Famous user figures in the history of HCI

Marketing people, engineers and designers often rely on persona, i.e. fictional characters created to represent the different user types within targeted characteristics that might use a service or a product. In the history of human-computer interaction, some user figures have been so prominent that it is important to keep them in mind.



Two of the most prominent characters are Joe and Josephine, a fictional couple described by Henry Dreyfuss, in "Designing for People" with plenty of simplified anthropometric charts. Dreyfuss introduced what has been called "Human Engineering" in the form of this couple, his common denominators for all dimensions. Simply put, Joe and Josephine representing the numerous consumers for whom they were designing:

""if this book can have a hero and a heroine, they are a couple we call Joe and Josephine.... They occupy places of honor on the wall of our New York and California offices.... They remind us that everything we design is used by people and that people come in many sizes and have varying physical attributes.... Our job is to make Joe and Josephine compatible with their environment... consider josephine as a telephone operator". It wasn't too long ago that she had the mouthpiece of the phone strapped to her chest and the earphones clamped to her head."


Another good example is Sparky, the "Model Human Processor", introduced by two HCI researchers: Stuart Card and Thomas Moran in 1983. In this case, Sparky was less a persona than a model of user interaction with the computer. For these authors, the goal was to build a model of computer users based on their perceptive, motive and cognitive abilities to interact with digital artifacts.


Perhaps the most caricatural is Sally, the fictional secretary from Xerox PARC. You can find the following description in a conversation with Douglas Englebart:

"But fashion shifted. XEROX PARC was formed. The 'inn' thing to do was to focus on the 'real' user - personified at PARC by 'Sally' the secretary. She need to have a computer she could figure out how to use quickly and have her paper-based work on, after all, XEROX was a 'document company'. The thinking was very far removed from augmenting the executive 'knowledge worker'."

As discussed by Thierry Bardini in his book:

"the real user was born, and her name was 'Sally' (...) Two main characteristics defined this new model of the user: Sally was working on paper, on her Royal, but in the professional business of publishing, and she was a skilled touch typist. (...) Sally, "the lady with the Royal typewriter," once and for all validated Licklider's conclusion that the real users, "people who are buying computers, especially personal computers, just aren't going to take a long time to learn something. They're going to insist on using it awfully quick - easy to use, easy and quick to learn."

You can also traces remnants of Sally in this research paper where she's back with a guy called Bob.

Why do I blog this? This is only a limited list of classical persona in the history of HCI, I am pretty sure there are others. There were helpful in my presentation (in french) about how networked objects are designed with limited models of targeted users. As you surely realize, these fictional characters tend to exhibit important bias and flawed representation of human beings. Thanks Emmanuelle Jacques for pointing me to this line of work! What is of interest here, is simply to trace reasons of design choices made by certain "innovators" over time.