Persona Creation Workshop

Oakland is an incredibly diverse city, and that diversity is reflected in our neighborhood branches. With 17 locations serving children, each Oakland Public Library branch has a unique personality, and children’s librarians customize their service to match the local community.

It’s great to have each of our children’s librarians focused on the needs of their specific patrons. However, when we come together for group discussions, it can be hard to come to agreement about the library needs of Oaklanders. In summer of 2016, I proposed a persona creation workshop for our one-day staff retreat in September. I developed an agenda, led the workshop, and produced written personas to be used in future discussions.

Back in 2015, I attended a workshop at ALA Annual called “Understand Your Customers: Empathy Persona Creation Workshop.” Louise Gruenberg, Senior Usability Officer at ALA, led participants through persona creation and offered various ways public libraries might use personas. I thought immediately of my colleagues in Children’s Services; if we collaborated to create personas of our patrons, could we refer to those personas by name in discussions? Would that help us understand each other better?
Louise Gruenberg generously gave me permission to adapt our handouts for our workshop. I also read many entries on Aaron Schmidt’s excellent blog “The User Experience” on Library Journal, including one just for this topic, “Persona Guidance.”
The workshop was invigorating, creative, and revealing. We developed five personas, and had some really deep conversations about our users and our understanding of their desires, motivations for coming to the library, what’s most important to them in life, and what frustrates them. We really connected with the empathy part of the process. Persona creation was successful in getting us all to dig a little deeper into our users as complex human beings.
What did I learn? Well, I now understand that five personas is really too many. My UX pro friend warned me–you want two, maybe three tops. We were going for capturing a cross section of our users, and while we were very thorough and did a great job (“we’re missing single fathers living with a disability!”), we made the personas such specific people that it was actually difficult to use them in discussions. And, okay, I confess…. we made even more personas the following month. Three more, in a session that felt more rushed, and seemed to leave participants feeling burdened by the process rather than informed by it.
We did try to use the personas in some discussions. I had large posters printed up of them and placed them around the room in Children’s Services meetings. However, it was difficult to have conversations with their needs considered, because with such specific personas, there were so many needs! My colleagues also seemed to find the personas distracting, because these were “fictional characters,” not the real people in their branches.
Though I didn’t lead us to quite the outcome I wanted (usable personas to guide future discussions), I’d certainly lead this exercise again, knowing what I know now about specificity. I would frame the process not around depicting our patrons accurately, but acclimating ourselves to the task of looking through the eyes of a person we know very little about–which is the majority of our patrons.
To see outcomes from this project, including my project charter, agenda for the workshop, handouts, notes, and the personas we created, request a password from me, then go here!
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