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The Usability Blog
A Practical Guide to User Experience Insights

Website Personas: A Practitioner’s Guide – Training: Applying the Mental Model to Design Decisions (5 of 7)

Training in the mental model and its application to design decisions leverages the persona investment and maximizes its value, not only for the website but across all digital touch points. Training is often the most challenging part of the process, since it is rarely included in the conventional (read Forrester) approach to persona development. It is, however, the most rewarding part of the process and, when executed effectively, delivers the greatest payback. Since the training ties everything together for the design team, it is best conducted as immersive, experiential learning. The event should be run by a qualified facilitator. Optimally, the facilitator will have been intimately involved with the research and creation of the personas. If that is not the case, it is still worth the effort to bring in a training expert to help structure the event and keep it on track. The length and structure of the training depends on the usual variables: the number of participants, the number of personas, the time and budget available, the geographic distribution of the team members. Typically, the event lasts two days. It is unquestionably more effective if it is off-site and with all the participants in the same room. (We have conducted sessions in which team members participated remotely. It is better than not participating, but is nowhere near as effective.) The training works best when the team represents the gamut of digital disciplines: site architects, graphic designers, CMS, SEO, in-site search, merchandisers, social media specialists, everyone. In multi-channel organizations, it is also beneficial to have team members from non-digital channels – store, call center, inside sales, etc. Multi-disciplinary perspectives make for more effective interaction during team exercises, which make up the majority of the training time.

Day 1: Internalizing

After the usual introductions, logistics walk-through, project background and objectives setting, the facilitator will introduce the mental model. The participants will then do the only individual exercise of the event – they will use an example from their own life to illustrate the way the model works. They will then take turns presenting their personal models to the rest of the team. (This is invariably a fascinating and surprising half-hour.) Here are a couple of the more memorable examples I can recall. From a male graphic designer …

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From a female brand strategist …

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The variety of subjects, the humorous or emotional takes, and the repetition of the sequence helps the individual participants internalize the model and sets up the team exercises that follow. Next, the facilitator walks the team through an example, using the persona deliverable. The facilitator will have taken three different colored highlighters and marked up one of the persona sheets to highlight beliefs (anything that completes the sentence I think that/ I feel that/ I assume that …) behaviors, and experiences. The participants then form teams, with each team allocated a persona to study. They will parse the text for their persona and from that exercise build mental models of what they consider to be their personas’ attitudinal and behavioral keys. This exercise will take up the remainder of the morning. It is worth the time, since it is the kernel of the learning. The afternoon session opens with the team taking turns to present their conclusions to their peers. Their “audience” is encouraged to challenge these conclusions and make the presenting teams defend and explain their thinking. This process refines and clarifies the mental models. These are the sorts of models that emerge from the session. A financial analyst persona …

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Team discussion moves these models ever closer to the team’s design challenges as they begin to reflect the realities of user experiences on the current site. In the next example, we see, therefore, how a negative experience (keyed by “however” in red text below) changes a persona’s operating belief and results in modified behavior.

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Once the team members start thinking within the framework of this cause-and-effect loop, it becomes second nature. All sorts of previously unrelated pieces of user intelligence become part of a cohesive map of the user mind. The personas become real, understandable, and therefore predictable in a way never previously possible. Here’s an example going back to the Coupon Queen from our earlier blog post. When a shopping cart feature on a retail website times out, the experience (again keyed by the red text) leads to consequent changes in attitude and behavior that cost the retailer her business.

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The teams will typically generate between three and five of these scenarios by the end of the first day, though they will add to or modify them throughout the training (and into the weeks following as new insights emerge). The models are taped high on the walls, so that everyone can access them instantly during the remainder of the training. They are transcribed later, as part of the event deliverable.

Day Two: Applying the learning

Armed with these models, the team then starts to apply them to the task of redesigning the website. This exercise can be conducted within different frameworks, depending on the circumstances. If the team comes armed with a long list of design ideas, the process can be as direct as submitting each item for persona feedback. The teams representing each persona give separate critiques of the design ideas, explaining for each instance exactly why they feel or think as they do. Persona decisions are definitive. If the team has not yet produced a list of design ideas, the best way to proceed is to go through a “brand promise” exercise. The team this time splits into just two groups. Each group lays out their own understanding of the brand’s promise and then presents their ideas to the others. They then create a consolidated brand promise. From that point, they ask how the various aspects of the brand promise will be delivered within the context of the website experience. A multi-channel retailer might, for example, have convenience as part of its brand promise. Delivering on the promise of convenience is an altogether different proposition on a website from what it is in a store or a customer service center. “Contextualization” exercises, sent through the prism of the personas, provide the design team with a clear, well-defined roadmap along which to drive the redesign effort. Whether the team works on a prepared features list or generates brand promise experiences on the fly, the output should reflect accurately the personas’ responses. Here is an example of the type of detail you can expect. The illustration describes the different types of video content to which each of six personas for a youth-oriented recruiting website would respond. (The site is depicted as an “astronaut training” to disguise the actual site. The motivations have been omitted for reasons of readability on a single slide. See what inferences you can make.)

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The final session of the training is typically a fun wrap-up. The design team brainstorms all the ways in which they can bring the personas to life and keep them active within the decision-making process. Here, again, are some of the most memorable:

  • Provide them email addresses and include them on the distribution list for all review and decision-making materials. Have the team members who represented each persona respond formally to the reviews.
  • Build life-size cardboard cut-outs of each persona and hang them on the meeting room walls (or bring them to every brainstorming or review meeting and give them seats at the table).
  • Have T-shirts made with the persona’s likeness on the front and their key attitudes listed down the back.
  • Create Facebook pages for them. Post photos that show other aspects of their life. Post their role in decisions and solicit comment from Friends.
  • Use the personas to submit budget requests. Explain from the personas’ perspectives the need for and benefit from making the investment.

The ideas can quickly get radical. But the exercise reinforces the point – don’t leave the personas in the classroom. Make them a continuing part of the team, the conversation, and the decisions. They are (expensive) assets like any other employee. Put them to work.

– Roger Beynon, CSO, Usability Sciences

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