Posted by: bbannan | February 15, 2012

User Profiles, Task Analysis, Contextual Inquiry, through a creative writing lens – Dan

As a former English teacher I tend to think in terms of character, plot, setting, and theme and apply them to nearly everything I do.  It allows me to make better sense of the world and examine how things work and how people react to different situations. This is extremely important when it comes to creating a user-centered product that is successful.  What the designer must do is create a story for the product and whoever will be using the product, which becomes the story of your business.  The better story you take the time to write the better planned your end product will be.  Just like in creative writing we must follow the formula for the creation of the user experience, we are creating characters, scenery, giving them a problem to solve and keeping track of the path they used to get there. A great storyteller knows that you must put as much detail as possible into a story to make it not only believable but also great. It is important to note that everyone acts differently given any situation and the writer must be aware of this. Everything about a character and the scene they are within affects how they will react to the problem they will face. As instructional designers it is extremely important to remember all of this when creating a user experience.

First we must create the characters that will be using the product that is being designed.  The importance of creating user profiles that fit your users is of the utmost importance when it comes to keeping the User at the center of the Design of your product. Essentially at the bare bones level a User Profile is “more than just a face put on a list of demographic data; they are entities whom you work with to make a better product” (Kuniavsky 130). Ultimately, you use the data to create the user profile that will most likely use your product and this profile becomes an integral part of the conversation about the design. This is not a specific art that is based solely on data it is “based on your intuition, your judgment, and the information you have at hand” (Kuniavsky 130). User profiling is a bit of an art and takes some skill to acquire and over time you will be able to create highly developed profiles that are injected to all parts of the design and development process.

According to Kuniavsky, a typical user profile takes at least three weeks to develop by no more or less than five to six people (131). The profiling should include as much detail as possible well beyond simple demographic data. The profiles should provide an insight into the User’s life and how the product will fit into their life and an arduous process of clustering all of this information using post-it notes and a meeting room. To me this process seems a bit dated and overly reliant on cumbersome tactics. I prefer mind-mapping software like “Inspiration” that enables the user to easily get a big picture look at a User Profile in creation and allows for multiple users to work on the same project. Due to the arduous process described I went on a search to find an easier way of working through this process and I found some interesting resources. One such resource is Dey Alexander Consulting, which had more articles than I could consume specifically about User Profiling and another page solely for templates.  One article in particular struck my fancy because it was titled “Customer Story-Telling at the Heart of Business success” I believe that this title summed up what a user Profile is exquisitely. Each customer is telling the story of the product and your business. You must create a good user profile to truly understand how they will react with different pieces of the product because each person will react differently.

This leads into “contextual inquiry” which in essence is the scenery you are going to inject your user profile into.  The scenery of contextual inquiry is not just where the product will be used but how and according to Kuniavsky this entire process is much longer than user profiling and takes a team of roughly the same size.  I will not take the time to review the details of what is suggested but the key point to take is that it must be based on data. Data collection for this scene must be made in the real world to better understand where the product will be used.  What I gathered to be the main point of this part is that it is important to note that products may be created in a vacuum but they are never used in one. During my research I was able to find a wiki called Fluid with many resources on this particular subject. This is also a great website from the UK that uses many visuals to explain the process as well, it is called Webcredible

The problem that comes to the character and the scenery is the “task analysis,” how the character reacts to the problem and ultimately solves it is the most barebones level of “task analysis.” The designer is taking note of everything the user will do with or within the product that is being designed for them.  The designer must take note of everything the user does and breakdown why they did it. For example, “why did the user click on this button instead of that one?” A writer does something similar, a story is character driven and how the character reacts can sometimes surprise the writer and then the action must be revised to fit the story.  Once the designer has the user go through the entire process of “the story” the designer must examine every step along the way and “revise” revise the product based on this new information.  A great resource for the task analysis of design is UXmatters. This website examines the tasks that are performed on a website we are all very familiar with.

In essence an entire story must be created for the product and the business. As deisgner’s it is our mission to help create this detailed story and can help to make a product successful.  A good story will help to create a good product and allow the end user to have a rich experience that will enable them to keep coming  back and using the product again and again.



Dey Alexander. (2009, August 18). Personas. Retrieved Feb 13, 2012, from

Dey Alexander. (2009, August 18). Templates. Retrieved February 13, 2012, from

Hornsby, P. (2010, February 08). Hierarchical Task Analysis. Retrieved February 14, 2012, from

Kuniavsky, M. (2003). Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.

Ogle, D. (2009, May 01). Contextual Inquiry. Retrieved February 13, 2012, from

Webcredible. (2009, September 1). Contextual Inquiry. Retrieved February 13, 2012, from





  1. Hi Dan,

    How clever! I love analogies because they help me to think and to see clearly. I REALLY apreciate your framing the parts of design development into a story telling scenario. It makes so much sense. (I guess maybe the budget can be an antagonist!) I will now view all those unexpected events as plot twists!

    I also think that time requirements do not necessarily need to be stringent and/or formulaic. Of course, as you point out, details, details, details must be as in-depth, insightful and comprehensive as possible. This takes time, to be sure. But, it does not necessarily take x number of days or weeks. A designer may need less than x or more than x days or weeks.

    I had never heard of the mind-mapping software, “Inspiration,” which you mentioned. Thanks for that information.

    Thanks for the Dey Alexander Consulting link, too. You are right; there is a plethora of relevant information there and I will be accessing it.

    Thanks. I truly enjoyed your post and value the new way of thinking about design which you have given me. 🙂

  2. Thank you for a great post and a nice list of resources.

    I am in agreement with you that the method recommended in the book to organize user data is a bit outdated. However, it may become handy when one does not have access to resources such as the one you noted, “Inspiration”, or when working with large groups under a pressing deadline..

    A great story is memorable and will keep users interested and coming back for more as long as they get the answers they need with minimal effort.

    Good job, Dan.


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