What Would Barney Do?

January 5, 2009

I recently attended a workshop series called UX Intensive, hosted by Adaptive Path. For four days, I and about 100 other web enthusiasts examined four key elements that contribute to a successful website design: Design Strategy, Design Research, Information Architecture, and Interaction Design. I've put together a list of four insights to better web design, one for each day of the week. (The previous post about Design Strategy is here.)

Design Research

Design research is often overlooked as part of the design process. Many companies make assumptions about their customers without knowing for sure if their assumptions are correct. Although generalizations can be made, it can be extremely beneficial to dive much deeper into who uses your product, what they are doing, and why. Design research seeks to answer these questions as well as others you didn't even know you were suppose to ask.

We all are familiar with the idea of creating personas to define a target audience—you've read them or perhaps even written one yourself. Barney is 34 years old and works at the A&P, where he hasn't missed a day of work in 13 years. He likes to bowl, has a Wednesday night canasta game, and on Tuesdays, mans the wheel of the bookmobile. Barney is our target audience.

Here's the rub. In my experience, these personas are made up, pulled from thin air based on what you think you know about the customer. When it's time to make a big design decision, poor Barney's voice can't be heard because he's not real, he doesn't exist. Design suffers because we as designers have no empathy for the end user.

The idea here is not that personas are worthless. In fact, they are a great tool to gain insights about who uses your product and why. But in order for personas to be effective, they have to be based on real people, people you've talked to, interviewed, spent time with, and observed.

An effective persona should have a name, a photo, and some biographical information. More importantly, it should identify their behaviors and motivations as well as obstacles and challenges they face when dealing with your product. 

The benefit of creating personas based on real people is two-fold. One, your personas will be much more accurate and yield richer insights into who your customer is, what they do, and why. And two, instead of casting Barney's opinion aside, you'll be more inclined to ask what would Barney think, what would Barney do? In other words, you'll empathize with the end user and ultimately deliver them a better experience.