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:

  1. Katey,

    I know I would have enjoyed my experience in University so much more, back in the day, if I could have participated in such exercises.

    In workshops I ran recently we also did Empathy Mapping from Dave’s book on Gamestorming and found it to be a huge success in helping people to articulate the needs of the individual for whom they were designing.

    Pictures here: http://tinyurl.com/299shp3

    It also allowed teams to critique others approaches to subsequent problems, as you experienced, focusing on possible solutions rather than criticizing the processes of others.

    I believe that all technology problems are fundamentally rooted our inability to clearly communicate both with members of our own teams and in understanding the needs of our users.

    We are at a point in time where the creation of anything we see online can be done. The conversations, I believe, now need to shift to what we should be doing.

    Kudos for providing a great learning experience for your students and an exercises they can easily recreate after they graduate in their own careers!

  2. Katey, this is an awesome exercise and I’m sure a great experience for the students. I have to say I would be so much happier as a hiring manager and UX lead if all programs highlighted proper research and persona development approaches. Great write-up of the process.

  3. Great write-up, Katey! On the subject of personas, I found this conversation on Twitter between Samantha Starmer and Michael P Smith interesting:

    Any good definitions for ‘voice of the customer’? Also looking for diffs between personas and market research profiles #uxworkingwmarketin

    @samanthastarmer the main difference for me has always that personas describe information behaviors & goals as well as demographics.

    @ordoinfo Great distinction that states it more succinctly than I have been able to. I’ll include with a little footnote on who it’s from 🙂

    [Pretty, threaded version of the conversation located here: http://twitter.theinfo.org/14482774765342721 ]

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