Personas: Fictional Users for Real Clients

By Heather O'Neill

Clients often say, “We already know our customer base.” But without more research, this statement can cause strategies to miss the mark. Because clients are very rarely also the end user (see last week’s post on product development pitfalls), errors and false assumptions can arise about who the user really is and is not. Enter Personas.

What are Personas?

First, it’s important to define “persona.” Kim Goodwin, a forerunner in the use of personas, describes them this way:

A Persona is a description of an archetypal user synthesized from a series of interviews with real people. Each Persona provides goals that drive product design and strategy, from the original conception and feature list, all the way to the visual interface design. When incorporating Personas into the design process, teams can focus on each persona’s goals to develop a product that satisfies the needs of many users” (Source)

Personas IllustrationSimply put, personas are fictional users compiled from real user data. Personas allow you to focus on the answers to the following key questions:

  1. Who are your users?
  2. What are their goals when using your application?

How Do Personas Help?

Personas, once created, hone your team members in on the most important goals: the goals of your users. Though they are fictional, personas are tangible “people” with names, jobs and needs. All this makes them more memorable than the abstract “user.” Having these specific people in mind gives you the ability to design to their needs. It takes out the guesswork of design.

I experienced this recently with a client of ours. The project began with discovery of the client’s high level needs: a teaser website for their upcoming product. Next, the client spoke with us at length about the community they hoped to create around their product. They had concrete ideas and were ready to start.

But something was missing. We had the benefit of doing personas with this client, and upon review, none of the personas were interested in the community aspect of this company; they were only interested in the product. So we shifted gears and instead used the teaser site to focus on the still-unreleased product. By using video and a quick outline of features, we enticed people to sign up for more information. Our review of the personas told us that no one was interested in being part of a community before they were sure of the product. Makes sense in retrospect, but without personas, the client could have marched down the wrong path.

Where Do Personas Fit into the Process?

Earlier is ALWAYS better. This “rule” comes up often in regards to any aspect of user experience, but it is especially true here. The reason is simple: If you know your personas early, you can start with a design more attuned to your customer’s needs and goals. Like inserting a square peg into a round hole, it is almost impossible to effectively fit your user into an already-started design. In the example of the community-oriented client from before, if we had waited on using personas, we would then be trying to fit a community oriented website for users who just want information about the product.

How Do I Create Personas?

This is the $64,000 question1. How do you go about creating these personas?

Though the full process for creating personas involves many steps, below are five key points to follow when creating personas. These tips are paraphrased from Alan Cooper’s book The Inmates are Running the Asylum and Kim Goodwin’s article Perfecting Your Personas. The list is meant as a checklist rather than a set of instructions; for full details on creating personas I highly recommend picking up Cooper’s book, and checking out a few articles by Kim Goodwin: Getting from Research to Personas, Taking Personas Too Far and Perfecting Your Personas.

Five Key Points

  1. Identify daily behavioral patterns and user/application interactions, using specific details rather than generalities.
  2. Detail two or three technical skills to give an idea of computer competency.
  3. Include one or two fictional details about the persona’s life—an interest or a habit—that make each persona unique and memorable.
  4. Don’t use someone you actually know as a persona; create a composite based on interviews and research data.
  5. Keep the number of personas created for a project relatively small—usually between three and seven, depending on the project.

The takeaway today is this: Personas are an effective way to accurately represent your users and their goals. And though developing personas is a multi-step process, the benefits are obvious and immediate: Personas take out design and user guesswork, informing you before you start. You can test this by creating a few personas on your next project. The wealth of user information they provide will keep you focused on your customers.


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