Activity-centered design > personas
Personas are overrated.
I don’t intend to turn this into a long post about personas and their merits. I’ll return to my thoughts on personas in future posts, but what I do want to highlight is that activity-centered design — finding the activities that transcend different people — should be the core of good product design.
This is something that Don Norman talks about in The Design of Everyday Things (a book that every designer and person involved with building products should read):
How can we pretend to accommodate all of these very different, very disparate people? The answer is to focus on activities, not the individual person. I call this activity-centered design. Let the activity define the product and its structure. Let the conceptual model of the product be built around the conceptual model of the activity.
Why does this work? Because people’s activities across the world tend to be similar. Moreover, although people are unwilling to learn systems that appear to have arbitrary, incomprehensible requirements, they are quite willing to learn things that appear to be essential to the activity.
The problem with personas, at a high level, is that they focus too much on psycho-demographic traits and don't focus nearly enough on what users are struggling with and what they are trying to do (a tool such as empathy maps are superior to personas in general for these reasons).
Activity-centered design is the relentless focus on what users are actually trying to accomplish and the activities that they need to do to be successful.
Good design should be a foundation of something 80 percent activity-centered design and then 20 percent customization to hit different types of users and markets. Too many people make the approach of starting with what makes people different instead of focusing on what makes people similar.
Think of the iPhone. Apple doesn’t make a bunch of different iPhones to hit tons of perceived markets. They have a few devices that work for all kinds of users all over the world. Sure some of the features of the iPhone may be aimed at certain people more than others, but the core of the iPhone experience transcends.
And when we talk about different kinds of users, we mean things like different styles of computing users (searchers versus navigators), users who need accessibility considerations, etc. Think about how many companies have a lot of personas to hit a bunch of perceived types of users and none of them are aimed at someone who needs accessibility considerations.