User-centric models represent your users, the things they do related to your products, the things they need to accomplish with your products, and their relationship with your products.
User-centric models are important design tools in that they:
1. Help designers create amazing products
2. Help teams rally around their users and share a common understanding of what is important to users
3. Help avoid subjective debates about what features are important to users
If you have an (or more than one) easy-to-understand model that represents your user, based on research, you will be more efficient and effective in making design decisions. Three of my favorite user-centric models are: Mental Models, Personas, and Experience Maps.
Mental models represent user tasks, behaviors, and motivations and are typically generated based on a someone rigorous task-analysis research effort. This research often involved interviewing and observing users. The number of users varies per product, but 16 is average.
Recruiting is one of the most important steps. You need to identify the right set of people to talk to who will represent the range of things users do, and also be sure you are getting a solid representation of the most critical behaviors. Recruiting is done based on characteristics that you think will result in different behaviors. You want to make sure you have each defining characteristic covered around four times. For example, if you are researching travel planning, you may decide that some important characteristics that will uncover unique tasks include: families traveling with kids, planners (versus fly by the seat of your pants), and type of vacation.
Once you have spoken to the right people, it takes skill to ask open ended questions to gather detailed information. From there, the data/tasks gathered into task groups and represented on a mental model diagram. Typically there are thousands of tasks, and the researcher groups them according to how users spoke about them -- an affinity exercise.
The final product provides a team and an organization with a broad view of their users. The visual depiction makes it easy for people to grasp a lot of detailed information. Often times boxes on the diagram map back to actual quotes from users. The mental model can then be used to:
1. Make decisions about what user tasks and behaviors the product offering will address. Often times mental models uncover behaviors that were not yet considered by a design team, and as a result lead to innovation.
2. Compare how the current product offering/feature set maps to user needs and behaviors represented on the mental mode.
3. Generate feature and design decisions that directly, and holistically, address user needs and behaviors represented on the mental model.
For more about mental models see Indi Young's book.
Personas are fictitious characters who, as a set, represent the breadth of tasks, behaviors, and motivations that your users perform that help your team make the best possible design decisions. It's often times easier for designers, and other team members, to generate and critique design ideas when thinking about real people using the products. Personas bring the kind of information in a mental model to life by representing the data through characters.
For more on personas, see the blog post All Personas are Not Created Equal.
Experience maps paint a picture of the journey that users have with your product(s) -- they visualize the phases in their workflow, the various pain points, other critical artifacts used to make their experience complete, roadblocks, and opportunities. Experience maps provide a high level, strategic look at how your product(s) fit into the people's lives; they help to understand the broader context where your product is situated.
Teams often get narrowly focused on a particular product, or feature set within a product, and lose sight of the complete user experience. Experience maps help teams keep their eye on the big picture and generate new, innovative ideas to help make the experience better.
No two experience maps typically follow the same format or layout, but they often contain a few key components: phases in the journey, touch points, pain points, and opportunities.
User-centric models take some work to get right and truly represent user goals, tasks, and motivations. But it's worth taking the time to do this; it's an investment. User-centric models can be used for years and years, and once you have a solid base, they are easy to update and maintain as your product offering evolves and as user's needs change over time.
About the Author
Mary Piontkowski is a user experience specialist who has worked with high-profile companies such as Adaptive Path, Organic, and Macromedia. Through her strategic approach, creative expertise, and mastery of a variety methods for design and innovation, Mary has helped build robust experiences for Fortune 100 and 500 companies such as Macy's, Levi's, PayPal, Sun Microsystems, Hasbro, Sprint, Allstate, and Microsoft. "I'm a strategic design leader who thrives in ambiguity -- situations that require change and transformation. My defining work revolves around digital experiences. I believe good design and innovation come from collaboration between cross functional teams and through close attention to user insights, business goals, and some instinct. I find that strong leadership requires a mix of soft and hard skills, from emotional intelligence and adaptable communication to strong facilitation and persuasion skills. I understand that the context of a situation must be understood in order to ultimately have influence within an organization and with end users alike. I believe in adhering to standards, but am always looking for opportunities for invention. While I am strongest in a leadership role, I believe that design leaders should always stay involved with the creative process."