OPW Week 2: Using Personas

When we think about the usability of a system, an important step is to define the users clearly. This helps in setting precise objectives for the design, as well as in making them measurable.

For example, suppose we are designing a calculator. The decision of what layout to use will depend largely on whom the device is intended for!

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Is it for shopkeepers and home users who need to tally expenses and sales? Or is it for college students who need it for coursework? The questions of which features are must-haves, which are nice-to-haves and which are unnecessary; all have different answers based on which user profile you are targeting. Hence it is important (from the beginning of the development process!) to identify your target users.

Designers often use personas to define their target users. A persona is a realistic representation of the target user group. Personas have been long used in marketing to understand the psyche (and more specifically, the purchase drivers) of the different customer segments in the target market. Similarly, designers use personas to keep focussed on a representative user’s needs and wants throughout the entire development process, and also to make decisions and prioritize between various options.

[Personas]…are fictional characters that we create, and they serve as a reminder of who our users are. Like any good fiction, a well-made persona has its own story to tell. The more believable the story, the better representation the persona is of users; the more accurate the representation, the more likely our decisions will reflect the user’s needs…Ultimately, personas help us make the user’s needs more memorable throughout the process.


A persona is the design equivalent of a character sketch in theater – it is only by delving deep into the character that we can hope to do it justice. Similarly, a good persona helps to uncover the motivations of users and their needs which we plan to address.

My first Usability Test

A few weeks ago, I conducted my first formal Usability Test. It was a 1-person UT conducted on a test image of GNOME 3.14. The most challenging part for the participant (also a first-timer!) was to remember that it was the system that was being tested – not the user. And as a talkative person it was a challenge for me to engage in passive conversation – keeping the lines of communication open (‘okay, what are you looking for?’), but taking care not to interfere with the user’s actions (‘oh, that’s over there!’).

The Usability Test had 20 scenario tasks distributed across four applications in GNOME (gedit, Web, Nautilus and Notes). I used the test structure devised by my mentor Jim Hall. The participant was asked a few questions about their demographic profile and previous experience with computers. The usability test took about 2.5 hours – 1.5 hours to set up and simulate the environment for the tasks, and 1 hour to conduct the actual test.

Since the participant was a friend of mine, she was forthcoming about what she was trying to do at (almost) every step: without worrying about ‘is it silly to not know how to do this?’. This reduced the degree of uncertainty in my notes, and allowed me to focus on why she was doing something. However, I did not categorize my notes by task, but simply by action: thus my report was a little ambiguous about which action was done for which task – this is something I intend to improve upon during my next UT. Also, in future usability tests I will assign numerical ratings (1-5, 5 being the easiest to execute) for each task – this will allow me to generate a heat map for better analysis later.

I learnt three main lessons from my first usability test.
First: what seems obvious to me may not seem obvious to others. Before the test, I assumed that certain tasks would be very quick, simply because I knew certain shortcuts to execute them quickly. However, the participant did not know those shortcuts, and it ended up being a surprisingly long-winded process.
Second: consistency boosts productivity. What took a long time to discover in the first application (gedit) was a breezy matter of a few clicks towards the end, because the participant had discovered a menu/options button that was consistent across all applications within GNOME. It was different from what she was used to earlier (Windows menu bars), but the consistency within GNOME helped increase her productivity as the test progressed.
Third: previous experience defines user ‘reflexes’. Since the participant was a regular user of computers, I expected the entire test to finish very quickly. However I had not considered that the participant had a predominantly Windows background – so the tasks with a Windows-like execution proceeded smoothly, whereas GNOME-specific behaviour had a ‘learning curve’ associated with it.

All in all, I enjoyed the entire experience: and I’m looking forward to conducting bigger and better Usability Tests in the near future! :-)

OPW Week 1: Thoughts on Usability

A program should follow the ‘Law of Least Astonishment’. What is this law? It is simply that the program should always respond to the user in the way that astonishes him least.

The Tao of Programming
Geoffrey James

This is the opening quote in (my OPW mentor) Jim Hall’s capstone titled Usability Themes in Open Source Software. I think it perfectly encapsulates the concept of usability – how easy it is to learn and use something.

Usability plays a major role in the adoption and sustained use of any system, be it physical or virtual. With respect to a new system, it is vital that it be iteratively redesigned incorporating users’ feedback, since there are issues which may be non-obvious to developers who are at best, a subset of the user base (faced this up close in Project Mudra).

Usability is multi-dimensional, a cumulative result of many factors like:

1. Intuitive design: a nearly effortless understanding of the architecture and navigation of the system
2. Ease of learning: how fast a user who has never seen the user interface before can accomplish basic tasks
3. Efficiency of use: How fast an experienced user can accomplish tasks
4. Memorability: after using a system, if a user can remember enough to use it effectively in future visits
5. Error frequency and severity: how often users make errors while using the system, how serious the errors are, and how users recover from the errors
6. Subjective satisfaction: If the user likes using the system

(from usability.gov)

From what I have understood, usability is a measure of how well a system allows you to do your job without getting in the way. Better usability translates to better engagement, better efficiency, better effectiveness and (if that’s the end goal) better revenues too!

Some researchers in this area make a distinction between “big U” Usability and “little u” usability – “big U” Usability is everything that goes into creating a product that works for people (Redish). “Big U” Usability encompasses tools and techniques that can be used before development, during development and after development to support your understanding of the user experience (Barnum). It includes, but is not limited to, “little u” usability (i.e. usability testing). Usability testing is what I will be focusing on during my internship.

Hello, world!

Soooo I’ve finally gotten around to blogging.

About a month ago, I was selected to participate in the Outreach Program for Women as an intern at GNOME (yay!). My project is on Usability Testing. I’m really excited about working on it – usability testing has applications in every application, and beyond! The coming months will see me taking baby steps into the world of free and open source software. :-)

One of the requirements for this internship is to blog about my project regularly. I’m a bit hesitant, seeing as I have never blogged before – but I guess it’ll be just one more in a long line of firsts in OPW! :-D This blog will be regularly updated with my progress on the project. By the way, Jim, my mentor for this project also blogs about Open Source Software and Usability. Check it out!

I also work on Project Mudra, an initiative to promote Braille Literacy. You can read more about it here or here. This blog will also have occasional updates about Project Mudra. Our facebook page is usually up-to-date. Comments and suggestions welcome. :-)

I may also write the occasional opinion piece on an issue I feel strongly about. Like why I feel cutlery is overrated or what I think the real problem with barbie is (hint: it’s much broader(!) than just her measurements).

Oh, and I’m an avid foodie too. :-D So you can expect passionate posts about a delectable tandoori chicken or that corner shop that sells the yummiest sandwiches!

That’s all for now. Hello blogging world! :-)