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People, Personas and the Unpredictable

A few weeks ago I spoke at an event in London about the LocalGov Digital Content Standards and how they're helping councils make better websites.

Another talk covered user testing and the speaker showed a picture of session they'd helped facilitate. In the picture however, there were no real users, just personas.

Wikipedia describes a persona as "a social role or a character played by an actor" and it's not uncommon for digital teams to create persons to help them design the content, taxonomy and other aspects of their sites.

User testing by young people with learning difficulties
So in the picture I saw, council staff were interviewing other council staff who were role playing users. Now, there's nothing unusual about this in usability testing, however when I asked if they'd tested with real users the reply was "No, we tried that and they're too unpredictable".

This seemed bizarre and reminded me of an example of unpredictably that excluded someone from using one of digital services.

When we created a digital service for people to apply for free school meals we included a select field for the year of birth of the applicant. To make things easier for users, so we they weren't shown a huge list, we set the earliest year an applicant could be born in as 1950.

If you were to construct personas and decide which would apply for free school meals it would probably be those aged between 18 to 40 years old, so setting 1950 as the earliest date should have been fine shouldn't it? It wasn't.

A couple of months after launch we got a phone call from someone saying they they couldn't use our service. Why, because they were born in the 1940s. The unpredictably of a grandparent applying for free school meals had made the service unusable for them.

This was a great lesson for us, and as a result we've been testing out beta.westberks.gov.uk with users at an Age UK session, young people with learning difficulties (pictured above) at a local Post 16 facility, children's centre users and we plan to run more sessions with an even wider range of people.

As a result we've been learning out all sorts of things that I'm sure another member of staff playing a user wouldn't have been able to teach us. I'm not saying I think we've captured all the potential problems before we launch, but I bet we've found a lot more than if we'd just tested with personas, and of course the process of iterative improvement will continue after launch based on real user feedback both in user testing sessions and general use.

Personas have a purpose, but if you're creating new digital services or content I suggest you test it out with as many real people a possible. It's more work, but capturing as much unpredictable behaviour as possible will most certainly help you create a better product.


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