Meet Chris Green and Colin Wilcox. They're typical IT folks working in small and midsize businesses. In fact, there's only one thing that distinguishes them from any other IT worker: they don't exist.
Rather than actual people. Chris and Colin are "personas" created by Microsoft's Windows Server team to represent the real IT workers that use the products and help make sure the company meets the needs of its cusomers.
Bill Laing, Microsoft corporate vice president, Windows Server and Solutions Division, explains that Windows Server is sold to a very broad market, from SOHO shops to the largest enterprises, and when designing products, Micrsoft needs to be clear on "who are we building this for" and "how are we meeting the needs of thse people?" Personas offer "a way to focus the conversation... almost as if the customer were in the room." In some cases, Laing says, the team would have a specific, high-level goal for the personas, like "let's give him an hour of his life back."
Personas reduce the load of designing for every user in the world to a small set of specific users. At the same time, personas help keep the development team focused on making sure the product pleases specific users, instead of creating users and use cases that happen to suit the product.
This kind of thing is fairly common in many organizations, but Microsoft takes it more seriously than most. "When I first got involved, I thought they were real people and they just chose one" to use as a persona, Laing admits. (In fact, the personas are enhanced with stock photos, or sometimes pictures of Microsoft employees.)
Personas Roam The Halls
One reason they might seem real to the Microsoft team is that posters of the personas are posted throughout the hallways of Microsoft's Redmond, Washington, campus. "We want it to be real." says Trinh Vo Yetzer, senior user experience manager on the Windows Server Solutions Group.
As the project manager, developers, and designers do detailed reviews of features and look-and feel, Yetzer says, they actually have a picture of Chris Green on the wall. At each step of the walk through, they ask, "How would he use it? How would it make life easier for him?"
"Half of Microsoft use personas in initial planning phase, but we use them throughout the product cycle," Yetzer says. "We take it to another level."
Personas Should Resember Real Customers
The key, apparently, is to match the personas with real customer characteristics. "We definitely validate the personas with our customers," Yetzer says, asking "Does this seem like you?" and hoping for them to reply, "Oh my gosh this is me!"
"They should be able to recognize themselves," Laing adds. The goal is "get SMBs to realize that we understand their needs and requirements. I think SMBs have the same needs as enterprises, they just don't have the same level of engagement and investment in specific skills."
According to Laing, the personas are amalgams of what Microsoft learns from interviewing and meeting with real customers.
Yetzer explains that in developing Windows Server, "we visited with over 100 customers." She calls the customers "amazing," and says they all want to help and provide feedback. "We have customers who meet the profile come in and test the product and we get feedback even before we start coding."
For example, Microsoft visited Seth Feist at Northwest Insurance Brokers in Spokane, Wash., and then invited him to the Microsoft campus. As an insurance agent, Feist often backs up his important info six to seven times a day, and that kind of requirement played into the Windows Server 2008 product design.
Yetzer says the Windows Server team learned that 80% of their needs were common tasks. The personas help embody those common factors during the development process. SMB personas tend to stay fairly constant, because they "tend not to embrace technology early," Yetzer says.
When working on new technology like mobile, though, the percentage of commonality drops and "you have to continue to go out and understand how they use it," Yetzer says. "You have to continue to refine it and add to it."
Personas Go Global
Chris and Colin are among some 25 personas created across the Windows Server Group, Laing said, including a scientist named "Einstein" and even a Linux developer.
While Microsfot is happy with the personas it uses, Laing says challenges remain in doing "a better job of integrating other cultures and geographies into the mix." To date, the personas are North American-centric, he says, while the environment in China is very different, for example.