Human Factors Engineering: Modeling Personas (1)

Pervasive “software defined smarts” and “ubiquitous connectedness” are set to change how we design and interact with day-to-day objects as well as sophisticated enterprise systems. The fact is that the rise of (1) behavioral and social analytics, (2) machine learning and recommender technologies and (3) a new generation of context-aware adaptive interfaces happen to redefine and elevate how Human Factors Engineering, HFE, can effectively deliver User Centered Design (UCD). HFE’s end goal is to humanize tech. The outcome grows the user base by democratizing technologies, which leads to serial innovation.

Just a couple of weeks ago I participated in very interesting discussions on user profiling and mass personalization during workshops hosted at the IBM Innovation Center in Cambridge, MA. In subsequent posts I will keep that conversation going by outlining a framework addressing users, personas and identities, which are not interchangeable terms.

Back in Boston we also exchanged insights on ease of consumability from an end-to-end systems engineering approach. This reinforces HFE’s holistic principle around the user experience journey spanning complete lifecycles, all the way from discoverability and experimentation to decommissioning, repurposing and/or recycling products and services upon End of Life (EOL).  

Modeling personas is a well known research technique. Though, let’s keep in mind that it entails a proxy approach and is just one tool in HFE’s toolset. My experience is that solely relying on modeling personas alone is not enough. In any case, I would like to take this chance to retrieve a couple videos from a project I worked on about 10 years ago. Here is the context:

  • The first iPhone was released in mid 2007, which took the market by storm with a fast growing ecosystem of applications.
  • The wireless telecommunications sector had mostly relied on business models and revenue from voice services instead.
  • The advent of a “data tsunami” put significant pressure on 2.5G wireless networks and accelerated 3G and 3.5G deployments.

Long story short, delivering Mobile Broadband meant going beyond 3.5G to improve and scale infrastructure, delivery platforms and services in more effective and cost efficient ways, which became 4G’s opportunity, LTE, WiMAX, UMB being the competing standards early on.

These two videos were released in 2008 with the objective to discuss scenarios envisioning a short term 2010 horizon, as well as a forward looking outlook for 2015 for 4G. Note that LTE has become the prevailing worldwide network technology and that the standard was finalized by the end of 2008.

We defined two personas (fictional characters) to synthesize a selective set of research findings and assumptions, which helped us visualize and explore 4G’s opportunity: Zoe – Millennial, and Ethan – Gen-X. The stories in this narrative were structured as a succession of persona-based scenarios assembled as a “Day-in-the-Life” journey. The emphasis was placed on network effects depicting social interactions and collaborative behaviors engaging others in a variety of sessions.


By conducting a retrospective assessment ten years later, we can now spot hits-and-misses and what specific forecasting frameworks and techniques worked better. It is also true that this project was leveraged as “thought leadership” initiative seeking to influence future developments: prompting LTE adoption by network operators in this particular case. Research wise, that means factoring a “confirmation bias” (a self-fulfilling prophecy effect) and

In the spirit of full disclosure, our customers asked about the availability of these applications as soon as we discussed our vision with them. So, we went on to form an extensive ecosystem initiative known as ng.connect to collaborate with third party partners and research institutions to “make things real”. I was involved in ng.connect as an internal consultant in its early days, mostly supporting the University Innovation Program on a project basis. As PARC’s, Palo Alto Research Center’s, Alan Kay put it, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it”.

By the way, there are other related quotes out there. I came across Alan K’s one when reading Walter Isaacson’s “The Innovators”. My favorite take was written by Antonio Machado, a Spanish poet:

Wayfarer, the only way

Is your footprints and no other.

Wayfarer, there is no way.

Make your way by going farther.

By going farther, make your way

Till looking back at where you’ve wandered.

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