Personas: The Basics for Special Libraries and the ILS

Stephen Abram

Stephen Abram

April 30, 2019

I’ve been involved in creating personas for libraries, associations and vendors for almost 20 years now. I have been enamored of their power to bring the real user into the development cycle, including the development of integrated library systems, ever since I read this classic book by Alan Cooper: The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity.

It’s very interesting and very readable.

After reading Cooper’s book, I started to develop detailed personas in the US and Canada for libraries and librarians, and business personas and specific personas in medicine, law, science, and engineering. Each activity fundamentally influenced the trajectory of product, service, sales and marketing roadmaps. Consider that in the late 90’s we were struggling with integrated library system development as it transformed from a librarian focused tool to an end user experience. Indeed, many ILS modules are solely for use by library staff, while others may be used by library staff but most often, by end users It is my insight that some of the demands on the integrated library system are contradictory given the different needs and goals of end users and library staff. At the time, this was a whack on the side of the head. Why were end-users having issues with OPACs? In the late 90’s, we learned that the fine-tuned complexities of catalogue searches met the needs of power searchers like librarians, but didn’t meet the expectations of Googlefied end users. Frustration ensued on both sides of the equation! And no one yet knew the answer to optimizing the integrated library system UX.

“A persona in UX Design is the characterisation of a user who represents a segment of your target audience. On a project you might create any number of personas to be representative of a range of user needs and desires. The solutions you design must answer these needs in order to deliver value to your target audience.

Typically, Personas are created at the definition phase of a project to better understand the specific needs of your target audience. Personas are used as a reference throughout the project lifecycle to ensure that every decision is made in service of the personas needs that have been identified. If you are designing functionality that does not directly address a personas need then you should either not be designing it, or your personas are incorrect.”

What is the difference between personas, archetypes and stereotypes?

Think literature . . . and you’re halfway to understanding the difference—and ensuring that you don’t devolve in this process to just using stereotypes. Stereotypes are bad, mostly because they can be cruel, uniformed and lack understanding of the real user.

“A stereotype is a preconceived notion, especially about a group of people. Many stereotypes are racist, sexist, or homophobic.”

Another caution is to not stop at archetypes either. Again literature is a help here (so many of us have literary training):

“There are three archetype manifestations and the least known among the three is customer archetype. And there are basically three types of customer archetypes:

  • Archetypal characters or customer archetypes are extreme or dramatized representations of idea customer’s characters. Very effective for brand development and marketing theme development.
  • Archetypal themes are extreme or dramatized representations of issues or concerns, such as “institution rebels” or “social connectors”. Archetypal values are extreme representations of things that are given values, positive or negative, such as “deeply loyal”, “trust”, and “uncertainty”.
  • Archetypal scenarios are illustrative scenarios of decision-making situations, such as “fear uncertainty doubt”. Not used much but which may be useful in the future. Consider the possibility of archetypal relationships (“respectful adversaries”); intentions (“fake concern”); changes (“sea change”, “mounting jeopardy”); and heuristics (“step back and look at the big picture”).”

Can You Tell the Differences between Customer Archetype, Customer Personas and Customer Segmentation?

Simply put . . . well-developed personas rise above stereotypes and build on key archetypal characters to create a small suite of persona profiles of those end users who MUST be delighted by the user experience—along with meeting their need to make progress on their goals.

Personas represent People and Behaviours
Archetypes represent demographic cohorts worthy of investigation to discover patterns and profiles

How do librarians differ from their users?

This is a fascinating topic for discussion. Indeed, Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher born in 544 BCE said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” From this ancient insight we can posit that librarians are different. (yay!)

What are librarians most worried about?

  • Understanding the answer journey
  • Sustaining relevance
  • Changing user behaviors
  • Diversity services
  • E-learning and distance education
  • Justifying growth and projects—measures and stories, not statistics
  • Understanding mutating (not changing) usage patterns—insight not data
  • Building community alliances but bringing gravitas to the table
  • Building for the future and not repairing the present
  • Productivity and shifting staff resources, setting priorities
  • Balancing print, electronic and new services and resources
  • Challenged funding, budgets and fundraising
  • Technological and other ‘change’

Let’s consider what, broadly, users are most worried about?

  • Their whole life (in the context of employment needs)
  • Community and professional networks
  • Learning and growing
  • Work and work product—decisions
  • Play and recreation
  • Finding (not search)
  • How do you persuade? Educate? Involve?
  • Data, charts and graphs—help but dry
  • Debate and argument – a little confrontational
  • Conversation—a lot of effort, scales poorly

Note the lack of much overlap between users and library staff!

Developing Personas has a great process that informs developers, managers, and leaders in ways way beyond just the specific experience being created. It investigates the path your users take towards success and places it in context. Starting with understanding users in terms of their needs, preferences, and desires, goals and aspirations, expectations and assumptions, values and their beliefs, stressors, frustrations and successes, and tolerance for risk and change

I use a suite of tools and interventions:

  • Narrative storytelling – captures the energy of the population and persists
  • Strategic thinking about user experience design
  • User research and testing
  • Informal, loosely structured conversations
  • User interviews: topics
  • Focus groups
  • Eye tracking
  • Testing and measuring success
  • QA processes
  • Usability testing
  • Log files
  • Predictive modeling
  • Market research, surveys, polls, A/B testing, up-down votes, etc.
  • Moving beyond just demographics or age/stage

The end result is that we will have:

  • Focused on a small range of the most important users and avoided edge cases
  • Avoided developer preferences without research support
  • Supported the end user journey
  • Embedded users’ needs everywhere
  • Understood the user’s age/stage, context and goals at an institutional and personal psychographic level
  • Delivered user-centric value and impact

All special librarians aren’t a homogenous group. The same goes for lawyers, administrators, students, curators, medical pros, archivists, or whatever. Personas increase your level of development, service, and marketing sophistication.

I encourage you to look at your user population, and start the process of understanding the priority groups (whether you’re serving them successfully yet or not), and develop a core group of persona profiles.


<a href="" target="_self">Stephen Abram</a>

Stephen Abram

Stephen Abram is a popular Lucidea Webinars presenter and consultant. He is the past president of SLA, and the Canadian and Ontario Library Associations. He is the CEO of Lighthouse Consulting and the executive director of the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries. He also blogs personally at Stephen’s Lighthouse. Check out his new book from Lucidea Press, Succeeding in the World of Special Librarianship!

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