Brown, Introduction and Personas

The introduction to Dan Brown’s “Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning” focuses on the significance of design documents.  These documents are important for three reasons: consistency, traceability and accountability, and insight.  A particular document Brown focuses on is deliverables, a stand-alone document that provides context about a particular idea in the larger project.

Within a deliverable, the design team can use diagrams as a way of focusing on one particular part of the project.  These diagrams cannot stand alone, they only serve as anchors that can be shared between deliverables as a way of providing context, reference points and continuity.  A key piece of these design diagrams are personas (chapter 3).  Personas are used to assist with the design process by creating an imagined target audience and trying to figure out what issues they might have and how to solve them.  Creating personas are a part of Brown’s larger goal of this book, looking at understanding the domain, stating the problem and solving the problem.

What must be considered when creating these personas?  Brown has four criteria: activities, detail, breadth and stakeholders.  Design teams must keep these things in mind at all times to create accurate and effective personas.  If they create unrealistic scenarios, they will be ill-prepared to handle the challenges that do arise.

There are three layers to creating a persona: establishing requirements, elaborating relationships and making ‘em human.  Each of these layers adds more depth and individualism to the personas created.  The first layer is the most basic information including names, sources, and distinguishing features and characteristics of each persona.  From this level, more detailed information is attached, such as scenarios, quotes, photos and even personal backgrounds.  The more detailed and organized the personas are, the more helpful they can be to a design team in achieving prioritization, validation and completeness.

When applying this to the humanities, what unique challenges do you think we face?  With history, it is a subjective field for everybody so how can we know that the personas we are creating are an accurate reflection of the target audience when there are so many possibilities as to what they might think?  How do we measure when we think we are close enough?


8 Replies to “Brown, Introduction and Personas”

  1. I think your questions are extremely valid for the digital humanities, especially regarding the movement of archive materials online. I think many of the current attempts to digitize archives and create novel websites and apps that interact with history suffer from difficulties defining their core audience and/or designing interfaces that work well for different levels of engagement with the newly available materials. I think much of the conceptualization problem regarding personas may stem from the unfamiliarity of archive administrators with simultaneously managing the expectations and demands of casual “passers-by,” motivated laypeople, and academics. Previously the cost of travel and the opacity of access has discouraged casual interaction with archive materials, as you typically had to invest a fair amount of time into researching an institutions hours and policies, making an appointment, traveling to the location, etc. As these groups blur online, it becomes even more difficult to convey information in a way that will satisfy the rigorous demands of professional scholars without boring the life out of less-committed participants. Hopping around through interesting pictures will never satisfy the specific research needs of academics but those interfaces do help engage other groups. The questions going forward will be how best to manage the needs of disparate groups and whether sites should focus more on one than the other.

  2. I completely agree with both of you that history being a humanity brings up questions of who is a particular audience in a scenario, or if there are multiple audiences how to craft one resource, such as an online archive exhibit, to them all appropriately.

    The idea and construction of personas overall seems helpful, even a way to help an individual or company really hone in on what their particular project is about by defining their relationship with outside consumers/audiences. In regards to the humanities, outlining the dimensions or objectives of a fictitious or hypothetical persona could help say online archivists reevaluate how they intend to organize digitized documents or even through creating personas stumble upon a new use for their domain.

    I agree with Jamie that with situations such as researching online archives, personas can be so disparate with such polarized goals that there might not necessarily be a middle ground solution. Online archives engage public users, history buffs, etc, yet if there is no infrastructure for academic researchers, you then risk alienating an entire group who would want to use the archives and now do not have the tools to do so. Perhaps a solution would be to create different portals for each “persona”. Some websites, NARA’s definitely does, have boxes to click if you are a “researcher” “teacher” or “want to visit” (I’m paraphrasing here). Personas could help create blueprints therefore not just for identifying who will be using a site or domain, but also for fashioning that domain to a particular group’s needs.

  3. I really like this discussion on how personas, while a helpful organizational tool for web designers, could potentially limit our audience. Public historians, especially, are taught to try to reach a wide audience–if some groups are not being reached, it is the public historian’s job to figure out ways to reach them. Katie’s comment on how NARA’s website includes links for specific personas is a great way to appeal to different groups.

