Dr. Kirk St. Amant and Dr. Guiseppe Getto and User Personas and Intercultural Communication

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. This is Ryan Weber at the University of Alabama, Huntsville and today I’m pleased to interview two scholars from Eastern Carolina University, Kirk St.Amant and Giuseppe Getto. I’m briefly going to have them introduce themselves so that you can tell who’s who based on their voice.

[Begin Interview]

[Kirk St.Amant] Hi, I’m Kirk St.Amant and I’m a Professor of Technical and Professional Communication in International Studies at East Carolina.

[Giuseppe Getto] And I’m Dr. Getto. I’m also a Professor here at East Carolina University and I specialize in technical professional communication also and user experience.

[Weber] Thank you so much for being here and the reason I invited you on the podcast was to talk about an article that you recently published called, “Designing Globally Working Locally Using Personas to Develop Online Communication Products for International Users.” And I wanted to talk to you about his piece because it’s about the way that you can use personas to reach an international audience and I guess we’ll start with a pretty simple question, which is what are personas?

[Getto] I’ll take that. I like to describe them as characters in a story. Their characters in a design story, they basically help characterize data. So instead of just providing a statistic or trend, you put an actual person in front of it. They’ re not real people, that’s one thing that confuses a lot people, but they actually are real people at the same time. They’re a person that you actually interviewed, interacted with, but you’re using them as a representative of your other users basically.

[Weber] Okay, so they represent sort of a segment of your user population is that correct?

[Getto] That’s right.

[Weber] You mentioned interviewing and doing research. You know whenever I talk about personas with my students one of my concerns is it seems like it would be very easy to make a bad persona. Something that’s stereotypical or reductive. How do you make a persona that’s really accurate and useful and robust and representative?

[Getto] The way to avoid stereotyping with personas basically is first of all you sort of have to look at your data very carefully. So, it’s just like any other form of research method basically. So, you need to look at what are the trends and what is a representative trend and what is an outlier and why are the outlier’s outliers. You know just because you avoid one person who’s in your study who you know operate in a certain way or had certain needs, doesn’t mean that those needs aren’t valid. So, it’s not a mono where you’re like, “Oh we had three people who did this, so that’s the persona.” You’ve got to look at a lot of different factors and it’s just like doing a form of coding. Usually there’s several questions that are in a persona. There’s a photo first of all, then there’s their story, then there’s what their pain points are as a user and so you use those as your coding scheme basically.

[Weber] Okay, okay.

[Getto] So all your users for those-so I actually write out kind of like a very brief persona for each of my users.

[Weber] I see. I see. ‘

[Getto] So.

[Weber] One of those or several of those might become the one that you would reference later.

[Getto] Right, think again when you’re dealing with international users, it’s-I’ll let Kirk kind of speak to that, yeah.

[St.Amant] I think one of the distinctions to draw with personas is there’s a difference between audience and persona. Audience is who someone else. Persona is how does that person make use of the thing that you’re either documented or developing. And so research takes a slightly different focus in that case where it’s not just an audience analysis metric, but it’s also looking at things like interviews, focus groups, ethnographic observational research. It’s finding out how these individuals that you’re-that you’re wanting to design something for use this particular thing in a specific context. So, it’s in many ways contextualized design and so from an international perspective it’s important because just because we use the technology one way in say the United States, does not necessarily it will inherently be used the same way in a different culture or country. And so by forcing individuals to think beyond audience but use context affects how it’s designed based upon these are the parameters that either a society has decided works for use or these are the parameters that limit how a technology can be used. To the affect how to design it to meet the needs of users in that specific environment.

[Weber] And how do you do that kind of research when it’s-it’s cross cultural? How do you sort of determine some of those contexts and uses?

[St.Amant] I mean we’re back to a couple of things and the first is again it’s getting beyond a lot of the general sort of brute force approach to intercultural communication. For example, people from culture x behave in a way why?

[Weber] Right.

[St.Amant] Well it’s more than that. You need to actually start gathering data. Ideally you can do real field research where your onsite observing how individuals use a particular device or technology; that’s the ideal. Quite often that’s restrictive and so what happens is in many cases you have to go with either second hand information, these are observational accounts reported on by others or you can do more direct surveys, questionnaires, online interviews. If you wanted with things like Skype, which we’re using right now, you could actually sort of set yourself up to watch individuals in an environment from a distance. The big thing you’re looking for is people will say one thing in an interview, but they might do a completely different thing under observation. So, it’s making sure you have as much data about the different pieces of the puzzle to understand what’s coming together.

[Getto] User behavior is really important for personas. You know a lot of people say, “Oh you can use whatever data you want to build a persona,” but user behavior really is the best data to have because it’s exactly right what Kirk says. Users will often, you’ll say, “How would you use this application?” They’ll say one thing but then if you observe them using the application it’s completely different.

[Weber] Right, right. So, it’s more important to sort of figure out how they actually behave when they’re using the application than the way that they say they might use the application.

