When Design Failed Me. A Case Against Personas.

I am a designer. My mind is at this non-stop. I could admire or bitch about design all day long but I don’t want to. Unless your choices as a designer affect my life.

Almost every company, especially corporate behemoths, have the following mantra:

At the core of our business is our customer.

What a noble sensible statement. What an empty slogan! Let’s call it out for what it is: At the core of every business is the business itself. The real care for your customer is shown in the products you create, in the services you provide. And that, my friend, reflects into your brand.

How can a generic statement backfire?

Let’s talk facts: At the centre of most businesses nowadays it’s not a real customer but a persona — a made up character that doesn’t really do anything. Let’s call him Joe.
Joe is a collection of theoretical problems and habits that never leaves the meeting room and, sometimes, a hard drive; A digital being that will always be happy with any design decisions, a mindless fellow that will help you tick the boxes of the business requirements. Joe will never be in a hurry trying to get his daughter with a broken leg to the ER, lose its wallet before paying for stuff, and will never feel old and hopeless standing in the rain in front of a parking barrier on a Sunday night.

It’s just another Monday in the office.

The email with the brief sits comfortably in the inbox, ready to be open. Everyone has a cup of something on the desk, the chairs are set at the right height. The AC is pumping filtered air into a large room in a spacious building on the eleventh floor somewhere in the middle of the city, and yet far away from the real users and real-life scenarios. You can bet that one of the tabs on every designer browser will be Dribbble, or other design-award-back-patting-show-off-design-for-applauses websites, places which most of them will visit a few times a day to get an erection.

Everyone gets to work.

The business analysts will talk about the goals, the PM’s will log in to JIRA to write stories, UX designers will imagine scenarios and flows, the UI team will later vote on colour schemes, AC still blasting in, coffees getting cold. All this while, the made-up user profile, Joe, is happily hanging on the glass wall with a bunch of other Joe’s, this time in printed format. He can’t say anything because… how can a collection of words printed on 80 g/sqm A4 of white paper take action and point at its real-life pains? Whatever he would have to say has been decided and there is a character count on the box that describes his pains.

Now, a real story.

On the first day of this year, I had to take my wife had to the ER in Tunbridge Wells. In the next couple of days, she went through surgery so I had to be at the Pembury Hospital, a few times a day, for four days.

Why is this relevant?

Because I had the chance to meet the ACS parking System from Xerox. A metal and glass box that every single time will look at me with cold dead eyes. A system so badly designed, that in my five visits to the hospital got me out of the car twice to help people in front of me get a ticket. I found out later from all sorts of people, old and young, that the parking system is a pain to use. While my wife was recovering after surgery, sitting by her bed, I had time to think about this. I could not wrap my head around the design concept. So I went outside and had another look at someone using the machine.

How bad a product can be?

A driver, a man in his 80’s, sitting in his car, was hopelessly pressing every button on the interface. A minute later, his arm was hanging tired, outside of his red car. On his face, you could read self-disappointment. There was a cue behind his car and someone was honking.
Either the design team had never ever seen a parking system outside in the real world, they were high on something while coming up with the interface or they were purely incompetent.

To believe that everyone will understand what a machine is supposed to do and how doesn’t make you a mediocre designer but a bad one.

Why so harsh? Because you will inflict real pain in users life. But don’t take my word for it, have a look bellow.

So, what does this machine do? If your guess is correct you still have to figure out how.

There are no labels on the buttons and there is no clue around about how to use the machine. Who designed the interface for this machine? An evil scientist? Satan himself?
As a new user, you are left in front of this metal monster to be humiliated and confused. This is the biggest design failure I’ve met so far in 2019. This is not any machine, this machine is guarding the parking lot of the hospital. A place where people come with other priorities than learning about fancy interfaces.

This is not Dribbble, motherfuckers.

You don’t have to impress me right now, my wife is in agonizing pain and I need to find the only free parking space in the whole parking lot. So help me, please. But no, the designer is still sipping from its fancy water bottle wondering how many likes will get later for designing an interface like no other. Sadly, many, because most of the young designers thrive on social validation coming from the design community rather than positive feedback coming from real users. They will “like” each-others work and say nice things, and yet never deal with the pain they brought to this world. It is just like a cure for an illness, a cure with painful side effects.
Two days after we left the hospital, I returned, and added few labels on the machine, just to ease the pain of my fellow human beings. The real user will most of the time be in a rush, stressed out and the last thing (s)he needs is a puzzle.

This story is not just about this particular product. This is another story about design failures in the 21st century.

A century that started almost two decades ago and had a very good start in terms of design frameworks, rules, and good practice. We know that we have to keep it simple, we know we can’t confuse the user. We have no excuses.
Leaving aside the story about customers being at the core of every business, we are left with few simple design rules:

Build only if it makes sense. Use knowledge and technology to solve real problems. It ain’t easy, you can’t do fancy moves and be too artistic about it but is worth it. The purpose must be clear and the operation even clearer.

If you are in the business for applause, you should be on a stage elsewhere. Not in a studio, making design decisions.

And yes, the persona as we have it and use it today must die. It is toxic for everyone to produce something that is not constantly tested and improved.
As much as you as a designer want to say: Fuck you, real user, you have to do it my way, sooner or later, it will blow in your face. Design is not art and if you want to impress your audience, you need to build something that needs no explanation. It is hard but it will make you stronger and the world would be a better place.

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