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Beginning with user personas

In the last post, we discussed the broadening of the user research process and invited readers to respond to a survey designed to identify pathways and barriers to cross-cultural access in theatre and performance. This time, we’ll be going into more detail about the process of creating user personas based on the conversations we’ve had and feedback we’ve received from people interested in theatre and performance, and especially in the potential for digital services to help improve opportunities for cross-cultural exchange in this field.

As noted previously in this blog, user personas and user journeys are key parts of the research process in Agile development. Both tools allow the development team to identify and better understand the practical requirements of people who may use the software — personas by representing the wants, goals, and backgrounds of different groups of users; user journeys by mapping how people would go about accomplishing what they need to do on the website, so that their experience can be visualized from a first-person perspective and feed into the various iterations of the software.

However, neither user personas nor user journeys are especially effective if they rely only on assumptions about people’s motivations and behaviour. If based on prior suppositions, such tools do not offer advantages or improvements over conceiving the project specifications in advance, at the beginning of the process. In order to benefit from the perspectives and input of people in genuine life situations and usage contexts, it is necessary to go out of the development environment to understand and capture realistic representations of people’s needs and expectations.

In working on this project, we have created personas for a wide range of users, including academic researchers, students, art practitioners, people with accessibility needs, publishers, translators, copyright holders, archivists, event organizers, and people with a casual interest in culture and the arts. The geographical and cultural spread of these personas is also varied, in accordance with the project aims and scope, and each is represented in a profile card giving details of demographic, environmental, and behavioural factors like age, gender, educational background, interests and experience, motivations to use the e-services, current use of related resources, technical know-how and preferred devices, and personal views and networks. This information was rooted in developmental workshops, surveys, and other data-gathering techniques employed throughout the project.

Mapping out the diverse wants of these groups proved extremely valuable not only in identifying and testing external expectations for the services and planning the user experience for appropriate audiences, but particularly in revealing commonalities between people with apparently very different profiles and interests. For example, linguistic accessibility emerged as a central (but largely implicit) concern in the experiences of a majority of interviewees, even if it did not feature prominently in their everyday discussions or explicitly in pursuit of their professional objectives. Across scholarly, artistic, and non-specialist contexts, linguistic and cultural barriers were largely considered part of the ‘landscape’ — and so the purposeful seeking out of assistance or channels to overcome them was quite limited. Using persona profiles to compare and connect various goals and experiences gathered during user research thus became a way of identifying gaps and opportunities in the existing service market, and establishing how the project software might offer helpful tools to address them.

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