Personas can be a huge asset when designing user experiences if done correctly. They can help target your features and streamline the screens if used correctly. However, most persona’s I’ve seen are pretty generic, thirty-something year old woman, with an average name like Sally or a middle management guy named Bob, each with a few stats about how long they have worked for the company. It’s enough information to start but is that really enough to go on?

I was once told the sales people where out in the field and they talked to the end users all the time. The products managers also talked to the customers, and gathered feedback. Management knew exactly who the end user was, and what they wanted.

The persona we were told to design for was particularly technically savvy. They had worked for these companies for a long time and were extremely comfortable with the latest technologies and online common best practices. This was after all, an internal only product.

So, off we would go and take our best guess at creating the user experience.

When is the last time you talked to an actual user?

The first time I was finally able to talk the end user directly, not a manager, not a director, but a person who’s sole job responsibility was to use the software we were creating, it was a huge eye opening experience.

Let’s just call her Mabel. She looked like a Mabel. She was in her mid to late 50’s and yes, she had worked there for over 18 years but that doesn’t mean she knew what she was doing. We talked for just a bit about the way she currently does her job and what does she do when she can’t find the answer she needs with the current system. She kind of shrugged and admitted that happened often and she would ask the people around her for help, sometimes.

The best way to demo the new proposed product was to show her an Axure clickable prototype off a Mac. Mabel looked more then a little nervous, I don’t think she’s ever seen a Mac. Even though we encouraged her to click around, that nothing she did could be wrong, she hesitated at every click.

Simply put, Mabel reminded me of my Mom, who I love dearly, but at times has problems connecting to this thing we call “the internet”.

Get Specific!

Was Mabel the edge use case? I wish I had the answer to that. I often wondered how many other employees were much like Mable.

I would suggest to really get to know your users and find out everything you can about them, not just their age and their employment history but what their habits are out side of work and what their passion is. You can even use their actual LinkedIn profile as a starting point.

Given the chance I would have loved to set up a fun yet detailed poll to a large set of employees to find out exactly where their skill set lies and more about how they used the product and others to do their job.

Now What? The 80/20 rule

Products can get pretty complicated fairly quickly. I was always taught to design for 80 percent of your users while being aware of the other 20 percent and their needs.

And of course once you have an idea of what might work for the 80 percent, show it to them! Not a manager, not a director, but the actual people at the ground level using the product daily. Rinse and repeat!