Facilitating Data-driven Personas

This quarter, I’m teaching HCDE418 User Experience Design in the department of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington.

Before we talk about personas, let’s get this out of the way:

The teams
The class consists of undergraduate seniors majoring in HCDE, Technical Communication, Electrical Engineering, and Informatics. I provided an online survey so they could inform me of their interests and goals.

Based on their responses, I created 5 teams of 5 students, assigning each student one of the following roles: user researcher, project manager, content strategist, visual designer, or technical support/developer. As the instructor, my role is project lead/mentor for each team. While students are expected to collaborate on all project aspects, providing the students roles that map to the “real world” gives structure and an empowering responsibility often lacking in student team projects.

The project
Each team has been tasked with redesigning UW’s eCare online healthcare service by engaging with user-centered design methods. eCare provides instant access to doctors, medical records, and prescription information to anyone in the UW healthcare system. In light of the unique service platform provided, the opportunities for improved interaction design are almost limitless.

The assignment: Create Data-Driven Personas

A well-crafted, research-based persona is an archetype that smoothes out the idiosyncrasies of real individual people while retaining the patterns of needs and behaviors in the target market. At the same time, a persona retains enough human detail to feel like a real person. – Alan Cooper

Just a few of the ground rules
User Research
First, I asked the students to assess the merits of each of the following user research methods for their project:

User Interviews
Contextual Inquiry
Focus Groups
Card Sorting
Usability Testing

Given their needs and time frame, students decided that surveys, interviews, and card sorts were the most viable research options. We discussed informed consent and how to structure user interviews, with the students receiving guidance from me and feedback from each other.

Affinity Diagramming

Blank Affinity diagram

Affinity Canvas, 14 x 4 feet of butcher paper.

After gathering data, the students came back to class – with information from more that 50 current and potential users of the eCare service. Instructed to bring sticky notes and pens, they were greeted by this big sheet of butcher paper on the wall.

To expedite the process, I labeled six areas of focus:
Pain Points

Deep into the affinity diagramming process

The students quickly got to work grouping their data-points. I had originally intended on facilitating the diagramming in a more rigid fashion, but the students enthusiastically ascribed meaning to their groupings as needed. I decided to get out of he way and let them work, only guiding when a catalyst was needed to make the next connection.

By the time the students were through, hundreds of post-it notes covered the wall representing the thoughts, ideas, and behaviors of their intended audience. The teams documented the affinity diagram through pictures, notes, and drawings.

Documenting the diagram

Students documenting the diagram

After giving them a short 20-minute lecture on Persona creation, the students took their data, tasked with coming back to the next class session with three draft scenarios based on both the information collected by each group and the larger data set the class gathered as a whole.

Empathy Mapping

In Dave Gray’s book, “Gamestorming,” he describes a group brainstorming activity that allows for the group to empathize with what the subject of ideation is thinking, feeling, saying, hearing, seeing, and doing. The students applied this brainstorming technique to build out their draft scenarios and gain a greater understanding of the personas they were creating.

Empathy Mapping!

The Completed Personas

Armed with data, scenarios, and an empathetic understanding of their composite user’s needs, each team completed a primary and two secondary personas to help drive their design decisions for the rest of the quarter. They presented their personas to the class, where they received critique on the ideas, content, and design of the personas. My students impressed me with the amount of mindfulness imbued in their work.

An example persona from the class

Another example from a different team

The students completed this assignment in 2.5 weeks, and for many of them this is their first design course.


To prepare for this assignment, the students read:
Chapter Three, Thoughts on Interaction Design, Jon Kolko
Chapters 6 & 7, A Project Guide to UX, Russ Unger and Carolyn Chandler

Affinity Diagramming was based on “Contextual Inquiry” by Hugh Beyer and Karen Holzblatt
Empathy Mapping (and further Affinity Diagramming inspiration) was based on the ideas in “Gamestorming” by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo

Alan Cooper and Steve Mulder heavily influence my understanding of personas.

I based the grading criteria on best practices for personas as defined by Forrester Research:

Applying Value-sensitive Design Principles to Support Organizational Culture

Often we think of organizational values as those all too common corporate value statements consisting of feel-good platitudes that are merely given lip service by business management. These types of “values” lack actionable items that would assist leaders or individual contributors in supporting a meaningful core intent and culture for their organizations.

In recent years, a theory has emerged in the HCI and Information science community called value-sensitive design. Using these design principles, UX professionals could help guide a conversation about values as part of business strategy, using value-sensitive methods to assist in framing organizational purpose.

“values cannot be motivated only by an empirical account of the external world, but depend substantively on the interests and desires of human beings within a cultural milieu”

-Friedman, Kahn, & Borning (2007)

In Value Sensitive Design and Information Systems, Batya Friedman, Peter H. Kahn, Jr., and Alan Borning outline steps for practitioners to apply value-sensitive design as an organizational and design strategy. I have provided a short synopsis of each step, and how it can be enacted by UX practitioners.

1. Start With a Value, Technology, or Context of Use
For organizational values, any one of these could be touchstones, but particularly context. Thinking about context will help uncover the correct values to focus on – whether it be privacy, sustainability, trust or some other human, ethical, or moral value.

2. Identify Direct and Indirect Stakeholders
Direct stakeholders are easy to identify. Thinking about those indirectly affected by an organizational or design strategy will present additional pertinent values.

3. Identify Benefits and Harms for Each Stakeholder Group
This is an exercise that can be done successfully in a group setting using a whiteboard. Facilitating the communication of benefits and harms will begin a dialog about what values are meaningful within a given group. Personas may be used to identify different stakeholder groups. Friedman, et al. suggest not exclusively asking stakeholders direct, explicit questions about values. Often implicit beliefs can be reached by using hypothetical situations, asking for descriptions of tasks or behaviors, or thinking aloud about common everyday events – many of the same methods we already use to engage people’s reasoning when doing qualitative UX research.

4. Map Benefits and Harms onto Corresponding Values
Once benefits and harms have been identified, map them to values. For instance, a value of transparency could be a benefit of an open office system, while harming the value of productivity.

5. Identify Potential Value Conflicts
According to the authors, examples of “typical value conflicts include accountability vs. privacy, trust vs. security, environmental sustainability vs. economic development, privacy vs. security, and hierarchical control vs. democratization.” Value conflicts are opportunities for constraints to catalyze innovation.

6. Integrate Value Considerations Into One’s Organizational Structure
Once the preceding steps have been completed, a strong, meaningful set of values will have surfaced, which can be applied organizationally, to a specific initiative, or to a design strategy.

UX professionals have a unique skill set to offer in helping accomplish the establishment of thoughtful, relevant values. The above outlined steps taken from the value-sensitive design literature provide a framework for reaching this goal.


Batya Friedman, Peter H. Kahn, and Alan Borning, Value Sensitive Design and Information Systems.

Lisa P. Nathan, Predrag V. Klasnja, and Batya Friedman, Value Scenarios: A Technique for Envisioning Systemic Effects of New Technologies.


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