Whenever I pick up a book dealing with design, I wonder just who the target audience is: Is the book meant for graphic designers, programmers, project managers, or for someone well established in the HCI profession? If it’s geared toward practitioners, is it for beginners, seasoned professionals, both, or somewhere in between? From the tone of its title, I guessed that The User is Always Right: A Practical Guide to Creating and Using Personas on the Web targets a broad audience. This book gives examples of some of the most successful methods of creating personas and describes them in an accessible way. Seasoned professionals might not find this book so useful, but everyone else will welcome much of the content. However, even seasoned professionals need accessible words to describe what they do, and this book is a good addition to the practitioner’s arsenal. It presents a convincing argument for the place of personas in Web development and software development in general.
Steve Mulder and Ziv Yaar have impressive credentials that add weight to their book. They have worked with many major clients over the years to develop and fine-tune the methodology they present. Mulder is the principal consultant in the user-experience group at Molecular, an Internet consulting firm located in Boston. He’s an Internet old-timer and has spent years with Lycos and Razorfish. Yaar is also at Molecular, where he has worked for the past 10 years. Currently the vice-president of Internet strategy, he has experience working with several Fortune 500 companies, exploring how to put the Web to work for them.
Despite the authors’ credentials, I still found the book’s title a bit presumptuous, especially for our profession, where "it depends" is a frequently used maxim. When Mulder and Yaar make the pronouncement that "the user is always right," a part of me wants to scream back, "It depends!" That aside, the book certainly lives up to being "a practical guide to creating and using personas on the Web." The authors discuss three methods for creating personas and provide real-world examples of their use. In one example, they recount how a client was able to streamline and optimize its site content. The personas they developed revealed that an important target user group had little use for the detailed customization features that the client thought were critical. Personas effectively demonstrated that a feature set presumed to be important would actually be a nuisance to target users.
Since this book is about personas and how they embody target audiences, who exactly is the target audience for this book, the persona the authors had in mind while they were writing? From my read, it seems pretty obvious that the book is intended not only for HCI professionals, but also for the project managers or development managers they work with. The book certainly provides some good information for the professional who has been using personas for a while, such as how to use quantitative research to help support and even shape the qualitative aspects of creating personasbut it may disappoint if you are too advanced. No matter what your experience with personas, this book is great for passing on to coworkers who might need to better understand the use and benefit of developing personas. Project or development managers who are striving to improve the user experience of their product are sure to find techniques that can help. The book is simple and clear in its presentation of information, helping the reader to understand which methods might be best in their environment. It is helpful, even for readers who have never used personas before, or for those who are just looking for tips on how to do customer interviews.
The book opens with a cartoon illustrating how easily stakeholders can mistake their personal beliefs for customer beliefs. I feared that the use of a cartoon signaled that the book might not treat the topic with the gravity it deserves. We all know that this is an important subject in HCI, and we have all experienced the challenges of convincing stakeholders to take seriously the study of what customers really want instead of just assuming that they themselves are or perfectly understand the target audience. This understanding is crucial in so many different facets of designing the user experience, and a cartoon just doesn’t emphasize this well enough. Fortunately, this topic is revisited later in the book, and the authors do a much better job the second time around.
As they describe it, the authors designed this book to read like one of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books you might have enjoyed in your youth. Even if the choices aren’t presented directly at the end of each page, you don’t have to read straight through this bookyou can pick and choose the content that fits your situation right now. The book starts out by making a good case for the helpfulness of personas to many situations. Once readers reach chapter 4, they can choose whether to further explore qualitative research, quantitative research, or a combination of the two. The flow of the book, however, is hampered by constant references to snippets the user has not yet read, making it difficult to concentrate on the information being presented at the moment. I certainly understand the need at certain times to allow the reader to choose the new path, but these references, especially in the first section, are too much of a distraction.
Each subsequent section focused on a technique for harvesting customer-driven data. The authors present qualitative techniques first, followed by techniques that blend qualitative and quantitative research. The reader can read straight through to gain a better understanding of how qualitative and quantitative techniques can be used to support each other. After dealing with research techniques, the authors proceed to arm the reader with tools for making personas more realistic and to keep them alive and thriving. This content should be well-received, because keeping personas fresh is a difficulty for many, and stale personas make it easier for stakeholders to ignore the customer needs they point to.
The detail and examples throughout the book really help take personas out of the abstract and into a more realistic place in the software-development process. Though this book says that it is for Web-based projects, many of the techniques described here, such as creating segments for your persona population, interview methods, and survey building, are all just as applicable in any user-experience design setting. These tools, and the emphasis that the person in charge of the user experience, no matter who they are, is not the target audience, can help teams in many disciplines develop and deliver products that meet the customers’ wants and needs. The overall structure of the book and its concept of compartmentalizing based on what an audience may need trumps the artifacts that also result from this structure.
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Reviewed by David Broschinsky
About the Reviewer
David Broschinsky is the founding partner of Usable Patterns, based in Salt Lake City, Utah. He has worked as a designer in several diverse industries, such as project management, systems management, and airlines reservations systems. He has been using personas for his designs since 1996 and designing Web-based solutions since 1998. He enjoys doing volunteer work for both ACM and his local Computer Society chapter. Dave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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