The Long Road to Inventing Design Personas
If you’ve worked in the software or web industry in the last 20 years, you’ve probably been introduced to the idea of “personas” — hypothetical archetypes — as a practical interaction design tool. Whether you hate or love this idea as a development tool, you can thank me. My book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity, first published in 1998, introduced the use of personas. Based only on my single-chapter discussion in that book, personas rapidly gained popularity in the software industry due to their unusual power and effectiveness. Had personas been developed in the laboratory, the full story of how they came to be would have been published, but I invented personas over many years in my practice as a software inventor and design consultant. Since The Inmates was published, many people have asked for the history of design personas — so here it is.
In their book, Fire in the Valley, authors Paul Freiberger and Mike Swaine credit me with writing the “first serious business software for microcomputers” as far back as 1975. Like so much software of the time, it was terribly hard to use, and its real value was in demonstrating that making software easy to use was harder than everyone thought. Despite my commitment to making software more user-friendly, it wasn’t until 1983 and about 15 major business and personal software products later that I began to develop a more effective approach.
Kathy became the model for my first, primitive, persona.
I was writing a critical-path project management program that I called Plan*It. It was eventually published and became a bestseller. Early in the project, I interviewed about seven or eight colleagues and acquaintances who were likely candidates to use a project management program. In particular, I spoke at length with a woman named Kathy who worked at Carlick Advertising, my brother-in-law’s Silicon Valley advertising agency. Kathy’s job was called “Traffic,” and it was her responsibility to assure that projects were staffed and staffers were fully utilized. It seemed like a classic project management task. Kathy became the model for my first, primitive, persona.