    However, as Kelly notes, there are many possibilities of personas in the humanities so how can we best simplify this multitude of groups? The example Brown uses in Communicating Design where a bank website categorizes their personas based on the different levels of bank customers (ie new, basic, and advanced) is logical (p. 17). However, I feel this example is too simplistic for a history website, especially one that covers a broad range of topics. There needs to be more flexibility between and among personas since visitors have different user needs, but also have varying levels of interest. For example, on a digital archives website about the Civil War, Researcher A may only be looking into military tactics, but Researcher B is just looking for research ideas at the moment and so wants to look at a bunch of material. Should they be sent to the same place then since they both fit under the persona of researcher, but one is digging deep while the other is merely skimming the surface?

    I think PhilaPlace ( does a great job of reaching personas across varying levels of interest. It starts with pictures (for those who do not wish to know much about that particular topic), then has a quick blurb about the picture (for those who want to casually read some details). Then visitors can click on “More” and it leads to a page with more detail (for those who are interested in the topic at hand). Further, at the bottom of the page with more detail there are links to other websites where visitors can do more research (for those buffs who are really interested). At the very bottom, there are references to books (for those buffs who are really, really interested). This model provides more flexibility among personas. Researcher A can go straight to their favorite topic and dig in, while Researcher B can look around and read whatever sparks interest. This is a way to organize your website where personas are still apparent, but are not in such stiff categories.

  4. Meghan already touched on this point, but it’s an issue that we’ve dealt with before in this class. Many have mentioned that “academics” might be hesitant to use certain online sites/sources for lack of verification of their authenticity. However, while reading this I couldn’t help think of the possibilities of multiple “personas” for a museum website.

    Many historians who do visit museums to see the physical artifacts, find the “educational” portions lacking. The descriptions and context are written to appeal to [and the public historians can correct me on this] something like a grade 8 reading level. Because of this I sometimes find myself leaving museums with more questions than when I entered.

    A museum website, however, could address this problem by employing multiple personas. Perhaps when you first enter a website you would have the option of entering the “basic” or “advanced” site. The basic would be for the general population who could quickly click through, find the operating hours and location, perhaps look at some pretty pictures, etc. The “advanced” site would be for people who are interested in learning the details.

  5. Going along with part of Jamie’s comment, I think that one problem web designers in all disciplines and businesses potentially face is the danger associated with trying to be “all things to all people.” Creating a website that is broad enough to attract a wide audience creates the potential to neglect key pieces of information that certain groups are looking for. To use one random example, it would be unrealistic to expect that one website devoted to the Civil War could completely fulfill the intellectual demands of a diverse audience that includes scholars and experts in the field, amateur Civil War buffs, battlefield and memorial enthusiasts, and novices with little knowledge about the conflict. A single website may contain information relevant to each of these types of viewers, but it is highly unlikely that each group would get every one of their questions answered by that site. At the same time, websites devoted to a more narrow audience risk alienating viewers whose interests do not match up perfectly with those of the web designer, diminishing the possibility that the website can bring new audiences with new viewpoints into the conversation. In this regard, designing websites can almost feel like a no-win situation. I agree with previous commentators who have argued that historians should ideally use the Web to attract a wide audience. However, I also worry that doing so can create the possibility where one website or one blog attempts to have so many different conversations with a so many different people that it cannot adequately address every issue in an intelligent and thoughtful manner.

  6. I found the 2×2 diagram to be the most useful method for targeting personas and delineating for users the concerns and issues for a target audience. This proves to be an excellent way to compare personas across two dimensions. Using Allen’s example of a museum where there are different knowledge levels among visitors and some museums tend to cater to the less-educated audience, perhaps there could be a 2×2 diagram to delineate the education levels of the audience with their frequency of visits to museums.

    For example, one could divide the museum visitors into 4 personas using a 2×2 diagram. 1.) Educated, frequent visitors 2.)educated, infrequent visitors, 3.) uneducated frequent visitors, 4.) uneducated, infrequent visitors.

