When It Comes To Personas, The Real Value Is In The Scenarios

September 12, 2018

Personas without scenarios are like characters with no plot. — Kim Goodwin

I’ve seen it happen many times. A team launches a project to identify user personas with all the best of intentions. They'll define three, four, sometimes as many ten or fifteen different personas. Then, when they’re all done, the personas become lifeless mannequins on a closet shelf that are rarely referenced.

That’s because the team doesn’t work on the parts that matter: the scenarios that define why the personas are important.

And here’s the kicker: Too many times, what the team required for their personas was far less than what they created. Had they put the resources into creating great scenarios, the effort would have played a bigger role in a better-designed product.

First, Identify A Dominant Story Through Research

An airline’s UX team is working on how the passenger check-in process can reduce stress for their passengers. The team starts with user research, conducting deep hanging out time with dozens of airline passengers.

They study the passengers while they prepare for an upcoming trip and while they’re in transit. They detected several repeating sources of stress from the research, some of which they capture in the story of a fictional passenger, Taré (pronounced like Terry).

Taré’s Current Situation

Today, Taré is flying on two flights with a tight connection through Charlotte airport. Taré has taken this trip dozens of times before.

Like usual, it takes Taré more than an hour to get from home to the departure airport. The first leg of Taré’s journey is a 90-minute flight. The second leg, leaving Charlotte, is a 3-hour flight. After the two flights, Taré will have to drive for another hour before reaching the hotel. Today, the entire journey, from leaving home to reaching the hotel, will take Taré upwards of 7 hours.

Because the connection in Charlotte is very short, Taré will have to hurry to make the connection. There’s no time to stop for any food, especially if the incoming flight is the least bit delayed (which it often is).

That means Taré will have to bring any food from home. Taré prefers not to check bags and the amount of carry-on space for extra food is limited. Taré is worried about bringing the food through security. The second leg has in-flight meals, but they don’t match Taré’s dietary preferences. On many previous trips like this, Taré went without eating the entire time, which is stressful and uncomfortable.

While Taré is a made-up character, the story isn’t. The UX team met many travelers in exactly this situation, having to scurry through a layover airport without time to get food. It was an easy story to craft out of the research.

A Great Story Immediately Lends To A Great Design Scenario

Once the UX team had this story, it was easy for them to craft a scenario that would help people in the same situation as Taré:

Taré’s Future Scenario

Taré is checking in for tomorrow’s flight on the mobile app. During the process, the app points out the short connection and offers Taré the option to pre-order lunch from one of Charlotte airport’s fine restaurants.

Taré selects a salad and some sides from 1897 Market’s menu, making a few dietary customizations. The app confirms the choice with Taré and charges Taré’s credit card.

The meal is ready to pick up at the departing gate, just as Taré boarding. Taré loves the convenience of having a ready-to-eat lunch during the second leg of the trip.

We Can Create A Great Scenario Without A Detailed Persona

What fascinates me about these stories is how little we know about Taré. We don’t know if this is a business trip or maybe visiting some family. We don’t know why Taré makes this trip so frequently. (Maybe Taré is dating someone long distance?)

We don’t know where Taré is coming from nor where they’re going. We don’t know their age or what nationality or race they are. We don’t even know Taré’s gender identity.

We know nothing about all the things we’d normally put into a persona. And yet, the story of Taré’s current stressful journey led to an excellent design solution. (Editors note: American Airlines announced last week they are conducting a trial at select airports where passengers can use their app to order food for gate-side delivery.)

The facts we know about Taré are quite boring. Taré lives an hour away from a regional airport, has to fly through Charlotte a lot, and often travels to places 3 hours away. That’s it.

Taré is not an interesting persona. Yet, the story has everything we need to make passengers in Taré’s situation much less stressful.

A Second Story Gives Us Contrast

In their research, the UX team saw another pattern around family travel. From this, they crafted a story of a fictional traveler Neshar.

Neshar’s Current Situation

Today, the entire household is traveling: Neshar, Neshar’s spouse, their infant, and Neshar’s mobility-challenged in-law. Neshar and Neshar’s spouse has traveled several times before. However, it’s their first time traveling with their baby. Neshar has many questions.

The baby doesn’t have its own ticket. What papers will Neshar need to get the baby through security? Can they bring baby wipes and breast milk through security? Can they bring the baby’s stroller and car seat?

When the airline says you can bring “2 carry-on items per person,” is the baby included as one of the people? (Or is the baby considered one of the carry-on items?) They’ve got 8 carry-on bags, so this will be tricky. Where might they stock up on diapers or wipes during their layover in Charlotte airport?

It’s also Neshar’s first time traveling with their in-law. While Neshar’s in-law can walk short distances with a walker, the airports seem daunting. Neshar has seen other passengers get wheelchairs and assistance in the airport, but doesn’t know how to arrange that.

The last time Neshar was in the Charlotte airport, the passengers got off the plane by walking downstairs onto the tarmac. That will be very difficult for Neshar’s in-law.

They’ll have a tight connection in Charlotte. How do they navigate with the baby and Neshar’s in-law across the huge airport? Neshar remembers electric carts, but doesn’t know how they get a ride in one.

All these questions and concerns prove stressful for Neshar. Making the seven-hour journey seem quite daunting.

The detail in Neshar’s story is enough for the UX team to craft a future scenario. The team could design something to address all of Neshar’s questions and concerns. They could create check-in functionality that arranges for assistive transportation in Charlotte and provides the baby with identifying documentation to take through security.

The Stories Are Different. The Personas Are Not.

Neshar’s story is very different from Taré’s. The details we know about the personas of Neshar and Taré are not. And those details don’t matter.

The stories are all that we required. Had we constructed user persona descriptions for Taré and Neshar, we would’ve wasted our time.

The stories themselves are very contextual. In other parts of their journeys, knowing the differences between Neshar and Taré wouldn’t matter.

Context for example, would be needed for how we should design their in-flight entertainment system. Because Taré‘s situation, as we understand it, isn’t different from Neshar’s when it comes to them how they entertain themselves during their flight. To understand more about their in-flight entertainment needs, we’d need to continue researching, looking for patterns, and creating new stories based on what we find.

Personas Are Useful, But Scenarios Are More Useful

Taré and Neshar’s stories didn’t require personas. The difference in the stories was between the activities, not the people. In fact, it’s possible Taré and Neshar are the same people, just with different types of travel. One day, traveling by themselves on a regular trip like Taré. Another day, traveling with their family in an unfamiliar way, like Neshar.

There are occasions when differences can come from people, not an activity. We see this in public policy, where two people might need a government service, but they have completely different economic situations.

For example, in the United States, Social Security benefits change based on age and how much you’ve previously paid into the system. The task of applying for benefits might be identical for two people, but their persona attributes would dictate the need for different designs.

Personas and scenarios work together to accomplish a single goal: for the team to understand how the design should adapt to the needs of different users. But whether those differences warrant a persona or not will depend on the stories involved. By starting with stories, we can get to the shared understanding we need to delivering great products and services.

Scenarios are one of the designer’s most powerful tools. Sending your team to Kim Goodwin’s full-day UI23 workshop, Using Scenarios to Solve Problems, will ensure your products push beyond your competitors by solving customer problems nobody else in your industry is tackling.