Personas are nothing new in software development. Before you can build an application, you have to have a sense of who you are building it for. Usually, personas are derived by a group pounding back Dr. Pepper and scribbling pictures on a whiteboard of who they believe will use their product. Often there are multiple personas involved, depending on the functionality. We give them clever names and try to pigeonhole their personalities into iconic worker-bee positions:
"This is Sally. She is the owner of a busy retail store in Small Town, America. She does the books, stocks the shelves, waits on customers, and orders inventory. She is college-educated, understands how to run a small business, and is comfortable with a computer."
From there, you can figure out what Sally cares about in your product and how you can design it to fit her. When I worked at Intuit years ago, the company took that need to understand the customer one step further with a program they called "Follow Me Home." Sounds kind of stalker-y, but once you get past that, it's probably the best customer-focused program I've ever seen.
The premise is this: you build software to enable someone to do their job but their job is rarely just using your software. So...what does their day look like? Follow Me Home was not a usability test - it was not about watching someone use your software. It was about seeing their day, including the parts away from their computer, and how your software helped (or didn't help) them get through their workday.
But now software companies have to extend that understanding of their users from their professional lives to their personal lives. Our users have come to expect that at least part of the functionality we provide them will be available on a mobile device and will follow them home after hours. But they also don't want us stalking their activity in a way that invades their personal life. So how do we define who our users are in that context? It's much easier to stereotype a professional role than it is to define an after-hours persona that fits a broad set of users. What do they need from our apps when they can carry them around in a purse or a backpack or interact with them in front of the TV?
What you care about in an application when you are sitting at an office desk with dual monitors and a high-speed connection is one thing. But if you are using an application on a mobile device, it matters where you are: do you care about the same things if you are using them at an airport versus a soccer field versus a La-Z-Boy by the TV? And how does today's software designer know which of those situations our users are in?
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