, surely, a house has to have a front and a back. That’s true…but the purpose of the front and the back will vary depending on where the house is. Most houses, of course, put their front on the street that you drive on to get to the house. But a house on the seashore will present a boring back to the street and orient its real front to the sea.

Finally, of course, money matters. That will, of course, be affected by how much money the buyers have (and how much they can borrow and what they can get from any existing house they might sell). But how the house fits into the buyers’ life affects the purchase price. Is this a home for a family that wants to put most of its money into “life experiences” and traveling? Or into savings for their kids’ education? Is this a second home, a rental property, or a vacation home — those are all very different houses.

I would wrap up by telling my client “And that’s why I have to know about who’s using the application before I can make an effective UI.” However, my client has usually wandered off by then. But the good news is that they’ll never ask the question again because they’re afraid I’ll start this speech again. It turns out that I’m OK with that.

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