Big Design Small Screen — Creating a Mobile Persona

“Thumbs are thumbs, dude.”
A real quote from someone who loves his own mediocrity.

Before creating a mobile persona, it’s critical to have an understanding of what is hoped to be gained from having them lingering around.

I say this because they can haunt a project. It’s not like one can meet them and then forget they exist. They will plague a designer to no end, and with good reason.

The mobile persona, far more than personas created for lesser endeavors contain pieces of everyone you know, and likely yourself as well.

This is due to a mobile persona being based on observed behavior and is more than just a friendly face smiling telling you “Don’t sweat it, everything is cool.”

A mobile persona is a harsh ghost. They’re meant to answer harder questions, they are a reflection of the stupid things we all do with our phones, and they say mean things like “No one will ever use this app.”

Getting Started with a Mobile Persona

Our relationship with phones has moved into several weird areas of behavior that should be part of your conceptual thinking.

First thing: Get up out of your fancy chair and go somewhere dirty.

I’m talking the DMV, a dive bar, a thrift shop. A place you will find people who are not like you or your team.

If you feel a bit pervy watching people interact with their phones, you need to get over it. Direct observation is critical to this exercise and will likely shatter most beliefs you have about the world of mobile use.

After a bit of watching people with flip phones or Android-ish phones with names you’ve never heard of, of hearing incredibly bad ring-tones and seeing a bevy of cracked screens and general disregard for the device, you need another dose: Watch some teenagers.

There is a huge divide between age group use of mobile devices. It’s almost immediate to note as soon as you begin watching.

I can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure the managers of Forever 21 have my photo behind the counter and hit the panic button when they see me.

Really, I was just watching them use their phones. Honest.

If you have relatives of teenage or younger years, do some one-on-one with them. It’s safer and the opportunity to ask questions without mall security staring at you from their Segways is far less of an issue.

I typically reference my kids here, they’ve had iPhones and iPads since a young age and have a radically different comprehension of what’s happening when things happen on the screen.

Older concepts of folders, files, browsers, downtime and so on are pretty foreign to them. The expected result of any action on the phone is “It works.” and when it doesn’t, I hear “It’s glitching out again.”

Lastly, strike up a conversation with some older folks. Before you do this, be warned: you may not escape easily.

Of any age group I’ve watched with mobile devices, they are most likely to engage you and begin exposing all the issues they have with apps, devices, syncing and why sometimes the picture is sideways.

As a general observation, older users tend to want their mobile device to work in exactly the same manner as every other device they’ve ever used.

With each group, watch specifically for when people grab for their phones during conversation. Make note of how the devices are used to either propel or derail social interactions.

Watch for points of geography where people stop and use their phones, it’s fairly easy to spot trends in use.

Some Observed Behaviors

I’ve seen some things, man. Things that can’t be unseen.

I’ll spare you the worst of it, and share a few interesting observations I’ve noted from the past year or so.

General behaviors are key, and an extension of any persona you develop. A person’s view of their device is key in understanding the type of apps or services they will adopt and use over time.

My favorite behavior is the “phone as social protection.” This is by far the single greatest use I’ve witnessed in the wild. We’ve become a society troubled by being alone or waiting for someone else. The phone is our new little buddy who can shield us from the embarrassment of having to actually acknowledge other humans or pretend we have idle moments of existence.

There are still people who use the phone as a phone. Not sure what that’s all about, but you can spot then talking (here in Detroit, it’s usually in the grocery store checkout line or while weaving between lanes on Woodward).

The group phone use is an oddity I see in younger users. It’s not hard to spot a gaggle of teenagers crowding around a single phone. I suspected some sort of multi-player game, but usually it’s just social sharing. Single phone, group activity is not uncommon.

I’m not going to say it was my mother, but it was someone who looked a lot like her. A nice lady who values her longer nails. Despite this obvious handicap when it comes to tapping and swiping, I’ve seen many very awkward gestures being done with little or no resentment. I think the tap is actually less interesting to many. Remember this before you draw a button.

It may be surprising to note the number of feature phones in the world. They exist in the hands of many and are not as primitive a device as you expect.

Photo by Jan Chipcase (@janchip) via Mark Comerford (@markmedia) via Hyper Island (@hyperisland)

In many countries outside the US and Europe, the feature phone IS the internet to a population larger than you can fathom. The cell phone number is an address and personal ID.

In many countries in Africa, they don’t name their streets or put numbers on homes. I was shocked many years ago when I was shown a photo of a doorway with a cell phone number handwritten over them. They have become the singular ID for many.

Writing a Mobile Persona

After some insight into mobile user behaviors has been gathered, it’s time to document.

If a persona is being used as part of Lean exercise to validate a concept, it may not need a high level of detail. For other purposes, the persona may need a face or a personality and be pinned to a wall so it may look down, big brother style on the team.

I’d suggest not tying the persona too tightly to a specific person, rather focus on behaviors, social settings, and usage cues.

Here’s an easy method to get a mobile persona started. How the persona is finished depends entirely on the project, the team and how the persona is intended to be used. Do what you need to do, I don’t judge.

From It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963).

The Big W Method

If you’ve ever taken a journalism class or had to write anything expositional, you know these five big W’s:

Who, What, Where, When, Why.

Starting to document a mobile persona is that basic and that complicated at the same time. We’re dealing with a whole lot of context around each of the Big W’s and the interpretation of how they interrelate is more important than the simple documentation.

I’ve found it more productive to re-order the W’s a bit as the What is a much better place to begin forming the contextual relationships. So now it’s: What, Where, When, Why, Who.

Let’s dig in with some simple questions:

WHAT
What does the app do to fulfill a human need? This is either proposed (what the app intends to do which will be validated by this persona) or an observed behavior where technology can improve a known situation.

WHERE
Where do we expect users to interact with the app? Place is a highly important factor to consider when designing features and app UI. Place can dictate the amount of attention a user is able or willing to give the device. If you build a placeless app, don’t expect use to occur anywhere.

WHEN
When do triggers to use the app occur and with what frequency? Time is a major factor, as the initial active trigger to launch the app must be balanced with how long a user is likely to interact with the app.

For anyone unfamiliar with the concept of triggers, they can be defined as social or personal cues based on other factors. Triggers are the pointy stick made sharper by need.

WHY
Why is the app valuable to the user? Why would they use it initially, and why would they continue? This one should be straightforward to define if a well thought out Situational Opportunity was created. Many times the Why of it all leans more towards a hypothesis to be proven.

WHO
Who are the expected users? This is where it may get fictional. If the urge to create a real fake person arises, stay away from creating a false human just so the design team finds them relatable. Think about the balance between emotional vs. rational and make good choices.

Documenting the W’s
I’ve created a simple documentation sheet for documenting mobile personas. My preference is to create a large number of partially defined personas based on behaviors I’ve noted; and then see where overlap occurs or where enough similar behavior exists to combine them into a better formed persona.

The Mobile Persona Worksheet is available here. If you like it, please use it.
If you want to improve it and add additional methods, please do so.

Can I Drive in Reverse?

Meaning can a behavior profile be created as a tool to validate if a user actually exists?

For sure. That’s a strong foundational element of Lean tactics in play. Proving a hypothesis is always a good move and can save time when a persona’s main use is to move parts of a project forward rapidly.

A defined, but not-yet validated persona is an ideal tool for use in direct contact methods of interview or conversation.

Like any method for proving a concept, be aware of human nature. It’s normal to want to be right or to protect the hypothesis. This is a case where ruthlessness is a true asset.


Big Design, Small Screen is a series of articles on conceptual design for mobile devices.

Next Up: Design for Wonder, Design for Doubt

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