Oh the coveted ‘persona’ seems to be in every blog, book, and talk on interaction design, user experience, and innovation.

Why does it bother me? I guess for how personal it’s supposed to be, it feels impersonal. Perhaps that’s depending on how it’s done. So let’s look at how different teams, authors, and organizations define, use, and interpret a ‘persona’.


  • Adaptive Path: archetypes of your customers and users that can act as surrogates for those people in the design process. “In our experience, effective personas are drawn from ethnographic research rather than demographics, market segments, or gut feelings about your audience.”
  • Alan Coopera model of our users, represented by composite archetypes, based on behavioral data gathered from the many actual users encountered in ethnographic interviews. Personas are not real people, but they are based on the behaviors and motivations of real people we have observed and represent them throughout the design process. 
  • Leah Buley: a composite picture of a collection of users boiled down into one relatable, human profile.


  • Adaptive Path: Quality personas can have far-reaching effects, because organizations can disseminate them to the furthest reaches of their org charts. Well-conceived personas are an efficient way to communicate insights and spark empathy. 
  • Alan CooperPersonas provide us with a precise way of thinking and communicating about how users behave, how they think, what they wish to accomplish, and why.  Personas must have motivations; some are obvious, and many are subtle. Understanding why a user performs a certain task gives designers great power to improve or even eliminate those tasks yet still accomplish the same goals.Personas help designers: 
  1. Determine what a product should do and how it should behave. Persona goals and tasks provide the foundation for the design effort.
  2. Communicate with stakeholders, developers, and other designers. Personas provide a common language for discussing design decisions and also help keep the design centered on users at every step in the process.
  3. Measure the design’s effectiveness.
  4. Contribute to other product-related efforts such as marketing and sales plans.
  • Leah Buley: Personas are made as human as possible to further enhance the sense that this is a real person with a messy life and quirky was of coping with very recognizable human situations. 


Alan Cooper: Personas can also resolve three design issues that arise during product development:

  1. The Elastic User– Every person on a product team has his own conceptions of who the user is and what the user needs. When it comes time to make product decisions, this “user” becomes elastic, conveniently bending and stretching to fit the opinions and presuppositions of whoever’s talking. A lack of precision about the user can lead to a lack of clarity about how the product should behave.
  2. Self-referential Design- When designers or developers project their own goals , motivations, skills, and mental models onto a product’s design. Similarly, programmers apply self-referential design when they create implementation-model products. They understand perfectly how the data is structured and how software works and are comfortable with such products. few nonprogrammers would concur.
  3. Edge Cases- situations that might possibly happen, but usually won’t for the target personas. Personas provide a reality check for the design. We can ask, “Will Julia want to perform this operation very often? Will she ever?” With this in mind, we can prioritize functions with great clarity.


It’s a classic! Why wouldn’t you have a conversation with a stakeholder/user/customer to better understand their thoughts, emotions and motivations?

Yet a lot can go wrong in an interview: leading questions, binary questions, complicated questions etc.

Adapted from Michael Barry, Point Forward
The Shape of An Interview, adapted from Michael Barry, Point Forward

“An interview” can have some scary connotations for people, and personally, the term feels.. impersonal; and it may not be an accurate description of the method. In their book Contextual Design, Hugh Beyer and Karen Holtzblatt have describe an ethnographic interviewing technique that they call contextual inquiry.

Contextual Inquiry is based on a master-apprentice model of learning: observing and asking questions of the user as if she is the master craftsman, and the interviewer the new apprentice.



Context- Rather than interviewing in a clean white room, go to the physical environment relevant to what you’re designing for. Observing people in their natural environment, filled with artifacts they use each day, can bring the all-important details of their behaviors to light.

Tone- One of collaborative exploration with the user (master-apprentice).

Interpretation- Here lies what currently interests me most. Much of the work of the designer is reading between the lines of facts gathered about users’ behaviors, their environment, and what they say..

Focus- Rather than coming to interviews with a set questionnaire of letting the interview wander aimlessly, the designer needs to subtly direct the interview so as to capture data relevant to design issues.


  • Shorten the interview process- Interviews as short as one hour can be sufficient to gather the necessary user data, provided that a sufficient number of interviews (about six well-selected user for each hypothesized role or type) are scheduled.
  • Use smaller design teams- It is more effective to conduct interviews sequentially with the same designers in each interview, allowing the members to most effectively analyze and synthesize the user data.
  • Identify goals first- Ethnographic interviews should first identify and prioritize use goals before determining the tasks that relate to these goals.


Designed for Themselves

While the focus of this blog is on the innovative insights gleaned from empathetic understanding, I recognize that’s not the only way to create new value. Historically another impetus for innovation was quite simply: they wanted something that didn’t exist.

