Talk: Empathy Tools: Character Sketching for Quick Audience Definition

Session Title

Talk: Empathy Tools: Character Sketching for Quick Audience Definition


John Payne, Moment

Session Type: Presentation

We’ve all been in this situation: you’ve made your best case for design research, but when it comes down to it, the powers that be have ruled it out for one reason or another. What do you do? Even in the most user-centered of organizations, there are times when formal primary research simply can’t be done. Should you turn in your sketchpad and hit the road? Well, if it happens every time, maybe. But there are alternative approaches that get you further down the path than you are right now.

In this talk we’ll present our Empathy Tools approach and discuss one tool we’ve been developing: Character Sketches. While tools like these are best informed by primary research, there is still value to be had from best guesses too.

Talk outline: Character Sketches
There is and has been a lot of controversy about the value of personas. As a genre, typical personas are close to historical fiction. They’re based on some facts, but fictionalize key elements for the author’s purposes. Our Character Sketch approach is a lot more like fiction. But like the best fiction, you stick close to what you know.

There are some key points of value to Character Sketches. By doing them, you learn:

1) You already know something about the user
You have some assumptions about the user. You simply can’t help it. Expose your assumptions and get the rest of the team to expose theirs. Discuss them as a group. A group-based approach to Character Sketches is critical, and through it you will develop a shared definition of your target, a vital element in any design project. We will present our approach for facilitating a group session.

2) There are also things you don’t know
There are also some things you simply don’t know. Don’t be afraid to admit it — expose these things too. If there are too many of them, then it will be easier to defend the need for formal research, or identify and agree upon missing areas of knowledge to investigate through other means. We’ll present other means of quick and dirty investigation.

3) You are not the user
Even if you are an avid consumer of the service or product you’re designing, you’re not the only one. Nor do you use the service or product the same way other people may. This is a key point of failure in the design process. In many cases, the designer and others may assume that because they are members of the target audience, their needs are exactly the same as that group. At best, you are one of several user types, and at worst, an edge case. By creating Character Sketches, you define the “otherness” of the user(s), and situate yourself relative to them to ensure that you’re not designing only for yourself.

4) The client/manager is not the user
Now that you’ve situated yourself relative to the audience for the product or service, you need to situate and educate your stakeholders. Character Sketches can be useful tools to convince stakeholders that though they might have good input, their needs don’t represent the needs of the entire audience either. Remember too, that in many cases a client may have deeper domain knowledge than you do. Respect their input and use it to flesh out your audience.

5) The user is not always the user
One key failing of personas is that they may be too constraining. People behave differently from day to day, so differently, in fact, that in some cases that one persona may not adequately capture them. Any real person may embody one persona today, and another tomorrow. In our Character Sketch approach, we keep our descriptions loose to embrace the fact that attitudes and motivations may change from day-to-day, and use-to-use. We’ll share methods for accounting for this variability within the Character Sketches themselves.

Finally I’ll reiterate: primary research is great! Do it! If you can’t do it this time, then create Empathy Tools and validate and extend them the next time when you can do the research. For those instances where you can’t do it, feel free to jump right in and start designing, just make sure you define whom you are designing for.

This discussion will be appropriate for a broad cross-section of conference attendees, from experienced practitioners to managers to students and newly-minted designers and those who work with them


Speaker Bio
John Payne is a Principal at Moment. He is responsible for Experience Strategy and Design practice. John holds a Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Design from Auburn University, and a Master’s degree In Design from the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology. He has developed and taught courses for undergraduate, graduate, and corporate students, most recently at NYU and Parsons School of Design.

About Moment
Moment is an independent interaction design firm. Since our founding in 2002, we have helped our clients deliver Internet-based products and services that create real value in the lives of their customers, employees, and shareholders. We design for the Web, mobile devices, and emerging platforms.

One Comment

  1. Angel Anderson
    Posted October 1, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    This is such a slippery slope! I use personas in my practice but we create them as archetypes that represent the real people we interview. That said, I recognize that sometimes there just isn’t enough time. I’m curious about this technique but I think it can be dangerous (like most things) in the wrong hands ;-) Definitely worth discussing!