Ethnographic Persona: Section 1

In this first section of this paper, I will outline the possibilities we (as users of a web site) have to navigate. This will lead to the question, how we (the architects of information) can achieve useful and used information design. I will present different state of the art techniques as an outlook for the following discussion in the next section.

Information architecture: ways to find what you’re looking for
The so-called user of information systems is dependent on the design of the application in order to perform the desired actions. One, but not the only one, function of information systems is generally to inform about something. Due to the immense amount of information stored in information systems, designers and/or information architects have developed different solutions to help the user what she is looking for.

In non-digital information systems like books, users are offered a table of content and for academic literature also a reference list as well as an index of terms and other persons mentioned within the text. In a digital environment, such concepts are used widely because they’re simple: sitemaps are a very good example of popular digital tables of content.

Another parallel between non-digital and digital information systems are categories and keywords. For example, libraries use(d) systems called catalogues, which stored meta-information on single cards. The physical storage system may be a cabinet or box, but the information system itself relied on classification and taxonomies. Every single information entity is registered within a library-specific system of classes and terms, which mostly follows nation-wide standards. By contrast, digital information systems use databases to store meta-information and categories to cluster information objects to groups. Newer concepts like tagging (adding one or more tags of semantic significance to an information object, mostly performed by the user of an information system; see also Alby, 2007) deploy the same principle: scan for meta-information prior to search for the specific information object.

Additionally, there are two navigation options, which are predestined for digital information systems: the search function and browsing. The search function obviously is a feature we only find within digital information systems: we need a sort of a database or other sources with digital content. And the user will need a window to ask for a specific information object. Combined, the search function is a very powerful way to retrieve information, not only from the web, but also within much smaller systems like intranets or library OPACs.

The second navigation option is a feature born with the advent of the Internet: the way single documents (websites) could be linked together by hyperlinks. Once a breakthrough concept, hyperlinks are part of the nature of our digital and online societies. Therefore, browsing (to follow links from site to site) is a very powerful navigation method applied by users where provided. Although large directories of links like Yahoo’s directory are only used and remembered by a slim part of all web users, browsing from a text passage to another document undergoes a kind of revival: usability designers and marketing people discovered that users tend to follow the links “they see” (Eisenberg & Eisenberg, 2005).

Popular design techniques for information projects
Information architects are responsible to plan and wire the presented navigation techniques depending on the purpose, the size and the users of an information system. There may be many other factors that will have an impact on the information system (like security concerns, available budget, project resources like know-how and time, political influence of lobbies, …), but the above mentioned three should be regarded as the most important ones. To conceptualize such navigation features for an information system, information architects use a range of techniques described in the next paragraphs.

One potential way to trigger an information project is to research the processes and available systems within an organization. The so-called information audit is a method, which will collect and later analyse data about information processes within a company or service. The objective is to gain insight into existing information flows, to identify information needs and to avoid information overflow. The result of an information audit is a list of recommendations how to redesign the system as a whole or to improve the performance of single information processes.

Depending on the function of an information system, an information project in the early stages can be influenced by marketing considerations too. Marketing experts bring in their market know-how: their idea of dividing the product market in market segments for better pinpointing existent needs. Focus groups and other market data sources will tell marketing people roughly which group wants what when where and how. Consequently information systems like web sites or digital catalogues will reflect these market segments also in their navigation patterns (see Grotenhoff & Stylianakis, 2002).

Usability tests with users in a test or laboratory scenario are a third approach to construct useful information systems. This method serves to identify needs and skills of future users as well as to find flaws in the information architecture of a prototype or an existing application. This said, usability tests are applied in the early and late stages of information projects, serving different needs of information architects (Krug, 2006).

Usability tests not only check the wire frame of an information system, but also the terminology in use. Classifications and taxonomies must be consistent with the language of the potential users. If this fail, orientation will be difficult and even search functions will not work properly. One method applied by information architects to address this challenge is card sorting, a state-of-the-art technique for many years (Robertson, 2001). Card sorting involves the user (here: test persons) in clustering and naming of information objects and classes.

Before designing paths: Who is ‘the user’?
Where marketing techniques describes anonymous and impersonal “groups” of users, so-called persuasion architects (Eisenberg & Eisenberg, 2005) goes deeper and ask: “Who are the users at all?” The answer is formulated in several personae, representing a type of user, reflecting the characteristics, needs, skills, desires and objectives of a group of people potentially using a specific information system. A persona is presented in a very concrete way, including a name, a picture and some personal details that are important to understand the way users of this persona will operate a certain information system (Pruitt & Adlin, 2006).

This technique is not only an advancement to the described marketing approach of market segments, but also to an important precondition for a successful application of the described design methods like usability testing and classification building. The condition to understand usage of an object is to know the users. Human nature is individualistic, that means that users are not one user type or “the user”, but many users with many different facets of behaviour, intentions, skills and so on. As a mere of thousand different user types is far to complex for information architects to handle, the idea of grouping similar behaviour, skills and intentions into single personae is consequent and comprehensible.

As a trend of the last years, many case studies report about the application of personae or similar techniques that use the idea of ‘user first’ (e.g. Kennedy, 2008).


Leave a Reply

You can use these XHTML tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <strong>