Things what I writ

I sometimes write nonsense about things to try and sound clever

Get personal with personas

“Tim is 44. He likes to create engaging experiences for users, and will spend far too long on the tiniest detail that he thinks makes a subtle difference.”

On this scale he rates highly. On this scale he rates pretty low.

Hopefully, what motivates Tim and determines his relationship with company X, happens to be something that company X happens to be releasing in the next version of product Y.

This places Tim on a matrix that fits in the bottom corner of the page we don’t know what to fill with.”

Persona pitfalls

If this sounds familiar, then you’ve also been on one of those projects where the creation of personas are merely a tick a box in the project plan, and not seen as an opportunity to really understand customer behaviours and motivations, to represent them as accurately as possible throughout the development of a product or service.

Tick box personas are worse than useless. They’re actually anti-personas; nominally a reflection of stakeholder expectations that woefully misrepresents real users.

But let’s be clear. Creating personas that enrich understanding, and guide our design principles is notoriously difficult, even allowing for due diligence on researching users and understanding:

  • behaviours
  • needs
  • motivations
  • peripheral influences
  • personalities
  • back stories

and so on. It takes time to develop, iterate and review personas. It requires a breadth of understanding and skill of interpretation that certainly I don’t pretend to have. I mean, I can create a persona in five minutes; but not a useful one.

Persona benefits

But if they’re done well, personas can really drive a design conversation. What I mean by that, since I just strayed in to slidespeak there, is that well-crafted personas help you understand and validate what’s important from a user’s perspective.

I recently spent some time with a colleague at Foolproof, Mara Protano, developing user journeys and sketching out concepts for a financial services client. Mara had invested a huge amount of effort in researching user types, identifying their experiences and motivations. This allowed her to design, refine, distil and validate a small set of personas that provided a clear reference for us as we began to consider scenarios and usage patterns.

These were proper personas, backed up by a room full of research, and they made a huge difference to the project. You can’t just populate a template and hope to be successful. You have to start with a blank canvas every time and be prepared to justify, argue, and back yourself up when challenged on your deliverables. With her depth of understanding, Mara was able to do this with confidence and clarity whenever we questioned our assumptions.

Persona development can be contradictory. We use personas to validate and stress-test user journeys, scenarios, navigation models and so on, but we often don’t stress-test the personas themselves to see if they withstand scrutiny.

Go persona yourself

To illustrate just how hard it is to create meaningful personas, and how easy it is for them to misrepresent, try this: create a set of personas for your own family (including pets), and then give them to someone who doesn’t know you. Ask them to draw a picture of your family and give it to somebody else who doesn’t know you. Then get that person to describe your family to you. It’s weird, but eye-opening. Imagine those individuals as, say, researcher, UX designer and creative designer, and you’ll see how easily poorly executed personas break down.

Meeting Dave Gray

Dave Gray 1
dave gray 1 by Tim Caynes

I mean, he had really important stuff to do, like meeting with people from banks and a summit or two to present at, but, you know, it would be nice to just kind of hang out.

This pretty much describes Dave. Insightful, artistic, clever and thoughtful, but more than anything, just a great guy to hang out with. So when Dave announced he was coming over to London, I thought there was probably a way we could facilitate some kind of meetup, whereby we could invite a few folks over for a bit of a chat.

After assuring Dave that yes, more than three people would turn up, I quickly set about the logistics of getting the thing set up and in a few hours, everything was in place.

Fireside chat

The first thing you notice about Dave is that not only is he larger than life, he’s larger in life. I’m pretty tall. Dave is taller. The second thing you notice is that he’s just so enthusiastic about everything.

We chatted about his time in London, we chatted about the venue, we took a few photos, we chatted about lenses, we looked out the window, we chatted about architecture and it’s place in modelling communities and behaviours. We chatted about lots of things. In fact, we just chatted until attendees started arriving, and then they joined the chat. And then more joined. And we had beer. And chatted some more.

And that really set the tone for the evening. I’d set myself up as some kind of compere, but really, it just turned into something of a fireside chat, with 30 friends. Dave and I sat at the front of the room and I occasionally acted the debate host and fielded questions, but for the next hour or so, it was really just about Dave meeting new faces and just, you know, hanging out.

Of course, we did cover a wide range of topics, including gamification, connected companies, UX strategy, best and worst experiences, most trusted methods, and some great tales of corporate workshops. I’ll go into more detail on those in later posts, so look out for messages about those.

We finished pretty much as we started – just chatting together in the loft as the cleaners tried to clean around us. As people said their goodbyes, it was extremely gratifying to hear how much they had enjoyed the evening, particularly the informal, open format. I had similar conversations at the UK UXPA careers event the week before. It’s so nice to come to event like this and just, you know, hang out.

