Moving from Vision to Design: User-Centered Methods for New Product Definition

Seminar by Dorothy M. Danforth for the IEEE Computer Society Leading Professional Seminar Series. – 30 minutes

It’s a common scenario: A company is planning a new product or significant redesign. There have been various discussions about how the product should have a “great user experience” and “focus on the user.” But, there are also conflicting ideas on what a great experience might entail, along with competing priorities for what the product absolutely must do to be successful in the marketplace. ​

Where to begin? How do you break through the confusion and move towards a clarified product vision? Whether a large established corporation or lean start-up, organizations struggle with progressing from early ideation into clear requirements and a tangible design phase. This webinar will explore ways to leverage user experience design methods in the very early stages of the product life cycle.

This session covers the following:

  • An overview of practical user research and design planning methods useful for early stage products and redesigns
  • Strategies for leveraging these methods to refine a product’s vision and ensure features are tied to user goals
  • Examples of how keeping a focused eye on user needs can help resolve conflicting priorities and promote product team alignment

UX Evolution Mindset & Methods

For the Delaware Valley Human Factors & Ergonomics Society – Nov. 2014

User Experience Design (UX) is a hot term in software these days, but as a relatively new and evolving field there has been confusion as to what this discipline entails and how it relates to other design practices. In this talk, Dorothy will provide an overview of current user experience design and research best practices, touch on how these methods have evolved in recent years, and discuss what many practitioners believe to be core philosophies behind “User Experience Design” as an approach to software design. In addition, Dorothy will walk through a software product lifecycle using case study examples to illustrate how common UX methods can be leveraged to improve a product. The presentation will be followed by an open discussion about where User Experience Design methods parallel or counter other human factors and ergonomics practices.

Takeaways – Participants will walk away with a clear understanding of User Experience Design as a practice, an overview of current methods, and insight into how these practices might relate to broader human factors and ergonomics approaches.

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How to Develop Basic User Personas

“Before I can walk in another person’s shoes,
I must first remove my own.” – Brian Tracy

This article discusses the basics for developing of a set of user personas. User personas are not a research method, but a communication tool. They are a visual, creative way to convey the results of research about the users of your software or website. Personas are fictional characters developed to represent aggregate statistical averages to profile a user group. They do not express all types of user or their concerns, but can give a reasonable representation of who might be using your product and what some of their goals or issues might be. Personas are not fixed precise definitions of your users; they are more of an empathy creating tool. They can help you get into the mindset of a user type and communicate that mindset to others.

One created, personas are a way of humanizing your users and providing a canvas on which you can superimpose ideas on how a given user type might interact with your system. A little bit like criminal profiling (minus the crime and vilification), you can think of it as role playing with the intention of gaining new insights into the other party. User Personas should not be confused with engineering use cases or marketing demographic profiling.

Why develop user personas?

  • A key benefit to developing user personas is to provide user-centric objectivity during product design, and reinforce the idea that you and your colleagues’ version of a great user experience is not necessarily the same as your end users.
  • User Personas can dispel common stereotypes about users, e.g., the site needs to be so easy to use the VP’s grandmother can use it.
  • Later in the design process, user personas can help you communicate the usefulness of a specific design to stakeholders.

While I used to be somewhat limited in using persona, I did create them a few years ago for a top-five business school. The project was in the context of a site redesign that included an overhaul of the site’s information architecture. I conducted a fairly exhaustive audit of the MBA space which included a competitive review, expert review, and stakeholder interviews. At the time, I didn’t create personas for myself, I just used the underlying audit data to restructure the site’s content and define a simplified navigational model. However, later, when preparing to present the new information architecture to the client, I took the time to create a set of user personas based on the original data I used to make my design decisions. They were created out of a need to help illustrate to the client how the new structure better addressed the needs of their prospective students, and to assure them that user’s concerns were being addressed. After realizing how effective persona can be for stakeholder buy-in and alignment I have since used them much more frequently in a range of UX projects.

When are personas most useful?

