This extended abstract is a contribution to the User Modeling for Accessibility Online Symposium of 15 July 2013. The contents of this paper was not developed by the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and does not necessarily represent the consensus view of its membership.

Personas can tell the story behind the model

1. The problem: Models only tell part of the story

The focus of this RDWG symposium is ways of representing users as a technical model, characterizing them through a set of properties and variables that can be collected in a ‘user profile’ and used by websites and applications to provide meet user needs and preferences through personalization in a consistent way (W3C, 2013). As important as models and standards are, they are not a complete solution.

Personas are a technique common in user experience (UX) research and design used to present a fictional portrait of a type of user, based on research. They offer a way to communicate both quantitative and qualitative data behind the model, giving everyone from users to product teams a better understanding of the goal of the models.

The more complex the situations in which the model will be used, the more important it is that everyone have a good understanding of what the models represent. This is critical for today (and tomorrow’s) Web, in which a single activity often spans time, devices, and people.

2. Background: Personas have been in use in UX for many years

Personas are a technique for communicating research about users, combining information from many sources into portraits that can be used to make design decisions.

They were first introduced to user experience by Alan Cooper (1997) and have since become a widely accepted part of the user experience toolkit. Like market segments (from where the concept is borrowed), personas describe a group of people who might use a site, product, or service. Personas, however, are focused on goals and behavior in using a product rather than demographic segmentation or buying behavior.

Despite some differences in approach, primarily whether the personas are based on quantitative demographics and analytics (data-driven personas), or on qualitative and contextual themes, all of the descriptions are similar. The most common definitions of personas include the following characteristics:

Personas have remained popular as a way to compile user research from many sources into a single description. When integrated into a user-centered approach, personas become the active repository of knowledge about the audience, throughout the design and development lifecycle.

Unfortunately, despite wide knowledge of personas, narrative use cases and other forms of user stories, these storytelling techniques are not used often enough to provide context for data analysis or to help people working on technical solutions understand user behavior with which they are not directly familiar, including how people with disabilities use the web.

3. Approach: Use personas to describe personalization needs in context

In a project reviewing the usability of web sites for older adults, Dana Chisnell and Ginny Redish (2005, 2012) defined their personas based on three attributes[1]:

These three personal characteristics combined with goal or task analysis is a good basis for thinking about how to describe personalization needs. This approach to creating personas is also one of the few that separates ability (capability) from aptitude (expertise), making it ideal to use for modeling accessibility requirements.

The UPA 2008 Workshop, Models of Healthcare Consumers’ User Experience (Quesenbery & Mylks, 2008) explored a complementary approach to developing personas, by including information about where the persona fit in any models relevant to the project. A persona would then include:

This approach, mixing relevant models with descriptive personal and contextual information could be a way to incorporate models relevant to accessibility into any persona. For example, a model of ability might include physical, sensory, or cognitive abilities and each element in the model might be related to a profile reflecting accessibility requirements and preferences.

4. Challenges: Real people or personas

One of the biggest challenges to using personas is that some people who work with or design for people with disabilities believe that real people’s stories are more effective than personas. For example, the introduction to personal stories on the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design’s web site says:

They are not fictional characters – they are real individuals with differing degrees of functional loss across the spectrum of capability. They speak about their lives, their challenges, their relationship with design and the impact that poor design has on them.

Their stories demonstrate that when designers engage directly with real people then there is a richness of information that cannot be obtained through more indirect design research methods alone, valuable though these can be.

Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design,

Their portraits of people are detailed, including stories about different aspects of their lives, making them an excellent way to build awareness and empathy about living with a disability.

The problem with these portraits as a tool for designers, however, is their very specificity. Because they are just one person, it’s hard to know how much it is possible to generalize from the portrait to other users, for example, considering their user experience in situations not included in the portraits. Personas help address this limitation, without losing any of the richness of the description.

On the other hand, the problem with personas as a tool for users is that it can be hard for individuals to identify with a portrait that does not exactly match their situation. A combination of personas and personalization may be the answer.

A project at the University of Twente (Van der Geest and van Velson, 2010) used persona-like descriptions of different people who might be required to obtain a work permit. Users were asked to “find their own story.” The data elements in the story were used to identify the type of permits they needed. They discovered that users needed to be able to personalize the story to see how it applied to their own situation.

5. Outcomes and Future Work

Personas can be a valuable tool in putting a “face” on technical user models. There are three areas where further work is needed.

Finally, an implicit question. What will it take for the use of personas or other qualitative, story-like presentations of information about users become commonplace throughout technical development projects, rather than their being isolated in user analysis in discovery phases of a project?


[1] They included age as a fourth attribute in the original report, but concluded that chronological age had less influence on usability than the other characteristics, and have dropped it in later work.