An introduction to Personas
As a designer mentored in user-centric design agencies I have always had an interest in user centric methodology, methodologies that now commonly come under the banner of User Experience (UX).
When I was first introduced to Personas I was skeptical. As a designer I wanted to be able to explore and experiment, and in my naive view I saw documents such as Personas as draining my creative juice, putting up parameters and walls when I wanted creative freedom.
After first using personas it did not take me long to realise the benefits they bring to the designer, and to a project in general. Personas don’t shackle the designer, rather they give focus to the problems a designer has to solve.
What is a Persona?
Personas are a way to model and communicate user research. They are a representation of a user that incorporates motivations, goals and needs. Commonly used since the 90s as part of user centric design methodology, personas were given momentum and popularity by Alan Cooper, author of The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, and Angus Jenkinson, a marketing professional who developed the concept of understanding audience segmentation by using archetypical user types.
Marketing professionals will be used to working with audience segmentation - a research methodology that puts individuals into groups based on “defined criterion such as product usage, demographics, psychographics, communication behaviors and media use.1” Personas flip that concept around and create individuals to represent these groups, and gives the designer a small set of user archetypes to focus on. By focussing on an individual, audience groups are no longer abstracted. We have a name, a face, an occupation to help us put ourselves in the place of our audience, creating empathy and greater understanding.
Personas should reflect behavioural patterns identified during research, and above all should help the designer, along with their client, describe and solve design challenges.
The benefits of working with Personas
Personas give you a common reference point: they give context to any discussions you have around design, features and functionality. It is also important to note that producing the persona is just as important as using them. The process of producing personas can bring insight, and this process usually (and should) involve both client and vendor.
We sometimes undertake workshop exercises with our clients where we produce very ‘top level’ personas. We then go away and ‘fill out’ these sketchy personas with any research we have available to us. This helps us make sure that our clients buy into the same user centric design philosophy that we have, and when we talk to our clients about design decisions we have to make, these decisions are framed by these personas, personas they have had a hand in creating.
Above all, the reason we use personas is to put the focus on the user, bring them into the design process so that our users are less of an abstraction. By using Personas we learn about how users intend to interact with your product or service, what their expectations are, and what their context is.
Getting started with Persona development
The first step in the production of personas is to broadly define your audience. Many clients come to us having already undertaken some market research, and have an idea about their audience segmentation. These segments are often our starting point and gives us the broad ‘headings’ or ‘buckets’ your personas will develop from. And they need to be broad - only start with a few as this will keep your UX process lean when budgets are tight. If you need more personas, more ‘buckets’, this will become evident once you start putting your personas together, and start talking to users.
And speaking of talking to users, the next step is to conduct user research. Personas produced without any research are not necessarily a bad thing, and are probably better than no personas at all, but by not conducting any research damaging assumptions can get made and you leave yourself open to missing the touch-points your audience will be expecting resulting in the ‘wrong’ solution.
User research does not have to be an expensive undertaking and a large user pool is not necessary. Speaking to a handful of users that fit into a audience type ‘bucket’ will give you much salient information, and will give you enough of a spread to be able to identify common patterns of behaviour.
Some of the kind of questions we ask when conducting user research broadly (although this changes depending on the project) are as follows:
Device usage: Where will they be when they interact with our product? At home in bed on a tablet? On the train on a mobile or at work on a desktop computer? This information gives us focus for mobile and responsive development and strategy.
Context: As well as the physical context mentioned above, there are mental contexts. Are our users in a hurry? Is the task(s) they wish to complete time sensitive? Is the product part of a wider workflow and dependant on other actions? Are they browsing or do they know exactly what they are after? This information influences everything from the interface design to how we write and display copy.
Triggers and motivation: Why are they visiting our product? Is there a specific task they are undertaking? What are the user ‘takeaways’ - what is it that will fulfill the desires of our users? By understanding the reasons why our users have visited our product, we can shape the experience to best serve them.
We also ask questions around social usage, media consumption and the use of digital tools. This gives us information on how we can shape a social strategy, how ‘tech savvy’ our users are and what their expectations are around a digital product. And again, it can point to common behaviours and patterns we can exploit.
Once we have collated research, and identified patterns and behaviours, we write up our Personas usually as a brief one page document. We give each persona a name and a face, and a little background information. We then have our persona:
Personas are no good living as a digital file on a computer - they need to be tangible and ‘real’. We usually mount our personas on card or foam boards, to give them physicality - they can be then passed around at meetings, pinned onto walls, sit on people's desks - the biggest mistake that can be made with using personas is to forget about them or have them live in such a place as to hide them away. They need to be visible in the workplace, easily referred to, mobile and tactile.
I hope I have illustrated the value of personas, how by creating and using them we get much closer to our users, and also the value of performing some user research no matter what the budget.
Personas allow us to prioritize features and functionality.
Personas are an inspiration in ideation.
Personas can be used to facilitate and validate design decisions.
Personas are a shared reference point for development teams and client