The User is Always Right

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Reviewed by Will Evans – the first of several guest reviews to come on the DRB. See the end of the review for Will’s bio.

The User Is Always Right: A Practical Guide to Creating and Using Personas for the Web is a comprehensive guide approaches user experience research like never before, and is well-written, easy-to-read, and quite user friendly.

The book provides real-world examples of how user research is done in just enough detail that it can both inform an executive of the role of usability research as well as introduce methodology for persona creation to someone starting out in user experience design.

“You are not the user”

As an interaction designer and information architect for the past 12 years, I have been most drawn towards books that go far beyond principles and theory to ones I can actually extract from and use their contents for the praxis of the craft, rather than just reading descriptions of a process. This is a great book that is a blueprint to follow to get it right. It defines the entire user research and persona creation process and offers insightful case studies from successful companies that Mulder and Yaar worked with like Vista Print.

The use of personas has become an increasingly popular technique used by the interaction design community to address user needs. Introduced into the mainstream in 1999 in Alan Cooper’s The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity, personas have gained momentum in both the software and website design communities, but still face hurdles.

What is a persona anyway?

A persona is a fictional person that the team creates to reflect what is known about one of the key audience groups (sometimes that knowledge is gained from interviews, focus groups, or surveys). Typically, a team creates two or more personas to represent different user segments, while identifying a few key archetypes as the primary personas.

user_persona_1.jpg Helpful persona profiles include demographic information, levels of computer expertise; descriptions of the personas’ needs for the particular site in development; and the goals and tasks they would have in mind when using the site.

The User Is Always Right takes you through each step of persona creation, including tips for conducting qualitative user research, new ways to apply quantitative research (such as surveys) to persona creation, various methods for generating persona segmentation, and proven techniques for making personas realistic. You’ll also learn how to use personas effectively, from directing overall business strategy and prioritizing features and content to making detailed decisions about information architecture, content, and design.

What are the benefits of personas?

An important aspect to any practitioner responsible for bringing real user centered design to an organization’s product design process is being able to evangelize the importance of user research and persona creation.

Many interaction designers understand the importance of persona creation, but lack the arguments to persuade management to both fund user research and persona creation, and to incorporate real users into the design process.

This is where the book is particularly important – selling proper user research and persona creation to upper management constrained by resources and deadlines. According to Mulder and Yaar, personas bring many benefits, including these:

  • Users’ goals, behaviors and attitudes become a common point of focus for the team. (They keep repeating this mantra until I found myself chanting it in the shower)
  • The team can concentrate on designing for a manageable set of personas knowing that they represent the needs of many users.
  • By always asking, “Would Will use this?” the team can avoid the trap of building what users ask for rather than what they will actually use, or the problem which is far more pernicious – building features that a product champion thinks are important.
  • Design efforts can be prioritized based on the personas.
  • Disagreements over design decisions can be sorted out by referring back to the personas.
  • Designs can be constantly evaluated against the personas, getting better designs into usability testing.

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Summary

The User Is Always Right is an entertaining and clearly written book that is also filled with great insight into the process, both qualitative, and quantitative, of creating user personas based on real research and how that can help interaction designers, product designers, and other user experience professionals make more usable and useful software.

There are also extensive samples and examples throughout the book of real personas, actual user research data, and analysis spreadsheets. These give a very clear idea of how the recommended approaches work in practice.

For the first time (as far as I’m aware), this brings together two very different approaches: qualitative research based on interviews and observation; and quantitative research based on surveys and usage data. The authors’ overall methodology provides real answers on when to use field research, when to conduct surveys, and how to combine the two sets of results. The end product is personas that have much greater rigueur and impact.

In summary, this is a must-have book for people tackling the interaction design of complex sites, applications or devices, or for user-centered designers seeking more rigorous methodologies when creating personas. I cannot recommend this book too highly.

Once you have finished this book and have a little user research and persona creation under your belt, you are ready for Mike Kunievsky’s brilliant tome: Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research.

About the authors

Steve Mulder is principal consultant at Molecular. He’s a user experience expert who practices what he preaches, with over ten years of experience in user research, information architecture, interaction design, and usability.

Ziv Yaar is the vice president of Internet strategy at Molecular, where he has spent over ten years helping companies develop technology and business strategies and has been at the forefront of merging the power of marketing analytics with personas.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Buy The User is Always Right from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.de or the Designer’s Review of Books store.

About the reviewer

Will Evans is founder and Principal User Experience Architect for Semantic Foundry with 14 years industry experience in presentation layer and user experience design. His experiences includes directing user experience and information architecture for AIR Worldwide, UX Architect for web 2.0 social networking site Gather.com; and UX Architect responsible for information architecture and interaction design for Kayak.com. Although conspicuously absent from from the “intercoms”, as he puts it, he is quite a Twitterer.

About the author

Andy Polaine

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5 Comments

  • I love this book. A friend brought it in at a book share evening at the local UPA cluster and I absorbed it over the next hour. Overnight it demystified my understanding and changed my approach (much for the better) when it comes to creating personas.

    Along with Communicating Design (Dan Brown 2006) The User is Always Right is another great practical book that I’d highly recommend to anyone looking for practical reading in a design team.

  • Very good article! I used to work at an Internet company where we would let our female receptionist test all our brand new websites. It worked flawlessly, because she represented the “average” visitor perfectly! She told us what she didn’t like and we adjusted the designs to her needs. I can highly recommend a method like that!