Who wants to hang out?

A huge thank you to Dave for being so engaging and entertaining, and to Raj at Sense Worldwide for helping us out with the excellent Sense Loft. If I had to sum the evening up, I don’t think I could do it any better than the photo of Dave within this post. A great time was had by all.

Moments of simplicity in experience design

As you work through the complexity of a problem, sometimes you’re lucky enough to have a moment of simplicity. I call these, rather cleverly, ‘simplicity moments’. Moments that enable you to make the creative leap from the place where you are, toward a vision of the place you could be.

It’s not always a eureka moment. It might not change the world. But it’s a moment of clarity that helps set your course.

Rob and I recently worked with a financial services client. We all knew their online process, which supports their core business proposition, was a horrible mess. In fact, it was so broken that they had only been able to address basic usability issues as part of an improvement program.

They needed help to understand their problem, before they could even begin to scope out a solution. Over the following weeks, the client joined us in our offices to work together in mapping out the current process, identifying pain points and thinking about our approach (see our sketches in the photo, above).

We weren’t interested in defining the deliverables, just concerned with agreeing on the problem. As we edged closer to understanding it, we threw a few conceptual sketches together to provoke a conversation about where we might be headed. This was when we had the simplicity moment.

It wasn’t a eureka moment. It wasn’t going to change the world. But in an instant, looking at the concepts we’d come up with, we knew we’d made the creative leap. And the client agreed.

From that moment, our combined vision for the whole project was easy to articulate and sign up to. Most importantly, we could begin to execute on our vision with a shared understanding of our goals across the whole project team, client included.

The simplicity moment is a wonderful thing when it happens. But you have to create the right environment for it to happen. Our approach and thought process means we invest the effort in understanding the problem. You can’t make the leap without it, and believe we can do this most successfully through direct collaboration with our clients.

Expose yourself – design workshops in the real world

When I uploaded my slides from the recent IA Summit in Denver to slideshare, I had particular problems with uploading the speaker notes, which, still now, are not available. I’m a great believer in using simple slides as a visual enhancement to a spoken narrative, and so when those slides are posted on their own, there can be some strange interpretations.

In particular, I have one slide in that presentation which simply says ‘Expose Yourself’. On its own, it could be read as something of a mid-life crisis admission in a magistrates court, but in my defence (pun intended), it’s actually part of a series of slides that try to explain the benefits of opening the black box of design, to encourage collaboration with clients and stakeholders to maximise brain power and increase efficiency.

I recently worked on a project that had a quite specific definition of the design deliverables that were likely to be required, before we’d even understood the problems and thought about solutions. This sounds bad, but really, it isn’t. When we’re defining a statement of work that clients can agree to and sign off, especially for newer clients, we’re not yet in the position to sell them a period of time that’s largely undefined, that we’ll somehow magically fill with analysis and design. Pragmatically, we have to describe something tangible for delivery, based on our previous experience of similar projects, that is meaningful and understandable. Critically though, that ‘tangible something’ has scale – and that is where it gets interesting.

On the project in question, the design deliverable was pretty well-specified from the outset. But following the results of focus groups, it was clear that we needed to spend some serious thinking time trying to understand what the deliverable really needed to be – which was potentially quite different from what we’d anticipated. The scale of our ‘tangible something’ was measured in days, and in order to set our new course, we had to agree on the best use of those days. In this case, we proposed that to understand that, we should get all the project stakeholders to bring their thoughts and ideas to the table and that we spend a day working together on defining our goals and objectives and thinking about how that looks when we talk about structures, clusters, boxes and arrows. Yes. A design workshop.

Design workshops can be super-effective for clarifying objectives, surfacing ideas, analysing research outcomes, using up flip charts and making swift progress through design challenges. But they are not for everyone. They’re not for all clients. They’re especially not for all designers. While more than one head is almost always better than just one head to solve a problem, there can be a reluctance on the part of professional problem-solvers to allow others to collaborate with them on that most cerebral of tasks. That’s why I say you have to expose yourself. Let clients, stakeholders and anybody else who might have an opinion be part of your process and maximise the benefit of all those brains being in the room. When you’re steering a new course for your project ship, it should be all hands on deck. If you want to hit new project targets, you should have all your brain-wood behind one arrow. If you want to continue with ridiculous project metaphors, you should all, well, actually, forget that one. The point is, design workshops really work, and if you’re not doing them, especially when you need to corral project stakeholders and think about design direction, then I really think you’re missing a trick. In this case, the workshop enabled us to clearly define the design requirements, scope out the next phase of work and turned on at least a hundred lightbulbs over people’s heads. In the end, just talking through design propositions in the workshop radically altered the client’s expectations for how their business could position themselves in the marketplace. We’re going to do another one soon, where I’ll expose myself some more, but better to be outed in the conference room of collaboration than stuck on my own in the black box of design.