    Using the data results from the survey, a curator could extract the persona for the educated, frequent visitors and custom make an exhibit or website for this specific audience. This would alleviate the problem that Allen talks about when history buffs like us enter a museum or a website to find that our insatiable curiosities are unfulfilled.

  7. Everybody makes a great point about the struggle about being too broad, too narrow, too detailed, not enough detail, etc. What I take from your responses is yes, we cannot cater to every possible audience but there are ways we can try to get close. Layering new websites after Philaplace or NARA would be one solution to address a wide audience. Visitors can choose their reason for visiting the site and be directed to information that is as basic or detailed as they want it to be.

    Meghan, you brought up the issue of two people being researchers but having varying levels of interest. This will always be an issue regardless of the organization trying to cater to them but I think if a website could be built in such a way that “researcher” serves as a broad category and their are more specifications the further a visitor goes into the website, it could be a helpful solution in dealing with a diverse audience within one category.

    Jamie, I think you make a good point about site administrators not being familiar with managing the demands and expectations of various groups at the same time. This being the case, who should be responsible for creating personas? People are who professionals in the field the website is being created for or professionals in web design development? It should probably be a mixture of both to cover bases one side might not think about or see as a prospective issue.

    Katie, I liked your example of NARA and users choosing a general category so they can be directed to more useful parts of the site. Having large stores of information online is great but it can frustrating trying to find certain types of information if you are not familiar with the website and how it organizes data. Having a general interest like teacher or researcher is a great first step in thinking about who users will be and what their purposes are for using the site.

    Allen, you make a great point about feeling like information was so basic to cater to everyone that it leaves those who are really interested in a topic wanting more. Having a basic level of information on a website or advanced level could be another layer in creating both personas and a site. The more a website can be tailored to suit the needs of a visitor, the more useful it can be.

    Historyfan, I agree with you 100% that neither the web nor its designers can be “all things to all people,” this being the case, the best we can do is try to appeal to as many people as possible but try and create a unique experience for each user. Sometimes that just won’t be possible depending on the content and purpose of the site and its users. If a site has very specific content and purposes, a solution might be to create a section of links to information that is relevant to the topic in another place.

    What we have to remember is that websites for the humanities are digital exhibitions presented to the public. Any good curator or museum professional would say that once you stop working on an exhibit it dies. We can always go back and revise a site or its personas as feedback comes in. As new technologies and products become available we can adjust sites as needed to be more useful to its users, regardless of how broad or narrow they are. Working in the humanities requires constant revision and dialogue, what is effective in the beginning may not be effective later and can be changed. Personas are a stepping stone into creating a useful website but they are not the final say of who the audience is or will be.

  8. historyfan29 makes a good point, websites or blogs can sometimes fall into a dangerous trap by trying to cater to too many viewpoints. If the creator of an online presence is too broad or far-reaching in their goals, they lose thoughtfulness and precision.

    I believe Brown is suggesting that by creating “personas” for potential users to his/her site, the designer will avoid crafting messages that are too broad and too vague. This is an appealing model. As allenp suggests, if the creators of museum websites can acknowledge that they are resources for neophytes: children and casual learners as well as for experts, and tailor their message appropriately, then they will be able to direct their message more effectively, essentially by providing two distinct messages.

    I wonder, however, if institutions involved in public history, would feel comfortable identifying personas as such. I believe that there is a philosophy that underlies much in public history that a practitioner should be able to create historical messages that deal with “Universal Concepts” and appeal to the “Everyman”. Might it strike some as too elitist or discriminatory to (blatantly) single out some “personas” for special attention? Or perhaps, does this process unpleasantly point out the fact that some cultural institutions are unable to appeal to a broad spectrum of “the public”?

    Private companies, such as the banks that make up Brown’s examples, are more comfortable with identifying niche markets than museums and gardens and libraries seem to be. I suppose becoming “more real” about their appeal can only lead historic sites towards more effectiveness in messaging, but might it not also point out the fact that the public good offered by nonprofit cultural institutions doesn’t really appeal to everyone?

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