icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an 

ongoing web column   by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.

Chronological Index | Subject Index

Personas in search of an author and the ecstasy of agile requirements

About what constitutes an advertisement or the tipping point question for digital designers

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2015). Personas in search of an author and the ecstasy of online communications. About what constitutes an advertisement or the tipping point question for digital designers. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 4.11 (November).

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2015). Personas in search of an author and the ecstasy of online communications. About what constitutes an advertisement or the tipping point question for digital designers. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Online)], 4.11 (November).

To John McKenzie and Pippa Hargrave, very trustable virtual friends

London, 4 February 2016 - Recently endorsed by academics and practitioners as a cost effective and user centered methodology, the design personas I am talking about are fabricated archetypes, synthetic and abstracted representations of typical users’ behaviours, choices and actions. They exist to guide digital designers and developers through complex projects.

Design personas defined

Saying that design personas represent human behaviours can be misleading: in fact, like characters on a scene or puppets on a balcony edge, design personas just represent abstract ideas or solutions the puppeters (user experience engineers, information designers or software architects and programmers) have in mind when they talk software requirements from an end-user perspective (user needs, or “what works?”).

Design personas are not made for accuracy but for precision of the actions we expect to engineer through their data, reducing the uncertainty associated with our creativity and bias, preferences and projections. In other terms, personas do not represent any actual real human being, problem, conduct or personality but only what we see as a critical or mandatory feature in a software application or in a system: a certain user need, quality, attribute, property or characteristic becomes a design shortcut.

Through design personas we can easily refer to evidences we gather from online browsing activities and users' data and take into account the possible reasons why people search for information, bookmark and print pages from a website, interacts with some items and not others.

In sum, as a method, design personas is a bit of a quick and dirty way to wear other people shoes but it has historically worked nicely and conveniently to decide about obvious (obvious once they have been devised) design choices like, for instance, that ATM machine must have a clear button to correct input errors and shopping carts should always allow to review the quantity of products we are ready to order online.

An over-borrowed concept

With the explosion of mobile computing and the “apps” economy, the method has been adopted in fields others than user centered design. Whenever customers’ data are expected to vitally inform decision making - think about ergonomics, tv and media productions, online advertising or the delivery of health programmes - practitioners and researches have discovered that design personas offer a valid alternative to complex requirements or costly multi-disciplinary teamwork.

In turn, each discipline, as always happens with horizontal innovations that spread from one sector to another, has reinterpreted the borrowed notion of designed personas and developed new original applications and knowledge bases.

Profiling users of online and mobile applications could not be, at least apparently, easier in the age of big data, leading to a variety of personalised services in real time: we have access to an unprecedented massive quantity of user generated content that bayesian algorithms and other AI and analytics software can dig out to produce automatic summaries, descriptions and visualizations and articulated, though always completely arbitrary, levels of insight about ourselves and our possible online matches and preferences. This is what the industry needs for the display of targeted advertisements, messages, social networks connections and contents.

Don’t be evil?

Native advertising and programmatic are booming thanks to abundance of free user generated contents and relatively low cost open data technologies. Never mind if the average click on a sponsored link is 0.06% - that becomes 0.27% in case of rich media. The production of unwatched and unclicked online advertising is a really engaging and entertaining business… in itself.

To some extent, native advertising and programmatic embed the design personas approach as a nasty philosophical foundation. Everybody with basic skills, such as accessing and reusing APIs to manipulate personal data or re-selling Google advertising services, can invent a new original way to deliver "personalised" marketing messages and divert traffic towards more remunerative funnels, products, companies, places and so on. But is that right? Does it make sense from a business perspective different from a telecom operator or an advertising network? And, above all, does it work? According to what metrics or standards?

Regulatory and self-regulatory “frameworks” are emerging to determine the fair and right way to use personal data and contents for the purpose of design, packaging and delivering native advertising and online behavioural advertising (OBA) - and yet they have not addressed, so far, further specific issues coming up from the world of consumer and business public relations professionals and political lobbyists. PRs and lobbyists are the major “prosumers” and manipulators of user generated contents and unregulated WOM advertising (word of mouth): their Global Alliance, inspired and advised by the wordlwide godfather of public relations (and my "eternal" enemy Toni Muzi Falconi), has proved to be able to trigger extraordinary global campaigns useful for fundraising and global governance of relationships - that is an elegant way to allude not only to diplomacy and informal and formal governance settlings but also to "bad mouth", very stylish, posh, cruel or compassionate and certainly ethically arguable campaigns against people, brands, places, political parties and more.

