Using User Personas to Improve Policy

I fell in love with user personas when I was helping Polaris re-think their website. I had written an RFP and one of the firms I dreamed of us being able to hire sent us two booklets from the A Book Apart series, and one of them included a long section on ethnographic research and user personas.

I had conducted formal research interviews in college, so the approach felt truthful to me. Then I got to part of the chapter on using user personas tactically. The A Book Apart books are great at talking to their audiences: web managers who are more-often-than-not matrix managed, the only technical person in their vertical or entire organization, and always, deeply in need of tactics for generating buy-in for industry best practices. That’s why the book provided scripts and tricks for getting people to follow best practices, people who don’t think about computers and websites and traffic all day. One of those tactics was user personas.

For those who don’t occasionally design websites for fun and profit, user personas look like this:

Image from Paul of Design Leary.

Image from Paul of Design Leary.

They are specific, representative overviews of 3 – 5 intended and actual audiences for a given product. From those simple bios, any number of uses can come. They can test the intended workflow of a product–the user story–and see how it impacts that user’s life. They can be used to hone tone of a given page to the needs of a specific but fractal persona. They can be hung in a content creator’s office, to remind everyone on the team who they are writing for.

I was having coffee with a friend who runs online content for a major American city and mentioned user personas as a possible tactic for her website redesign work. She said she hadn’t decorated her office yet, and those user personas might be useful. I love that idea–having meetings, with representative constituent personas overlooking and informing the decisions a city worker makes.

That got me thinking about how to make user personas work for policy formulation. I think many legislators hold in their heads generalized user personas for policy-making: the single mom on TANF, the man who’s just left prison, the 4th grader ESL student. There is danger in these kinds of generalities, because they abstract lawmaking from the daily specifics of living in the world.

The single mom on TANF can be called a “welfare queen” or a “working mom” by elected officials, depending on their experiences and goals. The user persona is not specific enough, because I would like to believe if a lawmaker had to talk about Tiffany Jones (who gets TANF and volunteers at her son’s 4th grade classroom during field trips, wants to go back to college but can’t get into a community college class) then only one of those phrases could be honestly be used to describe her.

In the land of web design, outcomes are less dramatic than someone having her access to food restricted. There are other kinds of drama: two executives walk into a room, one website leaves. But whether the customer served by that website is white man in his mid-20s in San Francisco with an iPhone 6 or a 35-year-old Latina in rural Texas with an Android depends on the executives’ goals and experiences, just like laws depend on lawmakers. It may end up that the website designed for the guy in his 20s works just as well for the woman in her 30s–or it may not. The value of being specific with user personas is those executives or lawmakers have to agree before a single word is written, a single wireframe concocted, a single policy proposal typed. They have to agree on who they intend to work for and talk to.

I enjoy imagining that kind of specificity in lawmaking. To paraphrase a friend who’s a programmer for a mid-sized company in the Bay Area: good product design solves the hardest problem first. She says that solving that problem will solve most of the easier problems down the line. That approach is why so many Masters projects for those in Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon focusing on serving people with disabilities. A website that works for someone with motor control issues will also work for someone on a shaking bus downtown.

Consider a writing a proposal for a school breakfast program. Imagine designing a policy to serve the user persona of Ameena, a child of a family who recently immigrated as refugees from Afghanistan and who is learning English while catching up in school. That same policy will also help Jimmy, the working class kid living with his aunt while his Mom handles some of her own issues and who’s a bit behind in his reading skills. The school breakfast program would include signs with a mix of words and symbols to describe the food, a system to get feedback from parents on kids’ allergies and religious restrictions, and before it started, communication from the school district to the parents/guardians/whoever the child is staying with in a variety of forms to make sure they know what the kids in their care are eating. It makes sure Ameena’s parents with limited English know what’s happening, and the robust communication system makes sure it’s Jimmy’s aunt, not his Mom who’s out of the picture, that gets the heads-up that she needs to tell them about his peanut allergy. What works for Ameena works for Jimmy in this case.

The fractility of experiences is what allows us to make user personas specific, to leave some identity combinations out when building user personas. This might be hard for lawmakers, since they tend to want to include everyone imaginable in their ideas. 3 to 5 user personas is more than enough for the work. Every faith does not need to be assigned to a specific user case-study, every country does not need a citizen to be included because, in all probability, a Presbyterian will use the website in the same way as an Episcopal and a child of refugees from Afghanistan will probably be as hungry as a child of refugees from Syria.

They might not, which is why testing and feedback and iteration are vital. That is another blog post, though I think I should keep my fantasy of agile lawmaking to myself. Testing happens with laws through user interviews just like it does with good products. If I walked into a meeting with a refugee agency to get their feedback on my proposal for a school breakfast program and heard there were differences in how a child from Afghanistan and a child from Syria need to be served, then I would modify my user persona and then the policy. If it turned out in my user testing that Episcopals really did have different needs from Presbyterians, perhaps for my e-hymnal site, then I would need to re-write my user personas. That is alright, because from lawmaking to website creation, any effort involving serving humans will have to change with time.

Imagine a campaign office with a row of framed user personas behind the candidate’s desk. She sees them during call-time, and when she’s cutting turf.The backs of the frames would have to be easy to pop open, so the stories could be modified when their future constituents’ needs change. She sees them when she’s doing interviews and tweaking her platform. There they would sit, a constant, guiding presence, informed by the lived reality of the people who she seeks to represent.

