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Personas: Finding Imaginary Friends for Web Designers

One of the most common pieces of writing advice out there is “know your audience.” Choosing to appeal to either middle-aged lawyers or college freshmen will alter everything from approach, to tone, to structure, even if the subject matter is the same. Why treat web design any differently? It’s common sense that middle-aged lawyers and college freshmen prefer different sites, right?

Personas are all about applying imagination to research. Imagine the kinds of people who will visit your site, and then detail their personalities, so you can predict and anticipate their behavior when the flesh-and-blood versions actually visit your site. Today we’ll explain how to create the personas that will prepare your site for the real deal.

Turning demographics into flesh and blood

You’ve got the demographics down — age, gender, ethnicity, income — so what else do you need? A lot more. Personas go above and beyond demographics, they become actual characters. You want them to be individuals with names and personalities, not statistic-based groups. A persona that’s nothing more than a list of requirements will fall flat. We’re looking for something more multidimensional.

The dual purpose of personas is as both documentation for your team and as another person in the room when making design decisions. For example, if your persona prefers the search box to navigate websites, then your search box must be prominent in the UI. Likewise, if a persona says that they dislike banner ads, your website should use more contextual links instead.

The persona’s in the details. You want to create realistic people with realistic behaviors based on your target audience. Justin Smith, UX Architect for Cartoon Network, recommends adding enough details so that you can understand the user’s mindset, desires, and the tasks they will perform. When creating a persona, Smith suggests you:

You can divide your desired user base into two audiences: the main audience and the secondary audience. Your main audience is the audience you’re targeting. These are the users you can’t do without. Your secondary audience is more like a bonus audience: these are the people that you’d like to have as users, but that aren’t necessary. Ideally you’ll want your personas to represent both, but if you’re under tight money, time, or resource restraints, focusing only on the main audience is fine.

Up to now, this may all seem like a strictly creative exercise, but don’t forget that you want your personas based on actual research. Jared Spool, founder of User Interface Engineering and popular UI speaker, offers this insight:

Don’t make up personas only from demographic and psychographic data. Instead, focus primarily on your target audience’s behaviors. The more people you visit, the more likely your personas will reflect real audiences and produce the great design insights you seek.

Spool later suggests that your team conduct a round of field research before attempting a persona project. In his own observations, he noticed that one common similarity in all successful design teams is that they all conducted their own research as part of the project. The failed teams did not. The reasoning that the entire team be involved is simple: everyone should be using the personas throughout the entire process. The more familiarity they have with the personas from the onset, the more likely it will be that the team hits the mark.  

A great way to stay on point when developing personas is by conducting segmented interviews. Interviewing existing customers, prospects, and referrals will allow you to inject true-to-life data into your personas. If you’re looking for some specific guidelines, use a persona template.

Proof of persona power

So is all this, technically unnecessary, work really worth it? According to a 2005 study by Ursula Dantin of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, it certainly is. Dantin proved with scientific finality that using personas creates more effective UI designs. She designed the study to sample two small education-based software systems: Cecil, a custom-designed enterprise learning management system developed and used by her school; and Turnitin.com, a website that many consider the standard in online plagiarism detection due to its use by thousands of institutions in over 50 countries.

Her research confirmed what veteran UI designers always suspected: personas make a big difference in the design process. As Dantin states in the analysis of her study’s data:

Identifying personas and performing their tasks helped introduce clarity and accountable reasoning into the UI evaluation process. Using personas in combination with Nielsen usability heuristics was not time consuming and required no additional software applications. This suggests that personas are an inexpensive yet effective option for UI design. Even after implementation, personas can be a valuable tool to assess usability and pinpoint areas for improvement.

It’s true that personas require a lot of effort that may seem extraneous and better spent on actual development, but it’s that extra effort that takes your web UI design to the next level. Even outside of Dantin’s study, UI experts generally swear by personas and their usefulness.

Creating a cast of characters

Personas are a good starting point, but they are only one part of the user research puzzle. While we want to flesh out the past behaviors, mentalities, and demographics of our users, the next logical step is mapping out their actions.

That’s exactly why Alan Klement, Researcher at the Rewired Group advises that you turn a persona into a character by including purchasing events and situations. I agree with his sentiments, and think that this extra step is especially helpful if you don’t have the resources to dive really deep into users with something comprehensive like an experience map. As you can see above, a character (as opposed to a persona) is someone who:

Ultimately, you want your persona to become a character. It only requires a few more steps, but helps you see the world (and your product) the way real users do.


Featured image, personas image via Shutterstock.