Soap Opera Personas

Teams often use personas to help them identify their users and the types of actions they’ll perform. This is usually a workshop exercise that will last many hours and identify 5-10 key characters with a few paragraphs of history and motivation.
I find that these personas tend to get forgotten and that user stories are still written “As a Customer” or “As a Customer Service Agent”.
I’ve been recommending that my teams use a method I call “Soap Opera Personas”. In TV soap operas, we don’t get a big introduction to the characters at the beginning of the episode; we get thrown in at the deep end and we learn about the characters as they go about their daily lives. For persona writing, this means that we can avoid the workshop exercise and start with very basic characters.
Take “Carl, the Customer Service Agent”. As we start to define stories, we write them “As Carl” and bit by bit, we get to learn a little bit about him. For the first few stories, we might not need any other characters. As the project progresses, we might find a few behaviours that seem outside of Carl’s usual routine. If someone suggests a feature that requires setting accelerator keys so that keyboard users are more effective, we can introduce “Kevin, the keyboarding CSA”. When we need to have reporting and administration functions, we can introduce “Sharon the Supervisor”.

This might seem a little cute, but it has immense power. Security features can now be tested by having Carl try to do something that only Sharon is permitted to do. The team can push back on features that seem at odds with the stories they’ve built so far; “This feature is labelled as a Sharon feature, but it seems more like something that Kevin and Carl would be doing day-to-day. Is there a reason for that?”
It gives the team something to identify with. Just as somebody can jump into a soap opera at any point, and infer the backstory; new team members absorb the characters as they listen to discussions during planning or story writing. It enriches the experience and gives another dimension for people to ask questions.
In soap operas, characters sometimes suddenly reveal a secret history; Phil is in witness protection from the Mafia. As long as the revelation doesn’t completely invalidate the character we’ve come to know, we’re happy to accept it. Our personas can also cope with significant changes when key aspects of the project change, allowing stories and automated acceptance criteria written in this style to adapt as the project progresses.

Like with all good characters, once you get to know them well, the stories write themselves.