  • User personas are useful when there are a number of unsubstantiated assumptions floating around about who your users are. E.g. early adopters, soccer moms, the VP’s grandma, etc.
  • When there is a tendency for developers and product managers to make design decisions based on; their own personal preferences, technical constraints, chasing short term sales, or any other reasoning that does not consider the end user.
  • When there is a general lack of clarity about who your end user is, or when the data you have regarding your users does not seem to directly translate into insights about their behavior.
  • Whenever you need a communication tool to advocate and encourage empathy for end users.

Development Lifecycle

Persona creation is best done during requirements gathering stage. However, getting the most out of your user personas means that they should also be referenced during development and testing, as questions and changes arise. They should also be compared to, and updated against actual user testing and post-release feedback. If properly evolved and maintained, personas can be an effective guidepost throughout the development and product lifecycle.

Limitations of User Personas

  • It’s easy for personas to be taken too literally or become a stereotype. Personas should never be considered a definitive archetype of your users, doing so runs the risk of turning your definitions into pseudoscience, akin to phrenology. Direct user testing and feedback insights should take precedence over anything user persona derived.
  • User personas are not precise; they are limited by the innate prejudices, interpretations, and reference points of the authors of the personas and any subsequent user scenarios.
  • User personas are not an appropriate communication tool for everyone; some people prefer a well crafted presentation of the source data over a persona which can be perceived as containing superfluous data.

How to implement user personas

With a little research, a set of basic personas is actually fairly easy to put together. The first step is to pull research from multiple sources to gather data about potential users. Next, synthesize this data to form user groups and select representative data from each user group to form a user data profile. Finally, add supplemental character information to create a believable persona. As a general rule, you should start with trying to define three to five user types, adding additional types as appropriate. I would recommend against defining more than about eight or 10. Beyond this number, you start to exceed people’s ability to reasonably keep track of the information.

Consider This…

If you think you need more than ten personas, or have already been heavily relying on personas to drive development consider as a next step investing in an ethnographic study. Real profiles and insights derived from the results of an ethnographic study will provide more actuality than fictitious personas.

  1. Conduct Research. Pull together any reliable data you can find might describe your users or give insight into their goals, concerns or behaviors. Collect any potentially relevant demographics such as; gender, age, race, occupation, household income. Let’s, for example, take the case of developing personas around prospective MBA students. In addition to client interviews I was able to pull a large amount of key data from sources on the Internet. Some references I found were:
    • Graduate Management Admissions Council
    • GMAC: 2004 mba.com Registrants Survey
    • The Black Collegian: ‘The MBA: An Opportunity For Change’
    • The Princeton Review: ‘Study of Women MBAs’
    • National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)
  2. Form Relevant User Groups. To continue with the business school case study, research on MBA students showed that there were a growing number of minority women enrolling in MBA schools. In addition, the client indicated a desire to further attract this type of student. Armed with that initial seed data, I defined a user group of minority women who were considering, had applied to, or attended business school. Further research allowed me to compile a list of statistical information about this group (such as average age, current occupation, family status, etc) as well as formulate some ideas about their interests, concerns and expectations. When compared to more “traditional” MBA students, these women were; a few years older on average, more likely to be married with children, and were highly-focused on what specific opportunities this type of degree offered post graduation.
  3. Create and Embellish the Persona. Start by turning the data you have for the user group into a single individual. The “Minority Women” user group was converted into a thirty six year old, African American woman named Christine. At this point it’s ok and actually preferable to fill in the gaps with plausible details about this person to bring them to life a bit; e.g. “Christine Barnhart is a marketing communications manager who balances her time between work and family…” Since this is in large part a tool to facilitate empathy for the user group, as much realistic information as possible should be incorporated to develop the character. As long as the “filler” is not negated by other data it should be fine.  Even still, after you have finished writing your personae take a step back and ask yourself; “Is it reasonable to expect this person to exist?” Alter your description if necessary, or move on to the next persona.
  4. Develop and Test User Scenarios. Now that you have your personas and an idea of what your user types are, we can make some assumptions about what functionality or information they might find useful. You will need to develop some User Scenarios to help test any hypothesis you have. Unlike a use case, which is a description of how system functionality interacts (i.e. contact data is retrieved, error message is returned), user scenarios focus on the user’s perspective. A simplified User Scenario for our “Christine” persona might look like:
    • While successful in her career, Christine is not entirely sure she has the background and experience to be admitted to a top business school. In addition, she has a lot of specific questions about the program’s culture. She is concerned that it may be too aggressively competitive for her to get the most out of her business school experience.Christine goes to the program website and immediate looks at the eligibility and admission requirements. She takes her time looking through the information and prints out a few pages. Next, she starts to browse around through site, trying to get a feel for the culture. She finds a section that has video interviews with students and so she watches a few and begins to get a sense of whether this school is a fit for her or not.

