Talking about things that don’t yet exist is hard. The only solution is to have a great understanding during the whole ideation process. But it is often not the case. We, designers, wandering into hypothetical outcomes can loose the main focus of our design. And clients, on the other side, come in with their own set of expectations not knowing what is doable, undoable or plain useless. We often have different interpretations of what has been said at the first introductory workshop. It is only later in the process that both parties start understanding what the other side meant by “smart” or “simple”, and so losing lots of precious time.
It is with the perspective of facilitating communication between clients and designers at the very first step of building the app that I decided to create an intuitive and interactive mean of understanding each other: A character card deck! This article is about the development of this project, and also how to use this now indispensable tool at Polidea. (You will find a downloadable link at the bottom of this article to print your own)
The basic problem was that people have a hard time imagining apps and talking about them before they can play around with them. However, most people have no problem imagining other people or everyday objects that they are very familiar with. It’s hard to imagine an algorithm, but easier to think of an analyst behind a desk.
The inspiration in fact came from an exercise I did back at university. As part my product design course, we had to design a camera for an established brand that didn’t yet produce cameras. Part of pinning down the brand qualities was to imagine the brand as a person and to give it a “brand personality”. To top it off, we had to choose a dog breed which best represented the brand. From there, the Doggie Deck idea was born…
ver. 1 – Doggie Deck
The first attempt was a direct report of my uni exercise – a deck of dogs breeds, each with their own characteristics. The different qualities were chosen intuitively and were roughly checked with existing apps.
We tried it out in a workshop, and there were two clear lessons to be learned: first, dogs evoke many emotions. The person choosing was influenced by her like or dislike for specific breeds, as well as dogs in general. Second, presenting all the cards on the table and asking to choose was a backward approach. Just as people can’t imagine complex apps, they can’t map dogs to complex apps. A more systematic approach had to be applied.
ver.2 – App Personality Deck
So I dove into psychological frameworks. I needed to find something that would give this tool some structure. The qualities had to make sense and be complimentary to each other. I decided to go with the most tried and tested framework of them all: the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Even though I had read about many drawbacks of this tool, I found that all its downsides for judging people were the upsides I was looking for in my project.
The MBTI is a questionnaire which sorts people into one of 16 personality types. You can read all about it on the Myers-Briggs Foundation website, as I am no expert on the usual applications of the tool. But I liked how it used four qualities (like introverted vs. extraverted) – it seemed simple enough to apply to products. And so I mapped the process and applied it to the app design realm:
Extraversion and Introversion (how outgoing a person is) became Active and Passive: how much the app engages the user. Sensing and Intuition (whether you focus on facts or add your own meaning) became Mechanic and Smart: how much data processing the app does. Thinking and Feeling (whether you focus on logic or people) became Serious and Friendly: what the app’s design language and tone of voice is. Judging and Perceiving (whether you like things decided or fluent) became Native and Custom: how much the interface follows given platform guidelines.
II then assigned each of the 16 combinations to a person or an object. Most of the combinations which seemed animated were a person, but all the passive and mechanic ones were quite obviously objects.
Again, the tool was put through a round of testing with real-life projects. And hurrah! It made sense. By choosing the qualities first, the client wasn’t overwhelmed by random people and objects, but forced to think about very relevant aspects of the product they wanted to build. However, there were some things that seemed to only make sense to me and then other things, which were just plain confusing. And so, the final (for now) iteration was born…
ver. 2.5 – Character Deck
A new, shorter name and lots of illustrations later, I am proud to present: the Character Deck. With updated quality names:
Automatic seems to describe the opposite of smart in this case a lot better than mechanic, which was too “physical”. Playful has also replaced friendly, as friendly wasn’t a strong enough word for what I was trying to convey. Some of the ‘characters’ have also been changed to be more universally understandable.
How it works
I use the tool as one of the final steps in a kick-off workshop, after speaking about the target user group, the market and competition overview and so on. I do not recommend presenting the activity as one of the first of the kickoff workshop as it should summarise many issues spoken about before, but also because it is a little fun and weird, and doing the activity at the start of a session could be a little confusing for the client!
take the numbered cards. You should have four. They each have a front and back – two opposing qualities. Discuss at length for each of the cards – this is really the heart of the activity. It will help you pin down requirements and expectations, but also discuss implications of each choice, i.e. what this means for timeline and budget.
Lay the numbered cards on the table, chosen sides up. The numbers on top of the cards will form a pattern. Find the card with the corresponding dot pattern
This is your app’s character! Discuss with the team what this could mean for the project and whether you feel like this matches what you were envisioning.
- If you feel like the character is completely mismatched, you can pick another – but remember that each one will have its own implications!
- As a bonus step, you can think about how the product will change with each milestone. A fan favourite is picking an Automatic card for the first couple of milestones and then adding Smart for later in the process.
Most off all: discuss. The Character Deck is not a scientific tool, it’s a starting point for discussions.
The Character Deck has been a year-long process of iterations and testing and we now can make it available to all UX designers who thinks it will help their work. As we have a long tradition of open sourcing our software tools here at Polidea, I decided to make this card deck available to everyone on a CC licence as well. Below you can find a PDF with the whole deck ready to be printed out on A4 and cut out. Print it out on a two-sided printer or stick the appropriate pages together. And then let me know whether it was useful for you!
Download the free, print-ready PDF file here: Character Deck DIY
- Magda ZadaraUI Designer