New regulations and by laws will inevitably dictate sooner or later how visual and textual ads (banners and keywords linked to other webpages), news articles and press releases, search suggestions, job vacancies or other classified ads but also all sorts of promotional messages should be served to you - and only to you - including:

Of course, there is a positive, overarching side everybody should endorse: new rules and by-laws for online advertising aim at assuring that if you are stranded in the middle of nowhere and search for a mechanic you are very likely to be assisted by a skilled and trustable person and not by a thieve or burglar.

But, unfortunately, when we talk about meanings, reputation, trust or quality measurements, things are very complicated: we cannot regulate a course of action because any course of action can be faked up in order to comply with the letter - and not with the spirit - of the rules. In engineering terms, software algorithms should be able to calculate the uncertainty interval that makes a difference between a gamble and a transparent assessment. This calculates how likely is that you are being served (in real time!) with advertising contents that are relevant to you. It should also disclose a value on an universal, comparable and agreeable scale (like tv audience shares). That would allow advertisers to incorporate transparent users feedback (and not just the shadows of opaque dynamic design personas ideas) into programmatic.

So, for example, if you are interested in tomatoes and you have been shown ads about beans, wrongly categorised as tomatoes!, an advertising system should include a feature able to recognise and learn that, in this circumstance, you cannot complain nor judge or comment about the delivery of ads about beans nor your views and clicks on beans are in any way reliable - and stop fantasising about the serendipity value of people clicking on links to contents about beans while actually buying tomatoes! Similarly, an intelligent ad server should prevent wrong and nonsense correlations and understand that your time as a customer should be compensated if you took the time to document to your online bookshop of a systematic mismatching between your movies and books purchases and the type of books and videos you receive ads and recommendations for. Customers can surely provide warnings of possible advertising frauds and corporate crimes that risk otherwise to remain undetected and undetectable: to such extent the digital world is a territory of new policies and rights (like the syndication right I talk about in icm2re 4.9 that has barely been explored yet).

Cutting-edge programmatic technology that implements the idea of "dynamic design personas" is still long way off from the level of trust, fairness and effectiveness people normally associate with big brands' advertising. And yet, advertisers are learning that exposure to negative publicity, often due to technological and computing errors and unforeseen circumstances, is in any case preferable to risks of betraying customers trust and expectations.

A number of trade associations - such as the European Advertising Standards Alliance (EASA) - are actively producing guidelines and best practices in this field and are lobbying the regulators to prevent them from stepping in. As the recent USA Federal Communication Commission guidelines on native advertising and their Enforcement Policy Statement on Deceptively Formatted Advertisements put it, “any qualifying information necessary to prevent deception must be disclosed prominently and unambiguously to overcome any misleading impression created”. This disclosure should be true not only at the end user point of sale or point of display but also for intermediaries that work along the digital supply chain.

What else? You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. Perhaps it is convenient to look at the concepts and assumptions native and programmatic advertising rely on and see if any methodological and cultural adjustment deserve attention and investments.

Reviewing the design personas notion

The abundance of personal data was not at all available - and neither necessary - when the design personas approach started to emerge as a convenient and effective one, in the 1990s. The publication of an enthusiastic textbook by Alan Cooper, the inventor of visual basic, in 1999 gave it the seal of approval by senior engineers and usability experts.

IT programmers and designers found very convenient to summarise complex large datasets through description of typical user behaviours, consistent with data analysis and also with the evidence provided by qualitative research not only because of internal communication purposes - I remember how effective, efficient and fun was for myself talking with software developers about the typical tasks and expectations of "John" and "Rose" instead of bothering them with long lists of requirements they would have in any case summarily translated in their own terms.

The shortcuts offered by design personas became soon a smart way to agree consistent and reliable solutions.

Presenting to clients using web prototypes turned out to be very engaging, effective and more emotional than just showing detailed tables of data or graphs and diagrams.

