This is a design methodology articulated and propagated by Alan Cooper, a major figure in the interaction design world.
As mentioned before, interactive design used to be done mainly by developers during the time the interface was being programmed. Design was driven by the functions or tasks the software was capable of performing: this resulted in products that were feature-rich but impossible to navigate intuitively. If a designer was involved, he was brought in to skin an already constructed interface.
One of Cooper’s innovations was to promote the use of user goals as the initial and main inspiration for design. This was an attempt to design behavior, or the experience the user has with the product. This means you need to know a lot more about the context in which the product will be used. After all, people visit the site or use the software because they have specific ends they hope to achieve. These, coupled with the business goals of the client, form the overall aim of the product itself. He delineated goals from tasks by saying goals were the overall desired end result. Tasks were simply part of the process necessary to accomplish the objectives.
Cooper also had designers involved in product design from the inception of the product, well before any building happened.
In order to uncover the most cogent needs and goals of the user, Cooper developed tools he called personas. These are research-based fictional users (or models) for whom the design team develops full profiles. As the interface is constructed, the designers and editors can all speculate about how each persona would respond, providing valuable insight. This gives the entire team a gut-level feel for their potential audience and so guides the development throughout its different phases.
The more specific the details for a persona, the better a design tool it becomes. The team used research to formulate these models, creating back stories and developing what each one would want to accomplish.
Articles/Publications used to write this lesson:
Cooper firm web site
About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design
Alan Cooper, Robert Reimann , David Cronin
Wiley; 3rd edition (May 7, 2007)
Persona: An Overview (opens as a pdf)