Build better sites by telling stories

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August 16, 2013
Build better sites by telling stories.

thumbnailI'm sure you've heard of personas and scenarios, but let's start with a quick explanation of how they are useful in the design process:

A persona is an elementary tool of usability and user experience design and describes a typical member of your target audience. Although a persona is a fictional representation of a user, it is based on real data; the persona should be as close to a real potential user as possible.

A scenario is a 'story' based on the persona's experience of, journey with, and actions taken while interacting with your app or site. It explains the process a user might follow, their capabilities, reasons, goals, and motivations in relation to the site. Scenarios explain everyday situations; how the app or site fits in the persona's daily life, what got them to use it, how they use it, why they keep on using it, and so on.

Together they describe the various contexts in which someone could be using your site. This, in turn, flushes out problems and opportunities that ought to be addressed.

What are they good for?

Both personas and scenarios are a way for designers and developers to keep in touch with their target audience, as they progress with a project. They keep us in check and make sure we are in fact creating for these users.

For instance, if you are creating a color picking app you will want to make sure that your personas have a desire and a reason to use such an app. Therefore, you might create a persona who is a designer, or someone who is redecorating their living room. It has to make sense; it has to be in context. This way you can use personas and scenarios to identify what you could be doing better to anticipate how a designer would use a color picking app, such as to pair up colors rather than as a random color generator.

As you can see, thinking this through allows you to focus on features and functions that your audience actually wants and cares about; it allows for the process to be built from the ground up, and the project will be much more efficient and effective if we focus on users from the very beginning of development to the end.

The benefits of personas and scenarios

Personas specifically allow us as designers to make predictions about how our users will respond to our design decisions, based on these mental models. They change the questions we are asking, from 'what is the best solution for this problem' to 'what would be the best solution to suit Angie, the freelance designer'. These two simple and fundamental tools have a psychological effect, a reminder that the project is not at all about us but the people who will use it; and that, right there is the most powerful effect personas and scenarios can offer.

In more specific terms, personas provide a personality for a user you are creating your site or app for. It's a motivating aspect for sure. You have a persona that describes Samantha, an easy going, tree hugging graphic design student who has high technology proficiency but is indecisive – which is why this color picking app is perfect for her. Scenarios communicate character and values of the user as they journey through a specific goal. In a scenario you could go over over how a friend recommended her this app and how she goes to explore it for the first time, what she found useful or confusing.

Additionally, having a face put to your target audience discourages big directional changes from stakeholders as they now have a particular person in mind, they now have a human connection attached to the project and can anticipate what dramatic effects these changes could have. This is all possible with a simple, fictional persona. It's fascinating how much impact a simple doodle can have.

In addition, this is an extremely inexpensive approach, compared with the costs, in terms of time as well as money, involved in talking to real users every time you have a decision to make.

Storytelling in itself is a very powerful tool; it brings people together, it brings in entertainment and meaning. By using personas in scenarios you are allowing for a special bond between your team and your audience. It allows them to come alive when you cannot literally talk to them yourself. They help your team understand and figure out how your audience might tackle problems and issues which may arise. As a result, it helps you to think about solutions to problems from the perspective of the target audience.

I've mentioned briefly how personas ground us as designers. We may get so caught up in the project and in our own opinions that we need to be reminded that this is not about us; it is about the users. Having a bunch of personas hung on the wall is a great way to never forget about your users. As we get deep into a project, we may be too invested in our work to think clearly and objectively; this, in turn, could really harm the end product. You do not want to risk designing something that your target audience doesn't appreciate.

Creating great personas and scenarios

I think a valid question at this point would be what it takes to create great personas and scenarios. First and foremost, your personas have to be based on actual user research so that you are not wasting your time and resources creating personas with no relation to your intended audience. If you have your data figured out, you will create your personas accurately and provide them with personalities, skills and motivations that are just right for you – they will guide you well.

The same goes for scenarios, if your personas foundation is solid, your scenarios will be too as you will be able to create accurate scenarios and therefore identify potential problems that these users might face. Additionally, another thing that makes for great personas and scenarios is regular application and reference within your project progression.


Personas and scenarios are a staple for user experience design. Not having them in your projects would significantly degrade its quality, as the whole purpose of user experience design is to ensure the best possible experience for the users. If you do not count them in while creating your product, the experience will not match your users' expectations or capabilities and therefore suffer. On the other hand, using these tools has been proven to significantly improve a project in terms of user experience.

Do you use personas and scenarios to design sites? How do you make them realistic? Let us know in the comments.

Featured image/thumbnail, people image via Shutterstock.

WDD Staff

WDD staff are proud to be able to bring you this daily blog about web design and development. If there's something you think we should be talking about let us know @DesignerDepot.

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