One of the side-effects of my focus on the Personal InfoCloud has been finding putting the focus on the person gets to more options than focussing on the "user". When doing user interviews for existing systems and sites, we are interviewing people. These people we ask: What works for them; what is missing; What are the devices they use; What locations do they use the information; In what context do they use the information; and How do they reuse and repurpose the information (as some of the questions). These are real people supplying the answers.
In the past we roll-up these people's answers and build an user persona. In rolling up we are building one or many common users and try to generalize. This simplification of the problem set we build to starts to limit our solutions. If one percent or less of our user base is using a mobile device to access information or our application do we throw them out of the persona? Normally, we would tend to do this and focus on a higher portion of our population.
But, in building a user-centered approach we can miss some of the easy solutions that will help the people that are part of the smaller populations. By keeping the person with the mobile needs in the mix, we are able to build scenarios and solutions that will work across many device needs. The steps between a desktop/laptop web browser only community and many mobile devices is relatively small. The difference to the desktop/laptop user is minimal, but to the mobile user it can be the difference between having access to information when it is needed and not having access at all when the information is needed most (like working remotely on a project that is 50 miles from the nearest landline and internet connection).
As we look at providing solutions we base our choices on users who make up a large percentage of our population. Lets take the 80/20 rule, we build for 80 percent of our users with 20 percent of the work. Sounds good, until we realize that one in five users are left out of the equation. By focussing on the person, we can look at extending our success. Often by building more than one solution into our products or one interface metaphor (folders versus tags for storing e-mail) we can provide better solutions that work for more people. Does this add complexity? Many times, yes it adds complexity on the design and development side, but knowing early enough in the process we can build more open and more flexible systems that lead to greater adoption. Not, only do we get greater adoption, but we open up the potential for uses beyond what we designed into being.
No two people are alike and we should build toward this reality so that there is choice, freedom, and ease. The more granular approach does not completely wipe out the user personas, but greatly enhances their functionality. Go back to the original people interviewed and use them in scenario planning for their needs across their contexts and tasks. How well does what we are designing work for them? How different will a solution need to be to have it work for them? Do these users have older technology? Do we want to rule people out categorically or can we do a little more work and be inclusive?
Focussing on the person and the granularity is where things get more difficult, but this is where we can make huge differences. This is what we get paid for right?