Friday, December 28, 2012

A Perfect Use for Personas

I was reading Dave McClure's post about changes to menus (and its not always flattering Hacker News thread), and I found myself both violently agreeing and disagreeing with both. I kept thinking something along the lines of, "That would be great! Except when it would be incredibly annoying!"

That's when I realized what was missing for me: personas.

 First off, apologies to Dave, who certainly doesn't need me to defend or improve his ideas. This is just meant to be an explanation of the process I went through as a designer and researcher to understand my weird, ambivalent reaction to his product suggestions. Here are the problems that Dave listed in his post that he was solving for:

  • Too many items, not enough pictures, simpler & more obvious recommendations. 
  • Not online, no order history, no reviews, no friends, no loyalty program, no a/b testing. 
  • Have to wait forever for waiter to order, re-order & pay. 
  • Nothing to do while I'm waiting. 

Then he presented reasonable solutions to these problems. All of the suggestions seemed geared toward making restaurants quicker, more efficient, and lower touch. Interestingly, both the Hacker News complaints and my own seemed to be from the point of view of people who do not have these problems. They were saying things like, "this would make restaurants awful!" but what they really meant was, "I, as a potential user, don't identify with that particular problem you're trying to solve, so your solution does not really apply to me."

In other words, Dave's suggested solutions might be great for people who have these problems but might not appeal at all to people who don't have these problems.

 So, then I started to think about the types of people who would have those types of problems. I put together a few rudimentary personas of people who likely would benefit from things like recommendations, entertainment while waiting, a more efficient order process, and a faster way to pay.

As a note, these personas are behavioral, not demographic. This means that you might sometimes fit into one of them and at other times you wouldn't. It depends more on what you do than who you are.

The Business Person

Imagine that you're on a business trip to someplace you've never been. You're quite busy, and it's likely that you'll have to eat a few meals on your own, possibly on the way to or from a meeting or the airport. You're not a fan of fast food, so you'd rather be able to find something you like at an interesting local place than at a big national chain.

 In this instance you might LOVE having things like recommendations from people you trusted, pictures on the menu of unfamiliar dishes, and a quick, efficient ordering and payment system that guaranteed you wouldn't hang around for twenty minutes waiting for a bill. You might also really enjoy some entertainment so that you'd have something to do that wasn't stare creepily at the other patrons.

The Barfly

Now imagine that you're at an incredibly crowded night spot. You are desperate for a bourbon, but you don't want to queue up five deep at the bar to try to get someone's attention. You manage to get a table, but now you have to decide whether to leave it to flag down one of the few waitresses or or just wait it out.

 In this instance you would almost certainly be excited to be able to order and pay directly from your table using some sort of tablet. You'd also be able to quickly order your second, third, and (dare I say it) fourth rounds without having to go through the whole process again or count on the waitstaff knowing exactly when to ask if you want a refill.

The Group Luncher

Last one for now, I promise. You're out to lunch with eight of your coworkers. You need to get back to the office in 45 minutes for another stupid meeting. You don't want to spend 10 of those minutes just for a waiter to make it to your table and take your orders. Also, you really don't want to be the one in charge of figuring out how to split the bill, especially since three of your coworkers always get booze, one of them never eats more than a salad, and two of them order the most expensive thing on the menu.

In this instance, you'd be thrilled to be able to just sit down, punch in your order (and your credit card!), get your food delivered to you quickly, and get to spend more time chatting with that cute new person in accounting rather than negotiating who forgot to figure in tax to the amount they owe on the bill. 

And the rest...

There are probably a half dozen other hypothetical persona groups, all of which would obviously need to be validated (or invalidated) with various forms of user research and quantitative testing.

 The persona groups that aren't on this list are also important. Many of these types of innovations might make things worse for the types of folks who are enjoying the experience of being in a restaurant as an event. For example, a romantic dinner for two at a high end restaurant is not improved by shaving thirty minutes off the wait between courses. Other people might enjoy the personal exchange with the waiter or a consultation from a sommelier more than reading about items on a tablet.

That's ok. These products aren't necessarily going to be for every type of restaurant all at once. There's no need to worry that suddenly Manresa is going to be putting pictures on the menu like Denny's.

 The reason I bring this up is that it often helps me to evaluate product ideas through the eyes of the people I expect to use the product. When I find myself saying things like, "Driving sucks! I'm going to fix driving!" I have to step back and realize that driving (like eating in restaurants) is an almost universal activity that has a constellation of problems, many of which are not shared by all types of drivers (or eaters). If you think your startup has a brand new product that's going to solve all the driving problems for stock car drivers, commuters, and truck drivers, I think you're probably wrong.

Instead of arguing back and forth whether or not these problems exist, it's very easy to identify particular types of people for whom these problems MIGHT exist and then do some simple qualitative research to see if you're right. After all, we know at least one person (Dave) has these problems that he wants solved. Presumably Dave (or the companies he invests in) are doing the sort of research necessary to make sure that there are enough people like Dave to make a profitable market. That market might not include you, but there are lots of wildly successful products you don't like.

 So. Long story short: personas, yay!


For those of you who notice these things, you're right, I didn't include the personas for the other side of the equation: the restaurant owners. Whenever your customers (the people who give you money) and your users (the people who actually use your product) are different, you're in a much more complicated space from a user experience point of view. I'm assuming that, if we can make a specific type of end user happy enough it will make the types of restaurant owners who cater to those users interested in purchasing the product.

 That's just another hypothesis, and all hypotheses need to be validated, not assumed to be facts.