The other week I attended what was to be a fascinating presentation by Optimal Usability ( regarding the use of personas within organisations entitled “Putting Personas to Work”.

A persona is a named fictitious character whose personal outlook and details sketched out. They represent an important demographic as an end user or customer however learning through the details provided around their habits and behaviour, we can ensure our business endeavours to champion and represent these people.

Richard Douglass of Optimal Usability talked in great detail about the process of how such personas can be drawn up. However I’m going to attempt to outline how I’ve seen them used initially and how useful they can be for understanding the mind set of an end user.

salmon-farmBack in 1996 I worked for Thompson Marconi Sonar in Weymouth, England. The company’s main target sector was the UK Defence industry however since the end of the Cold War that market had declined significantly. Like many companies of the time it was attempting to diversify and beat swords into ploughshares to gain new commercial markets.

During transition, Thompson Marconi found its sonar technology had applications within the salmon farming industry. A salmon farm is typically a netted area within a river or lake where the fish are hatched and allowed to grow in containment. However the lure of so many in an enclosed environment was just too much for the local seal population which would often attempt to break through the nets. For the farmer this is devastating and usually leads to whole broods of salmon devoured or escaping through damaged nets. Their fate is no better than that of the seals which become entangled in the nets, many suffering terrible injury and often death.

The solution was to use one of company’s aqua-phones to emit a signal which acted as an aquatic scarecrow to the seals while not providing any harmful effects on the fish. However that was the easy part…..

The hard part was putting the technology into a device suitable for its operators, in effect the product end-users and this is where the team at Thomson Marconi hit its first obstacle.

In its defence sector, the company understood its end-user very well.
A typical sonar operator:
–  Had come through secondary school
–  Received a year’s training on his equipment
–  Was supported in the sonar suite by technical staff and a well-equipped storeroom
–  Had access to a wide range of documentation to assist
–  Quite comfortable with technology

Thomson Marconi put together an early prototype SealScrammer which was programmable much like a simple video recorder in that it could be activated at a specific time of the day, operating on a custom battery. There was sizeable early interest in the device however much of this did not translate into sales, leaving the Thompson Marconi team scratching its head.

One of the biggest markets for the SealScrammer was Chile, where it was trialled, with the company sending technical staff to work with potential clients there. The Technical Lead returned with many experiences of client end-users (and a Chilean wife, I don’t quite know how that happened to this day) and it soon became clear why sales had failed to materialise.

It was discovered that the average Chilean SealScrammer end-user:
–  Had very poor literacy skills, some were almost completely illiterate mainly due to living and working in remote areas from a young age.
–  Had little access to technology with the SealScrammer likely to be the most advanced device owned to date.
–  Was however very clever mechanically and learned very early in life how to maintain cars etc. as being so remote there were no other options available (especially given the nearest town for spares could be several hours drive way.

So quite a different proposition to the typical naval operator within the UK Defence.
For the SealScrammer to work in Chile, it had to have value to this persona. The Thompson Marconi team set about defining the persona, documenting it and displaying prominently on the SealScrammer team wall. This led to changes to the design, making the device much more intuitive to use. Frequently serviced parts were made much easier to recognise thus reducing reliance on the documentation, which incidentally was written in English – some users could barely read their own language let alone someone else’s!

The device was also made to work using a standard car battery so it could be easily replaced or serviced it when it ran down.
Finally, it was no longer programmable. There was no point selling a device “as easy to program as a video recorder” to users who didn’t own a video recorder, nor would probably not know what one was. The device was triggered instead by a radio control similar to most garage door controls with just a single button. The end-users were told to press this every couple of hours and became quite tickled at being in control and knowing when it was activated.

JohnHopkins-TestingCircusThe end result was a device with a lot less functionality than the original but a lot more value to the end-user. It then sold well and when in 1999 Thomson Marconi Sonar was purchased by Thales, one of the SealScrammer team bought the business back from them. John Ace Hopkins, who was quite a character, built Ace Aquatic ( into a successful business with end-users in mind. Sadly, whilst researching this piece I learned of his death last year.

Today many companies and government organisations are researching into personas to gain a better understand of their potential end users. Usually, unlike Thomson Marconi which had two personas only, there are many more they’re there to ensure that “no customer gets left behind”. Hence when working on a website, it’s important that it is usable not only by “Chels, a recent University media graduate who never goes far without her MacBook”, but also by “Dot, who is retired and uses computers only as a last resort. She is still on Windows NT (she doesn’t like change) and has a low- resolution CRT screen. Oh and the only internet she has is dial-up”. As testers we need to ensure that we champion these and other end-users in our testing and not favour the “high-spec’d” machines over the older, slower ones.

That means testers, who prefer other browsers like Chrome and Opera, still need to test on Internet Explorer because it is still the most popular browser in use.

Personas can also be useful when advocating the impact of the bugs raised. By relating to business owners how a bug will affect one of the core business personas is a powerful tool in the testers arsenal for getting the message across.

Personas, like characters in a much- loved TV show are characters we can all relate to and can bring different areas of a business together. This was seen in the Optimal Usability presentation where I networked with many from my own company whom I’d never met in my time here. They weren’t even testers but were definitely interested in how testing can champion these personas and I think any event which allows us to share the values of testing with a wider audience is a good thing! TalksArticlesUsability TestingThe other week I attended what was to be a fascinating presentation by Optimal Usability ( regarding the use of personas within organisations entitled “Putting Personas to Work”. A persona is a named fictitious character whose personal outlook and details sketched out. They represent an important demographic as an end...
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Mike Talks

Although not originally a New Zealander, Mike Talks feels that Wellington is one of the most exciting places in the world to be working in software testing right now. He did audition as an extra in the future Hobbit movie, but was told at 6' 2" he was too tall to be a Hobbit ... even if he stooped. He is the author of the Leanpub book on testing "The Software Minefield".