I couldn’t find the sports car of my dreams, so I built it myself.” – Ferdinand Porsche.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

“It all started when my daughters were young, and I took them to amusement parks on Sunday. I sat on a bench eating peanuts and look all around me. I said to myself, dammit, why can’t there be a better place to take your children, where you can have fun together?” – Walt Disney

Porsche, Disney, Clif Bar, OXO, Patagonia, Virgin Atlantic and others were all started because the founders wanted a better product or service for themselves.

However, once started, it appears they’ve continued their success by employing empathetic listening to evolve their offerings.


The Experience Economy

Maya Angelou said it best, “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

While one could argue this doesn’t apply to certain markets and industries, it’s certainly a perspective worth considering. Coming out of an era when economies of scale and a global manufacturing supply chain resulted in an overs94aturated competition for cheaper goods and services, it’s becoming apparent there’s more to providing meaningful value. In a market flooded with commodities and competition, a person’s experience is becoming the invisible measuring stick every business, organization, and platform is subjected to.

This idea isn’t new, it’s just becoming more important as a means of distinction in a crowded marketplace. Joseph Pine and James Gilmore published a book in 1998 titled, “The Experience Economy.”  In it they described the experience economy as the next economy following the agrarian, industrial, and most recently: the service economy.

While having a whole economy based on experience might sound grandiose, it’s certainly a factor in our day to day decision making of where to go, what to do, and what to buy. Therefore I’m an advocate of organizations taking more time than before to deeply understand their users and designing an experience that delights them, because not only is it part of a good business strategy, it’s also empathetic, thoughtful, kind, and considerate.Word_of_mouth_500

The biggest challenge lies in catering to different preferences across all touchpoints. On different preferences, take the example of a restaurant. A good waiter knows how to tailor a different and appropriate experience for: a couple on an anniversary, a girls night out, a first date, etc. With different touchpoints, take the experience of using Airbnb. Everything from finding where you want to stay and booking a reservation to getting the keys and interacting with the host accumulates to our perceived overall experience. It’s in Airbnb’s interest to increase the likelihood of each stage being enjoyable, even though something like how the host interacts with the new guests might seem out of their jurisdiction.

The ability for technology to learn our preferences, such as the Nest Thermostat, or provide the right information, at the right time, given our context, such as Google Now, are leading examples of designed products and services that take into account different preferences and touchpoints, delivering better experiences. These concepts were born from Insightful Empathy.



The Starbucks Experience

20122338003 mcdonalds-coffee

It’s funny, I happen to think McDonalds’ coffee tastes better, not to mention it’s cheaper. But the experience of going into a Starbucks is better. If feels chic, sophisticated, and enjoyable.

For Starbucks, the experience they provide is their strategy. From the very beginning, CEO and Chairman Howard Schultz saw this as the opportunity. The suede couches, slow music, and exquisite interior design all contribute to the experience.

Friendly baristas at the cashier play an equally important role. Starbucks’ keeps employees so cheerful by simply treating them well — offering health benefits and stock options, making the company one of the best to work for (CNN) and yielding one of the lowest turnover rates in the industry (businessweek).

The company is just as empathetic to its customers as it is to its employees. Recognizing the human factors in this business model is fascinating, as it would hardly swing with investors on paper: ‘We’re going to spend lots of money building fancy stores and paying our employees exceptionally well so more people buy our coffee.’ 

‘But you can get coffee anywhere. People want the best quality coffee for the cheapest price.’ As traditional economic theory would have it.


“Subject to Change” – Adaptive Path, 2008


I was very excited to read this book as Adaptive Path is a leader in insightful empathy and user experience design. This book gives a good overview of the company’s philosophy to strategy, emanating from an understanding of the users they’re designing for.

At the premise of this theory is a recognition that humans are often illogical, making decisions based on emotion — challenging modern business economic theory that we’re all logical, rational actors constantly maximizing utility, or ROI.  Therefore it’s not functionality per dollar spent that motivates our decisions, but our intangible emotional responses to our experiences.

I loved the book, my only complaint stems from wanting a more indepth explanation of creating an experience map as I had seen previously on their website.

Favorite Excerpts:

Experience design concentrates on moments of engagement between people and brands, and the memories theses moments create. – UK Design Council

We must understand people as they are rather than as market segments or demographics.

Empathy is being aware of, sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another without having those feelings, thoughts of experiences explicitly communicated to you.

