An experience with user personas

Leigh Howells (a user experience/design consultant at Headscape) shares his experience of creating some user personas.

I was asked recently to research and prepare a set of user personas for a large new client website. As a newcomer to the wonderful world of ‘User Experience’ design,this was an interesting challenge and I thought I would share my findings with the lovely people in the land of Boag.

What is a user persona?

So what on Earth IS a persona? Well, a web persona is a stereotype, or archetype of a typical website user. For getting to grips with the theory, we’ve covered Personas before on Boagworld; see this previous post on the subject.

Personas are useful.

In discussions of site architecture and design, it is far easier and more natural to ask; ‘what would George do’,  or ‘how would Sharon use this feature’ rather than talking in abstract or vague terms throughout. Personas help to pin things down and put the user into the process of designing a site and managing it over the longer term.

Identifying your audience

Who are these 'users' anyway?

I was lucky in this instance to be given a list of users requiring web personas. Stakeholder interviews were held at the client’s premises, and different users of the site identified by talking with those directly involved with the day-to-day running of the organisation. Talking to the client and identifying their needs is a fast and effective way of really getting to the bottom of classifying the target audience. In my project there could have been as many as twelve different identifiable main user categories, but we pinned it down to the eight most diverse and important.

What should your persona consist of?

I decided on the following information for my personas:

  • Name
  • Profile type
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Occupation
  • Character
  • Description
  • Site usage – this is a short list of the tasks or objectives the user wants to achieve using the website, however general or detailed.  These types of use cases are probably the most useful aspect of any persona.
  • Web confidence and context - this is the experience and knowledge they have of IT and the web, and the circumstances they will  use the site under. This is a good chance to highlight the kind of devices they may be using, or any possible accessibility issues.
  • Brands they identify with – this provides a few brands that may be relevant to the person being portrayed. We have strong ideas  about people who drive particular cars or buy particular products, and eat from certain places. This  is another way of generalising about a particular type of person. This, as I discovered, is not quite so easy if you are creating personas for users in another country where brand association may not be quite so identifiable.
  • Good strong photograph -  to really visualise and distinguish the personas from each other.

Coming up with the information

Well, this is the tricky bit. I now know that to write web personas it takes understanding, experience of people, a lot of research, and quite a bit of imagination.

For some of my personas, I Googled job adverts or individuals I thought may be similar and created their life details. For others I drew upon stereotypical images of people we know from real life, TV, novels, media or film, whilst trying to keep them realistic and not simple caricatures.

Finding the right photograph was really useful in imagining a life, and inspired further assumptions from the way they looked; imagining the type of brands they may aspire to. Of course, they also have to look the right age and, sometimes, nationality. We have an inherent mental image of a successful ‘tech’ CEO, or a sea fisherman and we should not challenge those images too much. We have to make sweeping generalisations, such as; an older man with rugged complexion and a tan, we could assume spends a lot of time outdoors, may not have an indoor office occupation and therefore may not be an experienced web user. It all has to ‘feel right’.

My first attempt at writing personas were a little too fluffy. I got a little carried away describing the lives of my users. Although long descriptions help build an image of the person, it needs to remain relevant and their story very succinct.

Presenting personas

You can of course create a persona in just about any software you see fit. As a designer I was tempted to use InDesign, but instead chose to use Powerpoint as it has flexible layout capabilities and everyone in the organisation can use it or import to Keynote etc. I wanted a very simple design with the information looking clear and easy to read, and to make them easy to distinguish at a glance. I made the image and name very large to avoid the need to scan through text to remember who was who. An example of my decided final layout is shown below, with a Powerpoint 97-2003 template to download:

Web persona example

Download a PowerPoint template of this persona

Conclusion

Personas for website users are useful. They help designers, writers and developers understand and get to know their users. We are often heard to say “but would the users like it?” without really understanding the different types of users we are dealing with on a particular project. Personas help us visualise these users and therefore help us to make better informed decisions when designing and building websites.

  • http://www.webmozaic.com Drew Clarke

    I like the idea of personas but don’t they become self forfilling?

    If I write a persona for the site I’m designing it would seem very difficult to ~not~ create that persona to match the desirable attributes of the website.

    How does one overcome this natural tendency?
    Would you get somebody else to write the personae or how should it work?

    Thanks for any insights

  • http://trinefalbe.com Trine Falbe

    Great article! Genuinely helpful tips on how to create personas and even more importantly, why it makes sense to include them in the design process.

  • http://arslanyard.blogbus.com/ Harry Wang

    Thanks, Leigh, especially for the great tips on the details of creating personas.
    I think the most tricky phase is to pin down the target audiences we need to create personas for, so hope you can share a little bit more insight on that in the future.

  • Andy

    Nice to see a balanced appreciation of the skills needed to create a credible persona. However, you need to make sure you eliminate the assumptions. Eliminating guesswork is the reason for using personas in the first place, so slipping in an assumption or two defeats the whole point of the exercise.

     All the information you need is out there if you ask the right questions or know where to look.

    Good effort though!

  • Andy

    Nice to see a balanced appreciation of the skills needed to create a credible persona. However, you need to make sure you eliminate the assumptions. Eliminating guesswork is the reason for using personas in the first place, so slipping in an assumption or two defeats the whole point of the exercise.

     All the information you need is out there if you ask the right questions or know where to look.

    Good effort though!

  • http://www.sanfire.co.uk Andy

    Drew. The point about a persona is they are supposed to help focus development on the website and show whether it will deliver for it’s users. It’s a way of exposing shortcomings in the design, not an exercise in confirming your design decisions.

    Hard to start off, but if you design for the end user using a persona as guidance, you will develop a more rigorous, pragmatic approach that will enhance your work.

  • http://www.sanfire.co.uk Andy

    Drew. The point about a persona is they are supposed to help focus development on the website and show whether it will deliver for it’s users. It’s a way of exposing shortcomings in the design, not an exercise in confirming your design decisions.

    Hard to start off, but if you design for the end user using a persona as guidance, you will develop a more rigorous, pragmatic approach that will enhance your work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/angryrosie Rosie Evans

    Great article. It really helped me communicate to one of my clients how we should be using personas for them and what their teams should consider.

  • http://www.facebook.com/angryrosie Rosie Evans

    Shame the link to the PPT is broken though.

  • http://twitter.com/spookstudio spookstudio

    Nice post Leigh.

    We’ve created a simple (free) web app to help people (particularly non-UXers) with creating personas (based on lean UX techniques). You can sign up here: http://www.spookstudio.com/personapp

    You could say we’re scratching our own
    itch, but obviously we’re hoping that other people find it useful.
    We’ve had a good response so far so would love to get the feedback of
    the design community to help ensure it’s a useful and relevant tool.

    Some background to the idea here: http://welovelean.posterous.com/top-secret-dont-read

  • vladiim

    Awesome as always – thanks Paul

  • http://www.kevinleary.net/ Kevin Leary

    Great article Leigh,

    One thing I didn’t get from the article: How do you determine who to bring in for “stakeholder interviews”? I’ve struggled with the best way to gather user research to determine who the true mainstream user is.

    During the process of creating a user persona I’ve had difficulties with selecting the appropriate people to survey. Usually the loudest, easiest people to capture information from are far from the mainstream, everyday users. Instead, they’re the expert users, and the feedback they provide isn’t usually the best for creating a UX persona.

    Again, great article thanks for taking the time to write it.

  • Helen Tueni

    Very useful, thanks a lot!

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