User Tasks for Empirical Persona Research

When planning persona studies and experiments, one challenging aspect is task creation. In other words, what do we ask the participants to do with the personas?

I’m writing this post to provide some answers to this perennial question of persona task design.

Persona Task Types

Overall, we can categorize persona tasks into four main types:

  • creative tasks (e.g., writing, designing)
  • search tasks (e.g., user segment identification)
  • learning tasks (e.g., understanding, remembering, processing)
  • communication tasks (e.g., aligning user understandings)

Creative tasks deal with creative, original outputs that are informed and inspired by the used personas. This can involve a broad range of outputs from UX design layouts and templates into software wireframe and mockups, and reaching to other creative domains, including ad design / copywriting, creation of business plans, value propositions, and so on.

Search tasks involve the use of personas for user segment discovery or identification, meaning how can we find optimal or desirable target groups out of the many target groups that the personas represent. In user segment identification, we are searching for a specific, predefined target group (e.g., young males in Finland interested in ice hockey). In user segment discovery, we want to find optimal personas for a given objective (e.g., what persona would maximize coverage, reach, or present the widest range of needs). The objective might not always mean having the broadest representation of users, but it can deal with fringe user groups as well (e.g., find me the most unique or most different personas).

Learning tasks deal with the cognitive side of things, i.e., application of personas for tasks that require learning, memorizing, internalizing, and thoroughly understanding specific aspects of the user base. For example, the goal can be to find out what separates the personas in the persona set, or what makes them similar. This process is personal and idiosyncratic; each individual would take away different things from the personas, especially when increasing the number of personas.

Communication tasks deal with the collaborative aspect of personas. For example, when working in a team, the goal would be to understand the personas in a similar way, therefore aligning customer or user understanding among team members. If we all can identify with and relate to Jim, then we are more equipped to making decisions that concern Jim (e.g., regarding features, pricing, service levels, preferred methods of communication, expectations, pain points, and so on).

So, a design experiment with personas could involve a task from one of the above types. Each task type would also have its preferred way of measurement – that is, metrics that capture user behavior or perceptions in the context of the task.

Persona Task Metrics

For creative tasks, we could measure things such as the number of ideas generated, the length of text produced, the linguistic diversity of the text, the number and type of design elements used, color ranges and choices, the number of design details based on empathetic understanding of the persona, subjective quality rating by co-workers or crowd-workers, and so on. Creative tasks also seem to require creative measurement.

For search tasks, we can often define a desired outcome (i.e., baseline). For example, if a participant is given the task to identify a specific user segment among a set of personas, we can verify if she or he was able to do, and if yes, how long did it take. We can also measure how many steps it took to complete the task successfully, and how much cognitive effort (e.g., eye fixation transitions) was required.

For learning tasks, we can measure how many details about the persona a participant remembers, either spontaneously or when aided by some cue information (these are called spontaneous or aided recall, respectively). If we know the true state of affairs, such as the persona’s pain points and we ask the participant to name those after using the persona, we can also measure recall accuracy, i.e., the percentage of correctly recalled details out of all details we asked about.

For communication tasks, the measurement is slightly challenging. Researchers have measured the number of times team members mention a persona, in order to see if personas were at all considered in a design process. Another research has also measured preconceptions that stakeholders have about their customers, and how the use of personas altered these preconceptions (i.e., the named typical user group before and after being exposed to data-driven personas).

Conclusion

Personas support a myriad of task types, of which we mentioned four. Each task type comes with a different way of measurement. Originality and creativity are needed to devise efficient and effective task designs and metrics for detecting significant in user behavior and perceptions.