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User-Centric Personas for Collaboration

Collaboration Personas
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Written by Oscar Venhuis

What do desks, design, and discourse have in common? User-Centric Design (UCD), also known as User-Driven Design (UDD) and Human-Centric Design (HCD), is where they all intersect. Although all three terms have slightly different meanings, but really that’s just semantics, UCD, UDD, and HCD have the same purpose. The term UCD gained popularity after 1986 when American author Professor Don Arthur Norman published the term in his book User-Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human-Computer Interaction. Whether you prefer UCD, UDD, or HCD use the term you believe is the most appropriate. Just remember they all have the same objective, designing with the end-user in mind. UCD, however, is the most popular term in UX literature and going forward UCD is the term that will be used in this article.

What is User-Centric Design?

UCD is an iterative series of actions whereby designers focus on the users’ needs in each touchpoint of the design process.

“A touchpoint represents a specific interaction between a customer and an organization. It includes the device being used, the channel used for the interaction, and the specific task being completed.” – Kim Flaherty, Nielson Norman Group

Log-ins, check-outs, live chats, and other forms of interactions between the business and the user are some examples of touchpoints. To determine each touchpoint in the user journey, the design process uses a combination of user research methods like interviews and ethnographic data in addition to generative techniques like ideation and brainstorming sessions. The benefit of UCD is the active involvement and central role of users throughout the entire design process that leads to increased accessibility and usability for the end-user. David Benyon distinguishes four ways in which UCD pays off:

  • With user involvement, products and services are more likely to meet users’ expectations and requirements. This leads to increased sales and lower costs incurred by customer services.
  • Systems designers tailor products for people in specific contexts and with specific tasks, thereby reducing the risk of human error arising. UCD leads to safer products.
  • Designers who are in close contact with users develop a deeper sense of empathy. This is essential in creating ethical designs that respect privacy and quality of life.
  • By focusing on the users of a product, designers can recognize the diversity of cultures and human values through UCD – a step in the right direction towards creating sustainable businesses.

Using Personas for Collaboration

Coworking spaces are ideal for UCD because these collaborative environments are designed to offer people a place to exchange ideas, network, and collaborate with members of the community. Yet these things, especially collaboration, don’t just happen. Occasionally members have valuable deliberate collisions of collaboration whereby one or both participants lean in and make a conscious effort, but usually an ‘agent’ or community host accommodates the introduction.

To cultivate collaboration and design a conducive space for multiple users who benefit together, we use personas. When trying to use conventional personas for collaboration its limitations becomes apparent.

Personas are fictional characters, which you create based upon your research in order to represent the different user types that might use your service, product, site, or brand in a similar way. Creating personas will help you to understand your users’ needs, experiences, behaviors and goals.”

From Me to We

Up until 2011 personas represented the qualities and goals of an individual instead of a team. When designers applied the profiles of individual personas to groups it generated solutions that were unfit for teams. In the same year, computer-human interactions researcher Alain Giboin and a group at IBM research – Almadan with Tara Matthews, Steve Whittaker, Thomas Moran, and Sandra Yuen tackled this problem by introducing collaboration personas.

Collaboration personas are representations of groups of individuals with specific qualities, goals, and desires achieved through collaborative effort. Until 2011 little research had been conducted on how the concept of personas could be translated to collaborative working. The research published in 2011 changed this and translated user studies into practical design tools for collaboration.

They identified that collaboration personas have three distinctions from individual personas in having

  • multiple, inter-related individuals playing specific roles;
  • a focus on collective goals and elaboration of individual goals that affect the collective goal; and
  • new attributes that characterize collaborative aspects of the group’s work.

Six Collaboration Personas Types

The research recognized six collaboration types:

  • 1. Dynamic project team. A group of people where some members stay the same, but most members come and go during the life of the project, working closely together toward a common deliverable that is a job related focus for its members.
  • 2. Stable project team. A group of people where most members stay the same, working closely together toward a common deliverable that is a job related focus for its members.
  • 3. Committee. A group of people working closely together toward a common deliverable that is secondary to most members’ main job focus.
  • 4. Client-supplier relationship group. A stable group of people from both client and supplier who communicate on an on-going basis to ensure the supplier meets the needs of the client.
  • 5. Community. A group of people, with similar job functions or a shared interest, who come together to exchange knowledge, information, best practices, and possibly to spark new collaborations.
  • 6. Professional relationships. A professional relationship focused on communication between two individuals, typically with minimal formality or structure. Common purposes for professional relationships include mentoring, finding collaborators, building one’s reputation, and/or getting answers and feedback.

These collaboration personas types are distinguished from each other by the relative balance of four attributes:

  • goals
  • personnel
  • work style
  • leadership style

Personas are practical and effective because they trigger our human ability to unconsciously use models of real and fictional people (Pruitt & Atlin, 2006). In other words, personas help designers to predict user actions and responses. For individual personas, the primary driver to predict their behaviors are goals. This isn’t the case for collaboration personas. Anticipating their collaborative actions and behaviors are mostly affected by personnel dynamism, work style, and management style (Table A).

Table A – IBM’s collaboration types and their distinguishing dimensions.

The collaboration dimensions listed in Table A are developed to guide designers to determine how to create new collaboration personas that are specific enough to work, but general enough to enact various scenarios.

Following the same table, a new collaboration persona can be developed of a similar collaboration type. We could, for example, create a second dynamic project team that has all the same behavioral attributes except with a different goal. This new dynamic project team’s goal might be to produce content for a website. This goal works as long as it is a core work deliverable for members, dynamic members are asked to contribute, members need to work closely together, and there are designated leaders.

Users in groups, such as communities that are communication-focused, need a variety of communication channels ranging from a rich open channel for client requests to unobtrusive broadcasts for community news.

The dimensions demonstrate the differences in collaborative behavior and in associated tools that are required. Users in groups, such as communities that are communication-focused, need a variety of communication channels ranging from a rich open channel for client requests to unobtrusive broadcasts for community news. More collaboration personas examples can be found in this report.

Despite the fact IBM’s research was initiated to develop a collaborative solution for technology-human interactions, it is a workable guide that can be used for collaborative communities that converge both online and offline.

One experiment we’re conducting is the application of collaborative personas in our virtual sessions Drinking Dialogues and Coffee & Cocktail Conversations. These are weekly sessions with participants from all over the world who join a 2-hour dialogue with a central theme introduced by a subject matter specialist.

If you have experience with collaboration personas or are interested in teaming up and designing collaborative practices for the workplace, please contact me at oscar@thedesk.com.hk.


theDesk is a community of collaborators and innovators, introducing you to new ideas, disruptive thoughts, and business leaders.

Guilds – Now more than ever, the business community needs to work together to overcome the challenges it faces in the short and long term. At theDesk, we believe in the power of collaborative communities. Using different collaborative practices Guilds is designed to expand your knowledge, improve your performance, and increase your network of industry peers. Find out more >

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