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When we pursue our goal of ease of use for our users we sometimes use personas to test or guide our designs. And that’s all good – because it gives us a feeling of how a user would interpret the design based on her prerequisites. And we find the design to suit the different persona we use in our daily work, and we move along in the belief that everything is fine and dandy.

But in terms of quality, we cannot really be sure that our persona really works unless we validate them. And that’s the question here: How do we validate our persona?

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Thinking out loud for the moment (formal answer to come later) ... set up a challenge scenario for the persona, and then see if different designers choose the same solution path. –  Erics Nov 30 '12 at 10:25
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See "Data-Driven Persona Development" from the CHI 2008 proceedings, which recommends starting with a survey to create persona and using interviews to validate personas dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1357292 (the citations on Google Scholar are useful too). –  Andrew Nov 30 '12 at 14:52

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

As I mention in my answer to the question on What research methods can I use to create personas?, some key elements to keeping the persona valid and relevant include:

  • state your research goals before you start so that the persona can be kept relevant to your goals
  • define how you will use personas so that you can ensure your personas include the relevant detail and content to move directly to the next phase of the process
  • interview real users where possible
  • undertake ethnographic research where possible to get context for your content
  • review as you go so that you can assess the persona against your goals, and are working towards the achievements you set out to meet, and be prepared to adapt if necessary
  • keep it real by always following up on information that may be second hand research such as that from proto personas
  • avoid bullshit personas at all costs
  • make it collaborative so that everyone has input, and gets a chance to have their say. If everyone takes the journey together, then everyone can see the information has a history and a source, and can be used as evidence, rather than some black box of information gathered by an outside agency for example.

Just keep the bs out of the persona and remember - Personas are not just an artifact

See the above linked answer for more detail on each item above and a handful of excellent references on personas.

Edit: So this helps you get good quality personas - a kind of self validation enforced by the process itself. But lets say you have your persona and you still want to increase the level of confidence in the content - post production validation - proving the personas are not just an artifact after all - proving it's not just bs.

Here's some ideas:

  • Get wider domain expert level approval - You may have worked with a domain expert in the the creation of the persona. But the people involved in producing the personas should encompass different backgrounds with different expertise and with different types of input. So once you have your persona - throw it a whole bunch of domain experts and see what feedback comes back.
  • Complexity breeds inaccuracy - Personas are by their very nature rather vague and inaccurate - they are a representation. So the deeper the level of information and the more accurate the level of data contained within, the greater chance of either the persona being mistaken as fact rather than guide, and the more likely the information is to just be wrong. So keep the information simple. Too much information - the greater chance of it being bs. The less specific the data the less tightly coupled the rest of the process that depends on the personas.
  • Validate with quantitative data - Coupled with the previous item - if there is a representation of accurate quantitative information in the persona - post validate the persona against the facts you collected during the process. Question everything.
  • Seek self identification - Interview users again afterwards. Ensure that some are the same and some different. Get them to identify with one of the personas you have created. If nobody identifies with any the personas, something went badly wrong. Bear in mind that you will usually get someone who cannot match themselves with one of the personas.
  • Seek observed user identification - Interview those connected to the users or customers afterwards. Get them to identify the people they deal with from amongst the personas. Again, if people who are so tightly linked to the target audience cannot identify them, something went wrong.
  • Gauge persona relevance - Review surveys and answers to questions that were raised during the creation of the personas. Match personas against the answers received. If only a small number of personas take the bulk of the matches then the information was not evenly distributed and the less relevant ones should be reconsidered.

Understand however, that even if validation appears to have gone well, it's not until later in the process when your product or service is put in front of real users for usability testing, and is released in a real marketplace, that the true validity of the personas can be confirmed - or doubted!

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+1 for BS persona. I didn't know that actually existed :-) –  Benny Skogberg Nov 30 '12 at 12:00
    
Yes, all this will improve the accuracy of the effort ... but then once you've done all that how would you validate the result? –  Erics Dec 1 '12 at 4:39
    
A superb update. Thanx Roger! –  Benny Skogberg Dec 1 '12 at 14:14

My general approach to persona now is to treat them as an ongoing incremental process of refinement - rather than a phase that you go through before product development begins:

Things that I find useful:

  • Looking to where customers touch the product in the current organisation and double check that they (mostly) fall into your primary persona. Sales & customer support are good places to poke.

  • Look to any demographics and other metrics you gather from the people using your product. For example I've found it really useful to associate Net Promoter Scores with the primary/secondary persona buckets we throw registered users into to see whether we're supporting our target groups well (and to discover potential new ones)

  • Do ongoing user research during development to continue to validate and refine your persona descriptions.

  • Set up a regular time to reassess your persona along with your product/business goals. Sometimes you'll find persona you can cull. Sometimes you'll fine that your successful persona are driving the product in a new direction.

I'm in the process of writing something on this topic. I'll try and remember to post a link when done.

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Looking forward to your something. I recently copped a beating for suggesting persona development shouldn't occur just the once, especially in Lean UX. –  Erics Dec 2 '12 at 5:34

A few suggestions:

  • Perform interviews with people who are in a similar role as your users. Try to map out together with them on how a normal workflow looks to them. Who do they interact with? Which parts of the system do they use, and for what purposes? What are their common tasks they usually do?
  • If it's not possible to conduct interviews, find out if there are any additional feedback channels within your company that you can utilize. Have people in-house been part of customer projects? Do you perform training courses with your customers?
  • Create new personas if you identify different users that your original set of personas seem to interact with (i.e. "persona X keeps mentioning this persona Y all the time, and we don't have any data on that... maybe we should look into it?")
  • Spread the information regarding the personas within the organization to further increase everyone's understanding of how the users utilize the system, and what they really value.

And most important of all, validate the personas towards feedback from your existing users, to avoid the personas being based upon speculation.

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+1 Your last notion is really great. I had something similar in mind writing the question. Nice answer! –  Benny Skogberg Nov 30 '12 at 10:29
    
Thanks! Updated my answer on how to identify additional personas as well. –  Andreas Johansson Nov 30 '12 at 11:44

A persona is not intended to be an accurate representation of your customers, but rather a sort of average representation of a typical class / type of customer. That makes it very difficult to validate whether your personas are good choices.

Additionally personas are chosen to try and represent a wide range of who you think your typical customers will be. So it's almost certain that at least one of them will not match up to people that you have done UX testing with. That makes changing your personas based on empirical evidence hard, as any one person is likely represented in some way by parts of two or more personas.

One way that you should improve / validate them is when it is clear that you have not considered a persona that is being shown by your UX testing. Add a new persona then.

What some frown on, but I often find useful, is to make a persona a real person. Someone that I know that I can do UX testing with and who represents my target audience. There aren't many people that are typical enough to do this, but when there is, it makes it more real. That said, I would never have all of my personas correspond to real people, as real people are not enough of a stereotype.

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+1 for making personas out of real people. Fun and (for the persona model) flattering! –  Benny Skogberg Nov 30 '12 at 10:37
    
There is a book (Running Lean) I recommend you which suggests to interview real persons often to validate your understanding of customers needs and requirements (and fix your personas based on this interviews as well) at every step of a process. –  alexeypegov Nov 30 '12 at 10:50
    
Catch 22! Aren't personas inspired from real people? Supposedly were trying to solve a problem for them wi whatever hw/sw we come up with, right? –  edgarator Nov 30 '12 at 12:28

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