4 Persona Traps From Menlo’s Richard Sheridan

I had the pleasure of attending a lunchtime talk yesterday at the spacious Menlo Innovations offices in Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown.  Menlo is an award-winning user-centered software design company, and it’s founder, Richard Sheridan, gave his ‘Taste of Software Success‘ talk to a small, diverse audience of software developers, consultants, students, and other members of the STC (Society for Technical Communication).

Sheridan started by talking about what sets his company apart. Menlo puts technical writers and trainers at the beginning of the software design process, instead of at the end.  They embed “high-tech anthropologists” in the wild to understand users and user behaviors.  And they turn out superior software products, all within a 40 hour work week in Menlo’s large, high-ceilinged collaborative work space.

Why user-centered design?

Sheridan is able to enforce a user-centered design process because he can.  As the man in charge, his decisions hold lots of weight; and the company was founded on this user-focused design process.  Sheridan and Menlo have the experience, the war stories to share, and the confidence to turn naysayers and Negative Nancys into believers, and as one of the fastest-growing small tech businesses in the past few years, Menlo’s successes speak for themselves.

Persona Traps

In order to place a more complete emphasis on users, Menlo Innovators create user personas, based on their research, and use these personas to inform their design decisions.  In his presentation, Sheridan outlined some persona ‘traps’ into which designers can easily fall.  Here are a few traps to avoid:

  1. Mirror persona – the most dangerous of all.  “I think it’s a cool feature, so users will love it.”
  2. Build for everyone – despite an attendee’s strenuous objection that it is possible to build for a very diverse audience, Sheridan maintains that successful products are built to fit the ‘center of the bell curve of users.’
  3. Focus groups and surveys – focus groups tend to be dominated by strong personalities, and user surveys don’t get at the ‘whys’ around user behaviors.
  4. Ask users – users don’t know what they do.  They do a lot of things unconsciously, so it’s much better to observe.

I’m glad I attended this lunch meeting – it was a great reality check on what’s really happening out in the world and to hear the struggles that real professionals are facing.


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