In the Connected Age users have real power. They cannot be viewed as a gregarious heard of consumers waiting to be milked for what they have. Instead, value must be co-created and sharedRemember: customers are a company’s most valuable asset.

The practice of UX design inherently seeks to strengthen the value provided to users. With methods such as ethnography, mental models, personas and scenarios, UX strives to view the world from the outside in, rather than the inside out. In doing so, companies can better provide solutions that solve real-world problems and that fit into users’ lives.

But the contemporary practice of UX design doesn’t go far enough. The field implicitly examines and models user behavior as it currently exists. What’s needed is a better way to envision users as they may act.

Enter “The Ask,” a single question outlined by MIT Professor Michael Schrage in his book Who Do You Want Your Customers To Become?Successful innovations, Schrage contends, don’t merely ask users to do something different; they ask them to become someone different.

Here’s an example: George Eastman didn’t just invent inexpensive, automatic camera; he created photographers. His innovation allowed everyday people to do something only trained professionals could previously do with expensive equipment. The result: you, too, can be a photographer. That’s transformational.

kodak girl
With Eastman’s camera (circa 1888) anyone could be a photographer

Another example: Google’s innovation isn’t just a brilliant search algorithm; instead, Google let’s everyone become expert researchers and fact checkers. We’re now all reference librarians with the power of all known human knowledge at our finger tips. Powerful.

Now consider a would-be innovation that failed, such as the Segway. What does the Segway ask us to become? A mad helmeted scientist racing down the sidewalk? Or maybe an authority figure (e.g., policewoman) extending a few feet above other pedestrians? Or maybe just an odd ball on a weird scooter? During its commercial launch, the inventors of the Segway promised to revolutionize transportation and the way people get around cities. But instead it asked us to become somebody we didn’t want to become, and it failed.

nerd magnet<br /> small
The Segway asks us to become someone we don’t want to.

Role of UX

User experience design plays a role in all of the above examples. For instance, Kodak claimed in its early ads: “You push the button, we’ll do the rest.” Their strategy clearly relied on an exceptional user experience, and they delivered on that promise. This resulted in the mass adoption of Eastman’s camera.

Peter Merholz et al. discuss this at length in their book UX strategy Subject To Change. They write:

“[Eastman] recognized that his roll film could lead to a revolution if he focused on the experience he wanted to deliver, and experience captured in his advertising slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.”

We find a similar pattern with Google: a drop-dead simple user experience with high tolerance for “user error” (e.g., spell correction) makes the service efficient, effective and enjoyable to use. Schrage also highlights the importance of user experience design in his book. He writes:

“Innovations failing to provide good user experiences find difficulty succeeding, no matter what their price…The better the customer experience, the better the odds for innovation success.”

Practically speaking, The Ask doesn’t supersede or replace current tools and methods, rather extends them. It offers a unique perspective on our practices and how they fit into the bigger picture of things. And it can help better shape existing techniques.

Take personas. Often the number and type of personas created for a solution line are determined by traditional (even outdated) segmentation techniques of existing markets. By using The Ask, we can now consider creating personas around the transformational outcomes we envision. Who will our customers become in the future? We can then align our personas to the answers of that question and describe them in terms that address their transformation.

Keep in mind that it is the innovation that transforms the customer. So the point here is to align tools of design and innovation to point towards the future. Right now, personas typically reflect an as-is view of customer behavior. But to be relevant in rallying teams around truly transformational innovations — such as in design sessions and in workshops — they should rather describe an answer
to The Ask.

.the ask

For more on The Ask, I recommend Michael Schrage’s book. It’s clear and compact, and it’s wholly relevant to core UX work. Written by a leading business thinker, this book highlights the increasing overlap between business and design. The Ask is a simple, reflective query can alter the way we see our users and our
offerings. It increases our ability to create more value through user experience design.

I encourage you to continually ask yourself and the clients you serve, who do we want our customers to become?

In preparation for my talk at the Euro IA conference this year, I’m re-reading Diffusion of Innovations by Evertt Rogers. I came across this statement and immediately thought of personas:

One of the most distinctive problems in the diffusion of innovations is that the participants are usually quite heterophilous. A change agent, for instance, is more technically competent than his or her clients. This difference frequently leads to ineffective communication as the two individuals do not speak the same language. (p. 19)

Personas are a way for designers to conceptually deal with a hetergenous target group. They build the necessary empathy for the user to allow us designers to “communicate” effectively with them through our designs. They also help focus our attention. But in light of the above quote, personas may also lead to solutions that are more readily adopted by the target population. Why? Because the use of personas in design results in more satisfaction for the users they represent. As Alan Cooper says in The Inmates Are Running The Asylum:

The broader a target you aim for, the more certainty you have of missing the bull’s-eye. If you want to achieve a product-satisfaction level of 50%, you cannot do it by making a large population 50% happy with your products. You can only accomplish it by singling out 50% of the people and striving to make them 100% happy. It goes further than that. You can create an even bigger success by targeting 10% of your market and working to make them 100% estatic. It might seem counterintuitive, but designing for a single user is the most effective way to satisfy a broad population.

