Written by two very well qualified individuals, Tamara Adlin, a customer experience consultant, and John Pruitt, a Microsoft user research manager, this book may pose somewhat of an enigma for diehard computer types. Read on. For those unfamiliar with these terms and concepts, there is a web site available at: http://www.personalifecycle.com/. The authors also teach companion short courses on the topics which can be found at: http://www.nngroup.com/events/tutorials/personas_1.html..
In addition to this online help, it may be useful to know that the intended audience consists of information developers, product designers, usability specialists, technical writers, business analysts, and development managers. For the rest of us, should we care what this book is really all about?
First of all, the term "persona" as a composite representation of the actions and behaviors of an ultimate user has been attributed to Alan Cooper. He popularized and refined its definition and concepts for new products. Personas are simply a guide for a development team, combining likely user personal characteristics with a name. Unlike market (demographic or ethnographic) segment data, a persona assumes attributes of familiar individual acquaintances.
In this book, personas are viewed more particularly as a user archetype or profile. The claim is that such user abstractions become highly powerful tools that improve user definition while ameliorating product or service development. They further emphasize that personas are not "one size fits all," but must be specifically tailored to unique situations and/or organizations.
You ask: how did such knowledge emerge? It started with the so-called User Centered Design (UCD) movement in which data were gathered relying on usability and market research techniques. The question has always been: how to move from having well-understood data to creating the best user experience? In effect, user data had to be translated into information that was helpful in developing coherent products that would satisfy intended users. Ergo, the notion of personas and this seminal (NPI) book to describe a process for their creation and use.
The standard waterfall development model is extended by adding new phases at the beginning and end, then integrating "life process" terms for a richer development cycle; i.e., conception, gestation, birth, maturation, adulthood, and retirement. The last five (of twelve) chapters are invited contributions from well-known systems designers and developers, including Larry Constantine and Jonathan Grudin. Embellished by voluminous examples and illustrations (contributed by the second author's father), also included are case studies, lessons learned, good ideas, and practical details shared by persona practitioners from a variety of industries. A fictitious company called Gigantic for Kids (or G4K) is woven into the descriptions of the development chapters, three through seven.
There are two traps from this reviewer's perspective: the possibility of an over-reaching anthropomorphism, and the dilemma of the most appropriate audience. In the first case, anthropomorphism is understood as assigning human qualities to non-human objects, be they machines, toys, or related products. Granted that anthropomorphic perceptions influence how we interact with robots and other automated products as well as animals, the catch is how much should we trust and rely on them.
Secondly, for our computer professional society, one may wonder whether such a book will find its way into either a computer science or an information system curriculum. Good questions! Being contrary, maybe it should. However, my own experience suggests that it may be way too massive (722 pages) and terribly glitzy (hundreds of cartoon figures) to become a standard course text. However, as a supplementary reference, or one aimed specifically at a user focused development course or such practitioners, it may be perfect. Just my humble opinion!
Ross Gagliano is a retired professor, having helped found the computer science department at Georgia State University. He previously was a senior researcher at the Georgia Tech Research Institute.