User Stories Not to be interchanged with a user scenario (or use case), a user story is a short two or three sentence statement of a customer requirement. It is customer-centered way of eliciting and processing system requirements within Agile development methodologies[1].

Basic Persona Template

There are a wide range of user persona templates, and they can get rather complicated. Considering that the intention of this type of tool is effective communication, I tend to gravitate toward the clean, simple layouts that are one page or screen. Below is a basic example template. Don’t get too focused on templates however, if you find information that you think is useful or relevant but it doesn’t fit your template, rework the template to fit the data.

Persona Layout - Template



[1] More information on user stories can be found at: http://www.extremeprogramming.org/rules/userstories.html

Blog Post

How to Prototype for User Testing

“If I have a thousand ideas and only one
turns out to be good, I am satisfied.”
– Alfred Bernhard Nobel

UXD prototyping is a robust topic and difficult to adequately cover in this type of overview guide. Therefore, I do so with the caveat that I am only providing the tip of the iceberg to get you started, with some references to where you can learn more.

Prototyping is not a research method, it is a research tool. An important thing to understand about UXD prototypes is that the term “prototype” itself can mean something slightly different to the UXD community than to the software development community at large. For example, one of the more common engineering usages of the term refers to an operational prototype, sometimes called a proof of concept. This is a fully or partially functional version of an application. UXD prototypes are, however, not usually operational. Most often they are simulations focused on how a user might interact with a system. In the case of the “paper prototype”, for example, there is no functionality whatsoever, just paper print-outs of software screens.

There are many different names for types of prototypes in software engineering, most of which describe the same (or very similar) concepts. Here are some of the most common terms:

  • Operational – Refers to a fully or partially functional prototype that may or may not be further developed into a production system. User testing prototypes can be operational, such as during late stage validation testing, though a program beta is more commonly used at this stage.
  • Evolutionary –As the name implies, an evolutionary prototype is developed iteratively with the idea that it will eventually become a production system. User testing prototypes are not “evolutionary” in the strictest sense if they do not become production systems. However, they can be iterative and evolve through different design and testing cycles.
  • Exploratory– Refers to a simulation that is intended to clarify requirements, user goals, interaction models, and/or alternate design concepts. An exploratory prototype is usually a “throw-away” prototype which means it will not be developed into a final system. User testing prototypes would usually be considered exploratory.

Semantics aside, prototypes are probably the single most powerful tool for the researcher to understand user behavior in the context of the product being developed. Some commonly used prototypes in user testing are;

  • Wireframes – A wireframe is a static structural description of an interface without graphic design elements. Usually created in black, white and grey, a wireframe outlines where the content and functionality is on a screen. Annotated wireframes are wireframes with additional notes that further describe the screens’ content or interactivity.
  • Design Mockups – Similar to wireframes, a design mockup is a static representation of an interface screen. However, design mockups are full color descriptions that include the intended graphical look and feel of the design.
  • HTML Mockups –Used in web site design, HTML mockups refer to interface screens that are created in the Hypertext Markup Language and so can be viewed in a browser. Most often, HTML mockups simulate basic functionality such as navigation and workflows. HTML mockups are usually developed with wireframes or a simplified version of the intended look and feel.
  • Paper Prototype – A paper prototype is literally a paper print-out of the designed interface screen. A paper prototype could be of wireframes or design mockups. In addition, it could be one page to get feedback on a single screen, or a series of screens intended to represent a user task or workflow.
  • PDF Prototype – A PDF Prototype consists of a series of designed interface screens converted into the Adobe Acrobat (.pdf ) file type. Like HTML prototypes, PDF prototypes can simulate basic functionality such as navigation and workflows. However, they take less time to create than HTML prototypes and can be created by someone without web development skills.
  • Flash Prototype – A prototype developed using Adobe’s Flash technology. Flash prototypes are usually highly interactive, simulating not only buttons and workflows, but the system’s interaction design as well. In addition to being a quick prototype development method, Flash prototypes can be run via the web or as a desktop application making it very portable tool.

