Personas without storytelling – nothing more than expensive wallpaper?

The project team was gathered in the project room. Every wall was covered with pictures of people that represented different user groups for the system they were about to build.

- They are called Personas, the project manager announced, and they will guide us through the development of this new school web. I’ll read one of them out loud in order for you to get to know our presumed users better; she said and cleared her throat standing next to a picture of a young woman.

“Lisa is 32 years old. She is a teacher and lives in a small house just outside Gothenburg together with her husband, their two kids and a full grown Golden Retriever. She uses the school website to communicate with her students and their parents. Functionality needed for Lisa on the school web: be able to produce a weekly letter, place reviews on each student. Quotation for Lisa: “Quick but wrong.”

Dean, one of the developers, stared at the picture of “Lisa” and said.

- What’s with the dog?
- The dog? The project manager said.
- Yeah, why is the dog important? He continued.
- Well, the dog doesn’t really matter here… But it characterizes the Lisa persona better, gives her flesh and bones, the project manager answered gruffly.

The new school web was developed during one year. “Lisa” and the other personas hung in the project room during the whole project. Hung there like an expensive wall paper that no one noticed.

Would Lisa have a different impact on the project team if her whereabouts were described from a storytelling perspective? Let’s say the project manager instead read this out loud:

”The school bell rings for the morning break. Lisa makes sure all of her students are out of the classroom before she heads off to the teacher’s room. Today is her last chance to place reviews of her students. She is lucky. The only computer in the room is free for once. She logs on using her electronic id and sees the start page of the school web. She clicks on the heading “class list” and sees the names of all the students in her class. The list view doesn’t say if a review has been placed or not. She clicks on the name Alice and sees that she has already given her a review. Continues to Oliver. No data is shown for Oliver. She writes a short review about his achievements. On her way back to the classroom she realizes that she once again forgot to specify that the review concerned “fall 2011”. And once again there will be at least one parent complaining about not finding his child’s review at the parents’ meeting tonight.”

Think about what effect you want your persona to have. Are all the parts of the persona presentation really relevant for the system you are building? Is it important to know that Lisa has a dog? Or is it enough that she is frustrated at work? By telling the story behind the user, the whole project team will be able to visualize her situation and come up with possible ways to solve her problems.

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