Personas In the Wild

If you've been around software product management long enough, you've encountered the concept of "personas," which are fictional characters that represent types of system users. I've used those from time to time to distill user requirements and to keep myself, and my team, focused on our users.

When I was a team lead at NCR developing software for self-service checkout machines, there were a few personas I'd use, but there was one in particular that I'd mention to my team whenever a UI design got too complicated, or an interaction took too long, or an error condition couldn't be handled quickly. Here's what I'd tell them:

"Think of a mother who has to use our self-checkout system. She has a baby on one hip, possibly crying. She has a whiny toddler clinging to one of her legs. All she wants to do is BUY HER BASKET OF GROCERIES, PAY FOR THEM, AND GET OUT OF THE STORE! She doesn't care about our elegant UX, our carefully curated color scheme, the clever wording of our error messages, the subtle animations that play on each screen transition, or the vagaries of network latency. In fact, if she doesn't notice anything at all about our software, we've done her a huge favor."

While personas are useful, they risk becoming a bit too detached, a bit too theoretical, if you aren't out in the field watching users try to make sense of your software.

Once, after having given the example of the persona I described above to many teams over many years, I was on a site visit to a superstore in Christchurch, New Zealand, helping with a deployment of self-scanning devices. One of the developers from our team in Hyderabad was there as well. We were watching customers come into the store, take a scanner, and walk around scanning items for themselves.

I turned away for a moment, and the developer, Dheeraj, punched me in the arm and said, "Hey, Paul, there she is! Look!"

I whirled around, expecting that maybe Jacinda Ardern had popped in to do a bit of shopping, but no, Dheeraj was pointing toward a young mother with — you guessed it — a baby on her hip and a whiny toddler clinging to one leg. She stopped at the bank of scanners, selected one, and went about selecting and scanning her items.

It was a happy moment for me, not just to see that persona actually use a product, but also to know that another developer on the team had made the same connection and had the presence of mind to spot her.

If you've never been out "in the wild" watching your users actually use your products, beg your employer for the chance to do so. No amount of theorizing and speculation can replace the experience.