Why video portraits beat personas (and how to make them)

I have a love/hate relationship with personas. Mostly, I hate them. And I know that I’m not the only one. But there is a great alternative: video portraits! This post will explain what they are, why they make sense, and how to create them.

Personas are static

The reason why I’m not that fond of personas is, that a persona essentially is a portrait of a made-up person. I know UX designers who base their personas on an actual person of the user group, but you still end up with a camouflaged and relatively static description.

In the research phase of my “how do we design better web interfaces for kids” project I didn’t use personas at all. I used video portraits instead, and they turned out to be incredibly valuable.

Video user portraits create empathy and establish context of use

A video portrait differs from a persona description in the way that it is a portrait of an actual person. Not a stereotypical person you have described based on a set of characters in your user group.

A video portrait also helps create empathy – something that is very valuable when you involve a client, a team or any other stakeholder. It is much easier for them to connect to a real, living person in a video portrait than a persona description (even though you probably add photos and scenarios to make it realistic).

Secondly, a video portrait establishes a context of use. It provides an important insight on the daily routine of your users, the problems they encounter, and ultimately it provides knowledge on how your product can help solve those problems.

Split your video portraits in two: A personal story and the user role

In order for the video to serve its purpose (create empathy + establish context of use), it is a good idea to split your portrait into two parts: 1. a personal story of the user and 2. the user’s role.

Here’s an example of a recent video portrait I did with a kid from the 3rd grade as part of the research I’m doing on kids and their interaction with the web:

I did a portrait of Jacob, a 10 year old kid from the 3rd grade. The first part of the portrait consisted of an interview with Jacob where he told me about himself, what he does in his spare time and what he uses the computer for. The second part of the portrait consisted of shots of Jacob using the computer in an animation class at school, and also some situations where he would walk around the school and situations where he interacted with his friends (NB: The portrait is not publicly accessible as it was created with a research permit only, which is common when you work with kids in school environments).

The second part of the portrait can be done in several ways:

Situated interview: “tell me what you do”

This is an alternative method if you don’t have access to the environment where your user normally is.

But I would always aim to use one of the following methods, as they provide more context.

Simulated use: “show me what you actually do”

This is a helpful method if you are looking for specific issues. It resembles a think aloud session, but without the user tasks – so if you are redesigning a website, a “show me” session could help highlight current usability issues.

Apprenticeship: “teach me how”

Here you ask the user to teach you how they do things. This method is helpful if you are redesigning a product. Much like “simulated use”, it resembles a think aloud session.

Shadowing: “let me walk with you”

Shadowing someone with a video camera can be a very interesting experience, because often the person will do a lot of things subconsciously (once they get used to you following them around). This means that you might pick up on things and issues that they wouldn’t normally tell you about – and this can help you to ultimately design a better, more problem solving, product.

More info

If you would like to learn more about using video in your design research, Jacob Buur and Salu Pekka Ylirisku have written a fantastic book on the subject.

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