Personas as User Assistance and Navigation Aids

User Assistance

Putting Help in context

A column by Mike Hughes
June 7, 2010

In the summer of 2007, the Society for Technical Communication (STC) initiated a collaborative effort, combining representatives from academe and industry, to define the Technical Communication Body of Knowledge (TCBOK). I got involved in that project in January 2008, when a group of us started working asynchronously online to lay out the foundations. Very early, we identified a core set of stakeholders whom we thought would constitute the primary users of this Body of Knowledge. To understand how these users would access and use the Body of Knowledge, we decided to create personas that would let us envision what type of structure it should have and communicate our findings to the leadership and members of STC. This column describes the personas we created, as well as a surprising discovery I made when I later visited the prototype that the team had created for these personas.

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Early Design Efforts and Personas

Ginny Redish, who is a noted user experience expert in the field of technical communication, provided a framework for the team to use when creating a persona. Figure 1 shows an excerpt from a typical persona.

Figure 1—An excerpt from a typical persona
An excerpt from a typical persona

The following are the common elements we included in all of the personas:

  • name
  • job title
  • lists of demographic and biographical details
  • a quotation illustrating the context of a persona’s problem
  • personal attributes of a persona
  • typical tasks a persona performed in his or her work
  • information goals or needs
  • a scenario illustrating how a persona might use the body of knowledge to meet a specific information goal or need

Our scenarios of use helped the team start to understand how users with different personas might use the Body of Knowledge. In accordance with these scenarios, we defined our primary goals for the final design: a portal that we would organize by some meaningful taxonomy and that would point to curated content, as well as content on other Web sites.

The following detailed example is an excerpt from a scenario of use for the persona Caroline Landry, a Senior Technical Writer:

Scenario of Use: Caroline Landry

  1. Caroline reads about the TCBOK in Intercom—she’s a regular reader—and recognizes it as a site where she could probably go to find the information she needs on translation, CMSs, and promotion.
  2. When Caroline arrives at the TCBOK, she doesn’t know exactly where to go. Translation might be part of Information Design & Development, Tool Knowledge, or Deliverables. Content Management System is probably under Tool Knowledge, but she’s not sure all the information she needs would be there, because she’s also looking for recommendations. Professional Development sounds about right for her career concerns, but what content within that section might specifically relate to promotion or recognition? There doesn’t seem to be a topic with either title.
  3. So, instead of browsing, Caroline types her key terms into the Search box for the TCBOK and gets a number of hits on topics relating to translation, including one for machine translation, which she had heard of, but knew little about. A quick review of the topic makes her think her team might want to consider going in this direction, so she makes a note to assign one of her employees to take a more in-depth look at machine translation and the style rules that are appropriate for it.
  4. Caroline has an interest in automation. When she looks at the tags people have applied to the machine translation entry, she realizes that automation is not one of them. So using the TCBOK’s tagging feature, she adds the tag automation to the entry, so future readers will find it if they search for automation.
  5. Caroline’s search for content management system returns a set of reviews of specific CMSs that other TCBOK users have provided. Caroline recognizes a couple of the vendor names, but not all of them. Because she can leverage the experiences of other STC members, she can now be more confident she’s considering the right set of vendors and products when she recommends a CMS to management.
  6. When Caroline searches for promotion, several topics relating to certification come up. In reviewing them, Caroline realizes that gaining certification in certain technologies or processes—like project management—could help her demonstrate that her skill level in such areas justifies a promotion. It seems obvious now, but Caroline just hadn’t realized that investing in a certification could provide an objective measure of her skills she could use in arguing for a promotion. Glad that some other STC member had tagged this certification topic with the tag promotion, she follows a link to review the Project Management Professional certification from the Project Management Institute.
  7. Caroline is really happy to have read one particular article that provides concrete information on the ROI (Return on Investment) of certification in her field, so on the article page, she rates the article highly and leaves a comment describing how helpful it was.

In April of 2008, the team met face to face for a two-day workshop. During the workshop, we went through an intense affinity-mapping exercise whose goal was to create a taxonomy for the Body of Knowledge. At the same time, we tested its emerging structure against the personas and scenarios of use we had created. This exercise illustrated the need for additional scenarios and personas, which we then created. Finally, STC members vetted the taxonomy and personas at the STC conference held in June 2008, in Philadelphia.

An Extended Role for the Personas

After that workshop, I rolled off the project. Recently, however, I got involved again, so I got to see how the project had progressed. Although I had found the personas to be very useful artifacts during the team’s early design efforts and as a way of communicating with the STC leadership and members, I had fully expected that the personas would no longer be in use now that there was a working prototype. But upon examining the prototype of the Technical Communication Body of Knowledge portal, I found that the personas played a prominent role in helping readers to understand how to use the portal—and even as navigation tools that provided contextually relevant links to sections of the portal.

Figure 2 shows a page titled “Using Personas to Access Information in the TCBOK,” which tells readers how they can use the personas to assist them in navigating the Body of Knowledge and provides a list of the personas in a column on the left. On the home page, there is a prominent link to this page.

Figure 2—Persona matrix
Persona matrix

The design team had actually brought the personas into the product as examples of how readers with particular personas might benefit from the Body of Knowledge portal. These personas provide contextually rich examples of how to navigate the portal. A combination of ego and curiosity compelled me to look for one of the personas I had created. Figure 3 shows a new feature the team had added—the one that caught me by surprise. The steps in the “Scenario of Use” section now included links that let users navigate to the sections they were describing! They had also added a new section above the scenario that provided links to sections that would likely be of interest to someone matching the persona.

Figure 3—Navigation embedded within a persona
Navigation embedded within a persona

Leveraging the Value of Personas

The inclusion of the personas in the portal itself provides a training aid that lets users experience the Body of Knowledge in the way another person—or, in this case, a persona—with the same type of problem or goal would. Not only does this create an educational experience, the embedded links are likely to result in users getting to the topics or sections in the Body of Knowledge portal that are most relevant to them.

A lot of work goes into creating personas, and I was delighted to discover this innovative way in which the team carried forward the benefits of that work into the final product, where users could benefit from it as well. The personas provide a rich form of user experience by portraying typical practices for effectively using the portal. I recommend that other UX designers consider applying personas in this way—initially using these user research artifacts during design, then incorporating them into products as user assistance and navigation aids. 

User Experience Architect at IBM Internet Security Systems

Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Mike HughesIn his role as User Experience Architect for IBM Security, Mike’s professional focus is on designing usable user interfaces that accommodate the user as learner. Previously, as User Assistance Architect at IBM, Mike identified tools, methods, and standards for integrating the content and delivery of user assistance, including documentation, Help, elearning, and training. He was formerly Lead UX Designer for CheckFree Corporation, where he instituted their User Experience Research and Design Center. Mike has a PhD in Instructional Technology from the University of Georgia and a Masters in Technical and Professional Communication from Southern Polytechnic State University. He is a Fellow with the Society for Technical Communication and a Certified Performance Technologist through the International Society for Performance Improvement.  Read More

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