“John” and “Rose” could also convey complex ideas and choices about software features, communication styles and cultural preferences, brand and logo attributes, and even the whole architecture - structure and contents - of a web project in very simple terms, suggesting associations with everybody experiences.

I personally started to think about pros and cons of something I called a "prototype sale": it was true that I needed an effective, assertive and not conflictual way to show evidence of good design choices that might be very opposing my clients’ assumptions and to such extent the prototype sale worked absolutely fine. But at the same time I had to make aware the customer that... there were bias and assumptions to deal with, and both of us were playing a part not necessarily exempt from risks of losing the original persona archetype in favour of easier stereotypes that could become unmanageable or problematic to implement or develop consistently over time.

It was exactly at that point that some perplexities started to emerge in my personal application of design personas to digital projects.

Perhaps all the unicorns are born by errors exactly for this reason, a basic misunderstanding in users requirements! We all want to be back home in time for dinner, after all. So we tend to accept oversimplifications and data interpretations that are just convenient for the time being. The genuine ideas dissolve into the practicalities of getting the sought clients’ approval - and the sharp and smart contours of our design ideas start blurring.

John can become a bit of a Stuart, sometimes acting like Paul, and after all who are we to state that Rose would never buy a certain product within that web interface if the customer has just commented that it serves the pitch quite well?

After all, if there is any need for adjustments or for a review and for corrections, this is exactly what analytics and continuous system improvements are for (think of the ITIL infinite saga! or the same essence of Agile project management).

In this direction, an even more dynamic approach to design personas was introduced with the booming of Web 2.0 and rich virtual environment experiments involving Second Life, live chat and phone messaging systems.

Also the progressive automation of call centers and customer services has created new simplistic ways to deal with repetitive problems, but losing understanding of actual customers. Does it matter? Even Dan Norman reviewed his ideas in respect of the affordance concept - one of the most powerful ways to think about usability and customer satisfaction in IT and web design.

It is not unusual that team members with a certain level of experience and self reflective attitude can start considering how they themselves have created contexts in which people tend to conform and behave according to certain obvious predictable but very unreliable and ephemeral patterns. This allows to make some corrections and to return to the basics of the methodology.

And yet, genuine creative efforts are often incompatible with group thinking, group dynamics and performance targets. Analysis of actual user behaviours requires not just active observation or listening and watching but clarity and consistency of statistics, indicators, analytics. The design personas approach tends to forge and adapt goals through reframing and anchoring mechanisms, confirming the storyteller views. Designers may experience (and judge) their own teamwork as richer, more relevant and enjoyable and above all more productive and trustable at the expense of a genuine creative effort to analyse users data and choices.

In sum the added value of collaboration becomes the essence of the same designers' experience: participatory design is considered as a very successful formula because everybody has a more active engagement on the digital project scene and not on the grounds of the end users experience

All in all, I see the dynamic design personas method more as an artistic field of practice or service delivery, like a new genre instrumental to advertising and communication processes or a new social care technique, than a reliable way to gather users requirements.

In fact, the same process can be (and it is being) used in therapeutical and entertainment settings, addressing mental health issues, motivational and relationships problems, games testing, financial simulations or just social media games.

Even industrial design processes have been contaminated with a new trend of "instant design": opportunities created by a transactional economy, through collaborative and creative encounters, leverage on easy stereotypes. Where there is a perceived gap in creativity or problem solving - either for entertainment or for therapeutical applications - researchers have called in the possibility of a "design personas enrichment process".

That is perfectly fine: the idea of dynamic information and interaction design methods not surprisingly fascinates the youngest and creates the opportunity of truly collaborative, immersive and engaging "theatrical" work environments in which designers play very self-rewarding roles. But it is inevitable that they cannot easily separate facts from fiction and are inadequate to support systemic solutions or infrastructure for digital markets.

What was the purpose of this exercise all about? could ask, out of the blue, the Scrum Master, addressing his team members who are waiting for some clues on how to proceed on a project that suddenly appears unmanageable. The conclusive words of the manager of Pirandello's masterpiece can surely complete my reflection on this point: Pretence? Reality? To hell with it all! Never in my life has such a thing happened to me. I've lost a whole day over these people! a whole day!