[On HCI]: While this approach is an improvement over previous models, it still poses some serious problems. A focus on experience starts to show the shortcomings of the task/goal/preference model. We find it’s nearly impossible to talk about culture and meaning in terms of tasks and goals. Talking about behaviors rather than tasks allows us to include a much wider range of activities in people’s lives. Motivations lead to, drive, and shape behaviours.

[On Research]: It’s seldom about proving anything. Instead, design research helps establish the constraints and opportunities that make great design possible. [On Qualitative Research]: It focuses on process rather than outcomes — the how and why as opposed to the what, where, and when.

“Reports, where good insights go to die.”

Wilkens’ Law: The effectiveness of a research report is inversely proportional to the thickness of its binding.

The classic product designer mistake: they approach the addition of new functionality as simply a feature to check off a list of requirements.

To succeed, each customer-facing channel in an organization needs to stop being a walled-off silo, and become an instrument in a coordinated symphony that addresses the whole customer experience.

The true success of experience design isn’t how well it works when everything is operating as planned, but how well it works when things start going wrong.

Ultimately, instead of providing a seamless environment, you want to provide meaningful, beautiful seams into which people can insert themselves, customizing their experiences to suit their needs.

The ability to create a new technology isn’t synonymous with the ability to craft a desirable customer experience.

The key is to zero in on qualitative customer insights.

The more you add to a system, the more ways it can fall apart and confuse customers. It takes strength and perseverance to prevent systems from succumbing to feature creep.

Design is a way of approaching problem solving, decision making, and strategic planning that can yield better outcomes. It’s an open approach, and anyone in the organization can participate to generate solutions, make insightful and meaningful decisions, and build empathetic offers that address needs that customers may not even know they have.

When you try to control the interaction and tightly manipulate the outcome of the experience, customers tend to rebel.





Empathetic Listening

Stephen Covey says it best,

When I say empathic listening, I mean listening with intent to understand. I mean seeking first to understand, to really understand. It’s an entirely different paradigm. Empathic (from empathy) listening gets inside another person’s frame of reference. You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel.

Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is a form of agreement, a form of judgment. And it is sometimes the more appropriate emotion and response. But people often feed on sympathy. It makes them dependent. The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually.

Empathic listening involves much more than registering, reflecting, or even understanding the words that are said. Communications experts estimate, in fact, that only 10% of our communication is represented by the words we say. Another 30 percent is represented by our sounds, and 60% by our body language. In empathic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel.

Empathic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with. Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives and interpretation, you’re dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart. You’re listening to understand. You’re focused on receiving the deep communication of another human soul.

We Need More Elevators

ElevatorsThere once was a company that had hundreds of employees in a very tall building. As the company grew, wait times for the elevators did too.

Wait times became so long, that employees starting complaining. “I’m having to wait almost three full minutes everyday!”

The senior executives convened to devise a solution to get the wait times down. The lead engineer said it would be feasible to add another elevator, reducing the wait time down to just a few seconds.

Then the behavioral psychologist proposed something rather creative, and reframed the problem. It wasn’t a matter of wait time, but of perceived wait time.

The company ultimately added mirrors throughout the lobby, allowing patrons to look at themselves and those around them inconspicuously. Complaints were reduced and the company didn’t have to spend an exorbitant amount constructing a new elevator shaft.

Sometimes by better understanding people, we can better devise solutions to their problems.

Design Thinking

It’s what got me into this mess. Design Thinking – and it’s profoundly simple yet forgotten way of unearthing insights. I feel late to the game, honestly. Businessweek published 16 articles on it in 2006  –  and I was just 17 years old.

Anyways, enough about me. I’m here to blog about Design Thinking about how it’s reinvigorating what our society produces. It’s fascinating to me because of it’s human-centered approach and what that entails.

I’m even more interested in how this can apply to social entrepreneurship. Imagine having grown up in America, travelling to South America and discovering a population of shoeless kids. Blake Mycoskie (founder of TOMS did) and solving that problem in a creative way.

Wikipedia defines design thinking as:

Design thinking has come to be defined as combining empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality in analyzing and fitting various solutions to the problem context.




Designing Beyond The User’s Capability


(from Adaptive Path’s book) There once was a Software Company that wanted to make a video-editing product for Microsoft users in the late 90’s. Traditional quantitative market research techniques revealed there was a significant business opportunity to connect digital video owners with their computers.

User research revealed only 1/12 of the studied participants had been able to connect his camera to his computer, and had relied on the IT guy at work to set it up for him.

Deciding not to ahead with development, the Software Company put the project aside, potentially saving a considerable investment of time and money.

However, having designed a system to handle this entire process could have been a big success. Perhaps it was beyond the capabilities of the Software Company, but a system like the ipod>itunes could have built a competitive barrier to entry with a proprietary product/service combination.