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Personas and Storytelling

Personas work because they tell stories. Stories are part of every community. They communicate culture, organize and transmit information. Most importantly, they spark the imagination as you explore new ideas. They can ignite action.

Like many people in usability or user experience, this is a second career. I started as a theatrical lighting designer, working in dance, theatre and even the occasional opera. Instead of wireframes, I worked with cue sheets, I programmed lighting boards instead of web sites, but most of all, I was part of creating a story. For an hour or two, our goal was to create an experience that would leave the audience just a little bit changed.

Then, I started working on an early hypertext program, and left theatre behind. I went from a forty foot wide stage, to a fourteen inch wide screen.

Image of a stage, with people sitting in the audience
Hyperties Author Guide cover
by Paul Hoffman

This image shows a person's face and a computer monitor. An arrow labeled Interface Design connects them.
Visualization of the purpose of interface design for
Cognetics Corporation by Paul Hoffman

One of my frustrations with user profiles was that they were often mostly lists of demographic data. It was hard to see how to use this information to make good design decisions. What do we really learn about users when we know that the average user for the product we are designing is:

  • Aged 30-45
  • Well educated
  • 45% are married with children
  • Use the web 3-5 times a week
  • 65% use search engines

What if, instead, we learned about a prototypical user, Elizabeth. She is 35 years old, married to Joe, has a 5 year-old son, Mike. She attended State College and manages her class alumni site. She uses Google as her home page, and last used the web to find the name of a local official. It's the same information, but given some specificity and context. We can begin to think about Elizabeth as a real person, someone we can design for.

That's the heart of a persona. There are lots of formats and guidelines for doing the analysis to create them. We can argue about whether a picture is important or not, and how many personal details are needed to make a good portrait. But the germ of the idea is that personas bring users into the design team and make them as real and compelling as the technical details and our own design concepts.

Personas need stories to make them complete

When we started making personas, I noticed that we all started telling stories about them. The stories came from user research, from usability testing and from our own observations. I think personas need stories to make them complete, because the stories are how they go from a picture to an "action figure."

Stories have a lot going for them. For one thing, they are a very concise way to communicate. Think about this little fragment of a story. How many different things do they tell us about Tanner and his context?

Tanner was deep into a game - all the way up to level 12 - when he got a buddy message from his friend Steve with a question about his homework. He looked up with a start. Almost bedtime and his homework still not done. Mom or Dad would be in any minute...

How many of us write like this, using empty words that barely communicate:

Good morning! I'm speaking to you live from the West Wing of the White House. Today we have a very unique opportunity to take part live in an extremely historic event which...

This is from an episode of the TV show "The West Wing," and the speech above was written for President Bartlett by a bad writer. Here's how his staff transformed this introduction into something that sets a context and catapults you right into the moment.

Good morning. Eleven months ago a 12-hundred pound spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Eighteen hours ago it landed on the planet Mars.
You, me, and 60 thousand of your fellow students across the country along with astro-scientists and engineers from the Jet Propulsion Lab in Southern California, NASA Houston, and right here, at the White House, are going to be the first to see what it sees, and to chronicle an extraordinary voyage of an unmanned ship called Galileo 5.

Many kinds of stories

There are many ways to tell a story. In fact, many of our design deliverables are really stories of one form or another. They are used throughout the design process, moving from evocative stories as the design concept is forming to prescriptive stories that describe the details of the design.

A visual map of the types of stories listed below

From the most evocative to the most prescriptive, we have:

  • Springboard stories: needs and goals
  • 'Points of pain' stories: barriers to overcome
  • Key scenarios: context for actions
  • Narrative scenarios: what happens and why
  • Design Maps: perceptions, actions and barriers
  • Flow diagrams: actions and decisions
  • Use cases: detailed sequences of actions

Springboard stories are short and compelling, both illustrating a dilemma and hinting at the way out. They may be the spark of a new innovation, or based on an anecdote from user research.

When Tanner comes home from school, he logs on to G4k and collects the essay he began during study period in school. He usually isn’t allowed to play games on the computer until he finishes his homework, but he tells his mother, “this is my homework.”

Points of pain create a vivid view of the problem from the point of view of the persona. They point forward to possible solutions that could be part of the new design.

Ten minutes is not enough. That’s Tanner’s opinion about the time limits on using the computer at school. Last Friday, he started working on a geography assignment. He used the school encyclopedia program to look up some information about the animals in Africa. He had just gotten started when his turn on the computer was up. He’d like to work on it over the weekend, but he doesn’t have the same things on his computer at home. He prints out a few things, and figures he will retype what he’s done when he gets home. What a bore.

Key scenarios lay out a more complex scenario that the design must include, beginning to move into concrete illustrations of how the personas will interact with the product.

Tanner has been a member of G4K for a few months. He’s been travelling (virtually) on an animal safari, along with two of his classmates. They are thinking about doing a science project that shows all the different kinds of animals that live in their back yards, just like the program shows animals living in different parts of the world. He wants to save some of the cool pages he’s been finding and then go back and look at them again later.

His mother, Laura, discovers that she can create a personal folder for him to save pages that he finds. They talk about it and decide that this will be better than just using the browser bookmarks or printing out the pages. Laura uses her parent password to create the folder and the next time Tanner signs on to G4K, the folder is waiting for him in the corner of the screen.

The next day, at school, Tanner collects some great pictures of animals while his friend starts to draw out the chart of their backyard environment. That evening, at his friend’s house, Tanner logs on to G4K, opens his folder and shows all of the pictures he has found. They talk about which ones they like, and decide to print a few of them out to paste onto the chart.

These stories are all in words, but stories can also be told with pictures, as in this storyboard:

A series of screens illustrates at a conceptual level how Tanner logs in to the site and finds his favorite game.

Stories are easy to create

Some people are nervous about writing, and avoid personas because of it. They shouldn't be. This is not creative writing, but a form of clear communication. Like most things, it gets easier with practice.

Here's three simple steps to get you started:

  1. Establish a goal and context
    Why is the persona using the product now
    What will make this interaction successful
  2. Describe the interaction
    Stay at a high level and
    Avoid detailed descriptions of the interface
  3. End with the result
    What happens as a result of this interaction
    What made it a success

Focus on storytelling, and don’t try to represent complete task analysis. As you write, imagine the new design and how it will solve specific problems, remove barriers, or minimize risk. Your stories will be more compelling if you use the persona’s “voice.” Quotes from user research are a good way to connect to the details of the persona’s personality and show them in how the story is told.



Book cover image
The Persona Lifecycle
I wrote the chapter on personas and storytelling for this how-to book on creating and using stories by John Pruitt and Tamara Adlin


Presentation handouts

Putting Personas to Work
Ways to put personas to work in our projects (STC RMC 2006)

Personas - Bringing Users Alive
An overview of personas and how they can help a team understand users better.

Storytelling: Using Narrative to Communicate Design Ideas
Storytelling is a powerful way to explain complex concepts, and present a vision for a design.


When the Show Must Go On, It's Time to Collaborate or Die!
An article about design collaboration in the theatre in Boxes and Arrows.

Designing Theatre, Designing User Experience
Originally published in interactions as a whiteboard column.

The Research Triangle
The relationship between market research, usability and user research and expert design practice

Personas Training

If you want to learn about personas, I teach a one-day or two-day class, or can come work with your team on your personas.