Why Use Prototyping

  • It saves money by allowing you to test and correct design flaws before a system is developed.
  • It allows for more freedom to explore risky, envelope-pushing ideas without the cost and complexity of developing it.
  • Since prototypes are simulations of actual functionality they theoretically bug-free. Test results are less likely to be altered or impeded by implementation issues.

When is a Prototype Most Useful?

  • When you are trying to articulate a new design or concept
  • When you want to test things in isolation (i.e. graphic design separate from information layout separate from interaction design)
  • To gather user feedback when requirements are still in a state of flux and/or can’t be resolved
  • To evaluate multiple approaches to the same user task or goal to see which users prefer

Limitations of Prototyping

  • A prototype will never be as accurate as testing on a live system; there is always some deviation between the real world and the simulation.
  • Depending on where you are in the iterative research process, there is a point of diminishing returns where the amount of effort to create the prototype is better put into building a beta.

Creating a UXD Prototype

Because the actual prototype creation process is highly specific to what you are creating and what tools you are using (paper napkins, layout tool, whiteboard, etc) I’ve included a few considerations for defining a prototype instead of detailing the mechanics of creating one.

  1. Consider your Testing Goals. – Are you looking to understand how users perform a specific set of tasks? Do you need to watch users interact as naturally as possible with the system? Or are you trying to get users’ responses to various experimental ideas and concepts? The answers to these questions will help you make some key decisions about the structure of your prototype.
  2. Decide on Degree of Fidelity. What level of fidelity will the prototype achieve? Here, the term fidelity refers to the degree to which a prototype accurately reproduces the intended final system. A low fidelity prototype might be a PowerPoint deck of wireframes. A high fidelity prototype could be an interactive simulation with active buttons and representative content.A good rule of thumb is to develop the lowest fidelity prototype possible to achieve the goals of your study. This ensures a lack of commitment to the ideas presented and allows more time and money for the recommended iterative process. If a significant amount of time is taken to create an initial prototype with all the bell and whistles, designers are less willing to see when the concept is not working, less likely to change their designs. In addition, the amount of time that goes into building one high fidelity prototype would have been better used building multiple lower fidelity versions that allowed for more testing in-between each revision.
  3. Scripted Tasks or Natural Exploration? – Another consideration when defining your testing prototype is what content and functionality should be included. Will a preset walkthrough of key screens be sufficient, or do the goals of your study require that users are able to find their own way around the system? On average, I tend to think that enough insight can be gleaned from a series of walkthrough tests and other research methods to warrant using these, leaving the open-ended user-directed tests to be conducted on a product beta or via A/B testing[1] on a live system. With a sufficiently complex system you can quickly hit a point of diminishing returns regarding the amount of effort it takes to simulate functionality vs. actually building it.

Additional Resources

  • Microsoft Visio (office.microsoft.com/en-us/visio) – The “old school” standby for wireframes and workflows.
  • Adobe InDesign (www.adobe.com/products/indesign) – Arguably the industry standard tool. Layout tool with key functionality conducive to prototype development.
  • Balsamiq – (www.balsamiq.com) – Good low-cost alternative when you only need the basics.
  • Further Reading – Rettig, Marc. “Prototyping for Tiny Fingers.” Communications of the ACM. Vol. 37, No.4. April, 1994.


