Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Tasks, Roles, Job Descriptions, and Personas

I've been thinking a lot about user research artifacts recently, trying to crisply define in my head how they all relate. Here's my current thinking.

At the lowest level, we have tasks and responsibilities. I don't think it's useful to separate the two - sometimes things are better expressed as a task and sometimes as a responsibility. Regardless, this is the lowest level artifact from user research... a discrete activity that a human performs.

A role is a collection of tasks that tend to be performed by one person. A person can take on multiple roles, of course, but roles are not split across different people. If they were, then the role is too big. Also, a role does not imply that all the tasks are performed by a person in that role -- sometimes there are tasks that no one performs in a given organization. But the role says that if the task is performed, it will be performed by the same person that does the other tasks in that role. I sometimes refer to this as a "responsibility set" because "role" is easily misinterpreted. In addition, we try very hard to avoid job title-style names for roles. Instead of, say, "Security Architect" (which implies a person), we say, "Security Architecture" (which implies a responsibility).

A job description is a collection of roles that are typically seen performed by a single person in a given context. This is where we start to see a lot of variability among different customers. Very large enterprise customers often show a lot of specialization, where a given job description covers very few roles -- or even a single role. Smaller mid-market customers have more generalized job descriptions, where one person takes on a lot of roles -- the jack of all trades.

Unfortunately, this is where confusion comes in with regard to the "role" term. I often see non-UX people refer to these job descriptions as a role. And these "roles" really mean "I met someone who did this job, so that means it's a role". Of course, this leads to someone else, who talked to a different customer, to start arguing about how that role is different (or worse, WRONG!) at their customer.

Personally (I don't know if there's an industry standard on this), the job description is also where we should start removing tasks & responsibilities from the underlying roles. For example, a specialized job description may include all the possible tasks that might be performed by a role, but the jack of all trades job description will not perform all the tasks from all the roles included in the job description. I think a reasonable argument can be made that this is better done at the persona level, but I prefer to do it here.

It's probably worth noting that, in my experience, many user research efforts skip this artifact and go directly from roles to personas. I don't think that's a bad thing, but I do think there's a distinction between a job description and a persona, so I'm including both here.

A persona is an fictionalized description of how a person might fill a particular job description. This is where personalization comes in, with names, photos, work-life overviews, skill levels, etc. There are tons of articles about personas out there, so I'm not going to spend much time describing them here. To me, the point of personas is to increase the stickability of a job description. It's easier for people to remember "Ralph the database administrator with a secret passion for ballroom dancing who just graduated from UC-Santa Cruz" than "Large Enterprise: Junior DBA".

Of course, personas are not at the top of the user research pyramid - there are other levels above them. But that's a topic for another day.

Anyway, that's how I see the world. I assume everyone else completely agrees with me.