Unrealistic use cases and personas

Browsing the previous content of Vodafone's receiver, I ran across this old article by Adam Greenfield about persona that struck me as relevant for current discussions about the role of persona/use cases in design (in the context of video game design). The main point of the article is that use cases, designed to capture the important aspects of various users' interaction with an innovation are often "cooked and artificial with no realistic appreciation of people's complex desires and contexts. This is often true and spectacular. if you ever participated in a discussion of personas, you've certainly noticed how sterile and utilitarian use case are described.

Some excerpts I found relevant:

"When considering the social practices around any new technology, the uses foreseen by designers, manufacturers and retailers - and, inevitably, featured in the advertising and marketing campaigns around these technologies - are so much less interesting than what people actually wind up doing with them. (...) I call the gaps between the assumptions and the reality "fault lines": places where emergent patterns of use expose incorrect assumptions on the part of the designers, imperfect models of the target audience on the part of marketers, and social realities that might otherwise have remained latent. (...) there is good business sense in attending carefully to these fault lines, for along such lines is where the truly useful products and services wait to be born. (...) A basic problem with use cases, and the entire product development mindset in which they are embedded, is that they generally fail to anticipate the larger social context inside which all technology exists. "

Why do I blog this? What is interesting here is that Adam is not suggesting to scenarios and use cases but simply to make them more realistic and human. Very often, the use case are so neutral and instrumental that they fail to capture the complexity of people's ambivalent needs and desires. And of course, design needs to take this into account so that the innovation "become part of the everyday pattern of use for the majority of users".

It would be relevant to understand why the situation if often like this, why use cases are sometimes futile and utilitarian, why people avoid to consider weird situations like the one described by Adam: "in the US, Cingular Wireless offers a service called "Escape-a-Date," which provides its subscribers an emergency exit from bad dates". Is it because it's politically incorrect or worse is this because of wrong assumptions about what uses could be?

The problem with tools such as personas and use cases is less about the process itself, and rather about the type of behavior promoted (or forgotten) in them. Also read what Steve Portigal wrote about personas and how they patronize users.