Lean UX: The UX you wish you were doing

Jeff Gothelf, Director of UX at, has a great proposition for what he is calling ‘Lean UX’, which reminds us what’s great about user experience design and how, potentially, we’ve over-specified it.

His central proposition is that it’s about time we got back to looking at experiences, rather than deliverables. Deliverables help us build commodities and describe solutions and actually, they can be pretty handy to work backwards from when we’re selling into a client.

The trouble is, deliverables can also define our outcomes and we often simply work towards those outcomes, filling in the boxes as we go. I can do that. I can do that on my own, in a dark room. And then I can ask users whether it’s any good. But really, we’re missing the experience design opportunity – to get those users at the heart of the design process.

All Jeff is really advocating is that we stop for a moment and remember what user experience design is about – solving problems. You don’t solve a problem by simply picking the right deliverable. You solve a problem by understanding the problem, engaging with the user and having a conversation.

Jeff’s method includes quick conceptualisation, early collaboration and a distinctly unselfish approach to design success, but what keeps it simple is that he doesn’t focus on artefacts, documents, or whether you want it in Visio or Axure. Because that’s not the point. It’s about:

  • Control: giving it up isn’t giving it away, you’re still the ‘keeper of the vision’
  • Momentum: keeping everyone engaged and motivated
  • Quality: not compromising on finding the solution
  • Feasibility: keeping an eye on implementation (but not the documentation!)
  • Filling the blanks: the more you talk, the more you see

To quote one of the quotes he quoted, “Speed first. Aesthetics second” – Jason Fried of

I’m paraphrasing here, so to get the full story, check out Jeff’s presentation.
Lean UX: Getting out of the deliverables business

View more presentations from Jeff Gothelf

If you want to hear him talk about Lean UX in person, he’s at a number of speaking events this year, including the IA Summit in Denver, but I should probably mention that there’s also a scintillating discussion of the value of thought in experience design happening at exactly the same time, so if his session is full, perhaps you could consider that one instead.

Building theme-based information architectures

There is often a temptation to dive into information architecture design based solely on acquired knowledge and a well-articulated business objective. It’s quite possible to produce meaningful taxonomies and content structures in this way, especially for discrete, closely scoped projects. However, some of the most effective structures evolve when iterative analysis of research findings and discussion outputs start to surface emerging themes.

I recently worked on the development of a new sales and investments channel for one of our financial services clients. A sales and investments channel in of itself is not a particularly unusual proposition and there is a depth of experience within the team that might predict some of the outcomes. We might even consider sketching out the concepts in our heads just to start the conversation, since the business objective is reasonably clear. In doing that, we might even get it done quicker than anybody planned, or budgeted for. I might even get home in time for tea.

How we really maximise the potential of the design phase is if we take the insights from a well-executed discovery phase, invest meaningful time to digest and analyse the messages we’re getting from customers, and we start to build up a picture of an ideal customer journey. I’m not talking here about spending a day in a dark room with a stationary cupboard’s worth of post-it notes and walking away with a full site map. All we should really be aiming for at the end of an initial design session is identifying those emerging themes and understanding how accurately they reflect the voice of the customer. Themes are really just a logical clustering of questions, statements and pain-points related to a customer’s interaction. Since they’re deliberately vague at the early stages of design, they’re not distinct categorisations with well specified hard attributes, but more of an expression of the customer needs and desires. If that doesn’t sound pompous enough, I’d also suggest that they often describe the soft attributes of the customer’s emotional engagement with the site, for example, ‘I’m worried about the future’, or ‘I need help on this’. Identifying these themes early provides a clear customer-centric reference when iterating into task-based journeys and navigation models.

Themes are also a great way to solicit empathetic feedback. It’s more meaningful to describe a potential customer journey to a client, for example, if they can clearly empathise with the customer. Using needs-based descriptions with more open language, through themes, it can be much easier to evaluate a customer journey than by simply referencing a label on a navigation entry point. Consider the difference between ‘Protecting my future’ as a theme and ‘Savings’ as a label. While one might not map directly to the other, there is still a much clearer expression of the customer need through a theme-based approach, which sets the context for discussion and iteration.

There are number of approaches to how we take discovery outputs and begin to build out information architectures that place the customer at the heart of the discussion. Using a theme-based approach is one of those that I rather like and it has proved successful in articulating the voice of the customer, particularly when talking with clients. While this has been a brief outline of the approach and some of the benefits, feel free to contact us to find out more.