Inspirational Quote:

“My people are few. They resemble the scattering trees of a storm-swept plain…There was a time when our people covered the land as the waves of a wind-ruffled sea cover its shell-paved floor, but that time long since passed away with the greatness of tribes that are now but a mournful memory.” ― Chief Seattle, The Chief Seattle’s Speech

Changing a flat on Father’s Day

On Father’s Day I caught a ride from a friend to knock on doors for a friend’s campaign. Unfortunately, her car got a flat tire. What happened next has everything to do with our fathers.

We dug around in her trunk, found the winch, found the wrench, jerry-rigged a lever since the one in the kit was missing, got the car up, took off the flat, put in the spare, tightened the nuts, brought the car back down, and made it to the campaign on-time.

2015-06-21 10.35.48 2015-06-21 10.35.53 2015-06-21 10.41.50 2015-06-21 10.51.31

Different families have different skills they require before high school graduation. My partner’s Mom made sure he knew how to bake an excellent birthday cake. Before I left home for college, my step-dad made sure I knew how to change a tire. Skills like changing a tire, making cake, those are winch skills. They are small, they don’t take up a lot of mental space, but they are the difference between having a flat tire and making it on-time, being able to celebrate a friend, and not. There is no real substitute for a winch when it comes to changing a tire, just like there is no substitute for a homemade cake.

I think we collect winch skills throughout our lives. Learning to hem, to tell a joke, to make an introduction, to write a resume. They are skills we keep in our trunks, amongst a jumble of plans and failures and wins and hopes. We forget we have them, until we’re on the side of the road and need them. If we are lucky, these skills are gifts from our families. More than ties or flowers, more than cake or a car, they are gifts from people we were dependent on, who trusted us enough to teach us to be independent.

Inspirational Quote:

“If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” ― Abigail Adams, The Letters of John and Abigail Adams

5 Nonprofit Social Media Tools I Actually Used

I find myself transmitting a near exact copy of this information about once a month so I figured putting it here might make that process simpler. Most of the time, I am having coffee with someone who just had running social media dumped in her lap. She likes being on Facebook and may have a secret tumblr, but has probably not done a deep-dive into Google Analytics anytime lately. These are tools I used regularly when I was Digital Communications Specialist for 2 years at Polaris but if you have any other suggestions, please share them in the comments.

  1. Progressive Exchange. It’s a mailing list of 8000+ professional progressive communications and technical people. Folks have to apply to get in, but it isn’t particularly stringent. People who work for progressive causes and care about using good tools to promote them get in. The archives cover everything from how to start a social media account so it stays useful to how to convince an older organization to jump in and enjoy the feedback that comes of engaging with supporters. There is also campaign-specific information, about best-practices for finding vendors, handling sign-ups, that kind of thing. It is also a great place to find people to review an RFP, if you’re able to shake money free for a campaign and get some outside help.
  2. Beth Kanter’s blog. She writes what is probably the most popular and influential blog on nonprofit technology and online communications. She has a particular point of view, but she always provides sources and is well-worth skimming through a few times a month.
  3. M+R Benchmark report. M+R is a communications consulting shop that surveys 80+ nonprofits to figure out what normal looks like for online communications. There is a section on social media benchmarks that I love. The value of benchmarks is they change the tone of meetings about social media. It is worth it to go from “This young woman has an idea about how we can do our jobs better on Twitter” to “Our organization is underperforming for our sector on social media and to catch up, we should listen to this young woman who found the benchmarks.” Changing the conversation from subjective to objective can help get organizations onboard.
  4. Hootsuite. A lot of larger accounts pre-schedule their tweets. (I have been know to pre-schedule my personal #tbts because I honestly don’t remember it’s Thursday until it’s too late otherwise.) Hootsuite is one of a few industrial-strength social media management tools. You can use it as a dashboard to track your mentions, #tags, and follower-count. It is a lot faster to use than logging into Twitter and Facebook and whatever other account in separate tabs, it also makes it easier to let volunteers in and then close out their accounts when they’re done.
  5. Edgerank: explained. This is only relevant for Facebook, but it is worth sharing. Edgerank is how Facebook determines which posts show up in your feed, or from the perspective of a Facebook Page, which posts reach their followers. Most major brands (Coke, Nike, Terry Crews) only reach 7 – 10% of their followers in every post. Most non-profits produce content people want to see more than ads, so in my experience they reach ~15% of their followers. The other 85% never see a post from that nonprofit after they like the page. There are ways to boost your page’s Edgerank potential and a given post’s score without paying money (Facebook always wants you to pay money, and while they protest they don’t, they really do).

    The most basic way to increase your reach is asking followers to do what you want–you get Edgerank points for “engagements” like clicking a link, expanding an image, playing a video, liking a post, sharing a story, and commenting. For example, if I were running social media for a nonprofit and promoting a staff-member’s blog post on Facebook, I would post about it 3 times in a week, saying something like:

    “Our team works on-the-ground in some of the toughest places in the world. Help shine a light on the true stories of these refugees by sharing this blog post: [link] [upload the photo that is in sidebar of the blog post, assuming you have permissions]”. Using a photo and making a specific ask will improve your post’s chances of being seen.

    The next post would just be a link to the post, no photo, something like: “Did you see this? One of our staff was in Jordan working to help Syrian refugees. Hear her story: a bare link conveys urgency and variety on the page and in the feed.

    The final post would be something like this: “Sara told us that her family had lived comfortably in Syria and that one of her biggest concerns used to be shielding her children from violent images on T.V. That all changed once the fighting began and she could no longer hide violence by turning the T.V. off; now it was happening all around them.” Make sure Sara knows you support her family’s struggle to find safety and freedom by Liking this post. Telling the story of a client demonstrates organizational values and can be another boost for likes.

These are my favorite tools and tactics at a high level. If you have your own, please feel free to share them.

Inspirational Quote:

“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right…. Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.” ― Kofi Annan