[Getto] Especially in international context where you know you’re coming in as a researcher from a completely different context. So, you can’t rely on your usual common places and norm for users.

[St.Amant] Internationally is sort of a three-part process. The first is the questioning, “How do you use “x” technology?” The second part is observing how it actually gets used.

[Weber] Right.

[St.Amant] But the third part is follow-up questioning, “I noticed that you used this technology in this way, why did you do so?” And why did you do so, that’s the important part because there’s a tendency to object our own observations and interpretations of things onto other social groups which can cause some real miscommunication problems. So, it’s finding out what motivates the behavior that’s key to effective design.

[Getto] I think everything Kirk is saying too is really important for any type of research. This is why I got interested actually in intercultural research. You know it’s really a secondary interest for me, but I think there’s some of the best important research in the field because they’re always in tuned. You know I might go you know study an organization here in Greenville and assume, “Oh well I live in Greenville, so I know what these people’s needs are,” but I probably don’t. I need to still go in and be there and-.

[Weber] There’s sort of an extra level of care with good intercultural research that should be informing all kinds of research.

[Getto] That’s right.

[Weber] Can’t take for granted in a way that you might be inclined to do. Yeah and if you know ifI understand personas correctly what you end up with is as you’ve said, an image of a particular user and then some information about how they use the device, software, interface, whatever it is. And then maybe even some information about say motives, or their context, or their situation, you know something I’ve seen online, “Mary is a student a she doesn’t have a lot of time to bank,” is that sort of on the right track to describe?

[Getto] Yeah and there’s also usually a tagline. So-.

[Weber] Okay.

[Getto] Example you know would be, “Mary, the overwhelmed student,” or yeah, I think in the article we used, “Quan, the overwhelmed college student.” In industry, these are communication deliverables for developers.

[Weber] Right.

[Getto] So these are folks that deal with code all day, not people often. They need help because they do not have time to go out and interview people. They rely on a user experience person to be that lens for the user.

[Weber] Let’s talk a little more about use, because you mentioned you have the developers use needs, I imagine to make sure that what they’re developing is something that someone actually needs? What are some other ways that you might us these personas once you develop them to either create or document products?

[St.Amant] Well one thing it can identify quite quickly is product need. It could be a particular group is using a product in a specific way that it’s not designed to be. So, opening for a new product to be introduced.

[Weber] Oh that’s smart, yeah.

[St.Amant] It’s something you don’t know until you’ve actually tried it. The thing with features. You’ve got technology that does certain things and you realize that the group that’s using it finds it limited and turning to an alternative to sort of fill the gap. Suddenly you have a new service or feature you can add to a product that enhances usability of that product.

[Getto] My answer to this question is I use it all the time. I use them for teaching. I mean the context of that article was a class and this was my first time I ever really used personas and I kind of stumbled upon the method, but I could not understand how all these competing needs in this class of mostly international students, how I could design a class from those competing needs. And that’s what personas do, they-they point to tension amongst user needs because those are always present whether we realize it or not.

[Weber] Right.

[Getto] Sometimes when you’re doing usability testing it’s not always clear that those tensions are built around user identity.

[Weber] That’s really interesting. I’ve heard you know sort of anecdotally that some developers or designers will even point to the personas and say you know, “Does this future meet Quan’s needs?” It humanizes the product as well.

[Getto] Otherwise it’s just the design team making those decisions because you can’t have the user in the room with you all the time.

[Weber] Right. So personas are kind of a way to bring the user into the room.

[Getto] That’s right. They’re based on actual people and actual data.

[Weber] To be really clear, personas are not composite? You would not make a persona that was a composite of eight informants?

[Getto] No it’s always a real person, that it’s their story, because the folks that do composites, that to me is a different thing. That’s a customer profile. So, a customer profile is a composite, it’s like, “This is what this type of customer want,” but that’s not a persona because the whole point of a persona is humanizing technology. Well you’re going to break that if you take and you scramble a bunch of people together.

[Weber] Interesting. Great, and Kirk as we wrap up can you speak a little more to some of the challenges and benefits to studying international users?

[St.Amant] I think one of the biggest benefits personas brings is in many cases intercultural communication is true in terms of monoliths, everyone from France acts this way, everyone from Germany acts this way. Well no culture is a complete unified whole, I don’t care who it is, and so what personas does is sort of get you to think, “Well this is a cultural group as a whole that will be differently from our native culture,” but within that group there are subgroups, there are other groups. Each of them has an equal different sort of perspective to bring and an equal different perspective we have to realize and think that makes things much more effective from the design process up. So instead of taking technology that’s designed for one group and trying to retrofit it for another, begin from the very foundations and say, “We need two different products or two different technologies to effectively meet these different needs,” and I think it benefits everybody. It benefits the creator of the product and the user of the product.

[Weber] Alright well thank you so much. This is really interesting and helpful so thanks so much for appearing on the podcast today.

[Getto] Great.

[St.Amant] Thanks for this opportunity.

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Episode 11