[1] A/B Split Testing refers to a testing method where in a live system an alternate, experimental design is shown to a percentage of users while the baseline control design is shown to the rest. Analysis comes from observing any notable differences in user behavior between the experimental design and the control.

International User Experience Conference Draws 316, Showcases 47 Speakers

Philadelphia, PA (PRWEB) November 25, 2009

More than 300 programmers, information architects and designers from around the globe met in Moscow to discuss emerging trends and best practices in User Experience Design, an approach that gives the needs, wants, and limitations of end users top priority at each stage of the design process.

“It was interesting to see the complementary approaches taken by different designers around the world,” said Dorothy M. Danforth, a keynote speaker at the conference. “The Russian presentations tended to focus on hard data points, while U.S. designers look a bit more at accounting for intangibles.”

Danforth spoke at the conference on the foundational elements of user focused research strategies for new products and ventures. She outlined various low-cost, high-impact methods available to Web designers and UX professionals when creating new products, scenarios for when and how to use these methods, as well as insights on how to get the most out of early state R&D processes.

Other speakers included Bill Buxton, Microsoft; Dmitry Satin, UsabilityLab, Russia; Silvia Zimmermann, UPA International; Andrew Sebrant, Yandex; Theo Mandel, Consultant, Thyra Rauch, IBM; and Alexander Oboznov, Russian Academy of Science Institute of Psychology.

Moscow hosted UPA Europe, the 3rd annual User Experience Russia on Oct. 26-28. With a theme of “User experience design: the journey from discovery to advocacy”, the conference drew 316 attendees to the main conference sessions and 44 participants in specialty workshops that were transmitted as webinars.

“The conference pulled in top names from around the world to assess the current state of User Experience Design and talk about the future possibilities of focusing on the user,” said Danforth. “While still a growing field, over the past ten years or so user-centered design has emerged as the predominant approach to software design. With a user-focused approach, we are able to maximize ease-of-use when we roll out new products, reducing transition time and increasing productivity.”

About Danforth Media
Danforth Media is a Philadelphia-based software design consultancy specializing in User Experience Design (UXD) for desktop, Web, mobile, kiosk, and set top devices. Services include user centric research, interface design, prototyping, and software vendor analysis. Dorothy M. Danforth is founder and principal consultant for Danforth Media. An experienced speaker and UX evangelist, Dorothy is currently authoring an eBook on user research methods through the IEEE Computer Society. In addition to research methods, the guide will offer a number of vital tips and tricks for fostering UX best practices within an organization. For more information, go to http://www.danforthmedia.com/about.

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PhillyCHI March Meeting – Dorothy Danforth

WHEN: Thursday, March 26, 2009, 6:00-8:00 PM
* Meet & Greet from 6:00 – 6:30 PM *

WHERE: Tyler School of Art, Room B089
Temple University
2001 N. 13th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122

RSVP: Please let us know you are coming at phillychi@gmail.com.

ABOUT THE PRESENTATION

Dorothy M. Danforth will discuss various low overhead, high-impact research methods available to Web Designers and UX professionals when creating new products, scenarios for when and how to use these methods, as well as general insights on how to get the most out of early stage R&D processes. Some illustrative examples and ideas from past product-concept research efforts will be provided. Talking points to include:
• considerations when developing a UX focused research plan for a new product or concept
• how brand and corporate culture can impact and possibly drive interface decisions
• how the research process can identify organizational knowledge gaps (and vice versa)
• integrating UX research within the creative (visual design) and engineering processes

The presentation is open to anyone with interest, but could be particularly helpful for…
• Web & Graphic designers who find themselves in the “accidental” UX consultant role
• Product managers who would like some ideas on how to better integrate UX research into their product development lifecycles
• Early and mid-level career UXD professionals

ABOUT THE SPEAKER

Dorothy M. Danforth is founder and principal consultant for Danforth Media. http://danforthmedia.com

ABOUT OUR SPONSORS

Graphic and Interactive Design Program at Tyler School of Art
http://www.temple.edu/tyler/gaid.html

Aquent http://www.aquent.com

PhillyCHI http://phillychi.acm.org/.