Why user personas are not enough

Paul Boag

User personas have become a staple deliverable for branding and web agencies. But, how useful are they really and what other tools help us understand users better?

Despite what the title imply, I am actually a fan of user personas. There are good reasons why user personas have become an important deliverable among branding and web agencies alike.

User personas are an invaluable tool when working on a site’s visual appearance, and it would be wrong not to cover them in this series.

However, I have written about personas before and so want to focus in this post on their limitations and how these gaps can be plugged with other tools.

The limitation of user personas

User personas typically focus on the likes, dislikes and personality of the user. They include things such as:

  • Fictional name and photo.
  • Age, gender, family status and other demographic information.
  • Tastes such as what paper they read or car they drive.
  • Hobbies.
  • Attitudes.

This is all valuable information when working on visuals or copy. However, when it comes to usability and experience they fall short.

The kind of user personas produced by a branding agency for example may mention web usage, but they do not cover things like the users tasks, goals or journey. This is fundamental information for anybody trying to architect a site.

Example user personas
User personas focus too heavily on likes, dislikes and personality to be useful for architecting sites.

I said in my last post that we were going to move on and look at wireframing, prototyping and information architecture. However, before we can do that we need to answer three fundamental questions beyond what we already know about our users.

  • What tasks do our users want to complete on our website?
  • What are our users ultimate goal?
  • What other interactions does the user have with the company beyond the website?

We can answer these questions using two tools, the first of which is a user card.

How user cards supplement user personas

A user card is a simple tool for defining user tasks and their ultimate goal. It can prove incredibly useful, so much so that it lies at the heart of the GOV.UK approach.

The card essentially consists of three statements. These are…

  • As a… (insert type of user)
  • I want to… (insert task the user is trying to do)
  • So that I can… (insert the users ultimate goal)

So for example, a user card for this article might read…

  • As a web designer.
  • I want to read a post on user personas.
  • So that I can better understand user behaviour.

By creating cards for each task your user groups want to complete, you gain a clear sense of what the website needs to be like.

More than that, user cards act as a measure against which the site can be assessed. If the site allows users to successfully complete their tasks then you know it is ready for the world.

Equally if somebody proposes functionality that does not help a user move towards one of their goals, then the chances are it shouldn’t be included on the site.

User cards are not just helpful to the web designer. They can also be a great way to focus stakeholders (like the client) on user needs. In fact we often get clients creating cards in workshops we run.

Another way of creating user cards is to survey users. A lot of the time we post surveys on the existing site or Facebook groups asking people to fill in the blanks. With a bit of analysis you can draw out reoccurring answers and create generic user cards that represent groups of users.

However, although user cards are good, they are not the whole picture. Their shortcoming is they focus purely on the experience of using your website. Unfortunately a users experience does not begin and end at the website and so we need to consider the entire customer journey.

Customer journey maps support user personas

When a user visits your website it is certainly not the beginning of their journey. They have come across your site through some other interaction. They may have googled you, seen an ad, received a recommendation or met somebody from your company.

Equally the website is rarely the end of the journey. They may need to speak to you or email you. They might follow you on social networks or visit your business in person. They could order some printed marketing material from you or want to arrange a meeting.

In short, a users interaction with a website is apart of a bigger picture. A customer journey map attempts to understand this greater context because it directly impacts our approach to the website. For example if the website is the first port of call in a customers experience it plays a very different job than if it exists for after service support.

There is no right or wrong way to produce a customer journey map. However, they normally show a progression through a series of interactions with an organisation. For each point of interaction the following types of information are typically recorded:

  • The goal the user is endeavouring to achieve at that point of interaction.
  • What the user is thinking at the time of the interaction.
  • What the user is feeling at the time of the interaction.
  • What means the customer is using to initiate the interaction.
Adaptive Path user journey map
Adaptive Path have shared some excellent information on creating user journeys like the one opposite.

Having this context is incredibly useful. For example if a user is coming to the site to complain, now is not the time for cutsie graphics or humorous copy. It will also help to understand how the site should be structured and organised to be inline with the customers expectations and mindset.

Using these tools as a starting point

With our user personas, stories and journeys in place we are in a much better position to tackle the structure of our site and build up wireframes and prototypes. In the next post in this series we will look at how to use this knowledge to create an information architecture for your site.

“Mysterious Man In Silhouette” image courtesy of Bigstock.com