So if a common goal of innovators is to have a target population actually adopt the innovation at hand, personas are a tool that help meet that goal. Now, that might sound obvious but it’s good to have an explicit reasoning that marries the concept of innovation adoption and personas. You can throw on to your pile of arguments for using personas.

And vice-versa: when developing an innovation or innovation programme be sure to use personas to focus your attention. This means that personas should represent dimensions such as adoption rate in the persona description (e.g., early adoptors or laggards?).  Focusing on both ends of the spectrum at the same time may be more harmful than helpful in many cases.

A new research paper investigates the effectiveness of personas in design teams to arrive at usable designs: Real or Imaginary: The effectiveness of using personas in product design, By Frank Long. People have advocated the usefulness of personas for a long time now–from Cooper to Pruit and Adlin. It’s good to see some more solid evidence to support the use of personas.

Here’s the abstract:

The use of personas as a method for communicating user requirements in collaborative design environments is well established. However, very little research has been conducted to quantify the benefits of using this technique. The aim of this study was to investigate the effectiveness of using personas. An experiment was conducted over a period of 5 weeks using students from NCAD. The results showed that, through using personas, designs with superior usability characteristics were produced. They also indicate that using personas provides a significant advantage during the research and conceptualisation stages of the design process (supporting previously unfounded claims). The study also investigated the effects of using different presentation methods to present personas and concluded that photographs worked better than illustrations, and that visual storyboards were more effective in presenting task scenarios than text only versions.

Lou Rosenfeld and I will be giving a series of workshops in Hamburg, Germany from May 18-20–right after the German IA Konferenz. Find out more and register at UX Workshops.

Here’s a brief overview of the workshops

  • May 18, 2009 – Enterprise Information Architecture – Louis Rosenfeld
    Developing a unified web site or intranet for a large, decentralized organization is the Holy Grail for many of today’s Internet professionals. This day-long seminar is for managers and web professionals who desperately want to tie together content in a rational, user-centered way, regardless of content ownership issues, cultural hurdles, and turf battles.This advanced information architecture seminar combines lecture, demonstration and exercises, discussion, and handouts to address a topic that bewilders every large organization: designing unified information architectures for large enterprises.
  • May 19, 2009 – Commercial Ethnography – James Kalbach
    Ethnographic research methods have many potential advantages for businesses, including helping to increase insight into customer behaviour, make the real world visible the entire organisation and identify opportunities for innovation. In this course, you will learn about practical skills needed to conduct an ethnographic study from beginning to end. The course outline walks through each phase step-by-step.
  • May 20, 2009 – Personas and Mental Models – James Kalbach
    Communicating user research effectively is critical for user-centred design. This full-day course has two parts that show how to bring your research to life:
    Part 1: Personas – Personas have become a mainstream design tool. There’s even a growing body of literature on the subject, including two full-length books. But there are also misconceptions and misuses of personas in the field.
    Part 2: Mental Models – The term “mental models” means different things to different people. In this workshop, we use the term broadly to refer to any technique used to understand the behavioural, cognitive, and emotional states of users.

The early bird price runs until April 2. There’s limited place for each of the workshops.

Register at

Karen Lindemann from Netflow is the sponsor and producer of the events.

Came across this interesting case study of using personas in D-LIB Magazine: “Using Personas to Understand the Needs and Goals of Institutional Repository Users,” by Jack M. Maness, Tomasz Miaskiewicz, and Tamara Sumner from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

This study shares the results of an effort to understand the needs and goals of future institutional repository (IR) users at the University of Colorado at Boulder (UCB). Due to underutilization of IRs at other institutions, the University Libraries at UCB decided it was imperative that insight into users’ goals and needs of an IR be gained before design of the repository began. The libraries partnered with faculty and students with expertise in human-computer interaction to study user needs. The results of this study yielded “personas” describing different classes of potential IR users on university campuses, which can be used to guide IR architects in designing repositories that facilitate increased participation.

The article includes the final personas they created as well. While I’m a fan of personas and have used them successfully in my own work, I stil feel there needs to be more rigor to the methodology of creating them. I was missing that in this article, which surprised me because this was done in an academic setting.


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