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Stop Putting User Personas in Your Desk Drawer


Personas are something we have lifted from the advertising industry. Unfortunately too often they don’t fit the web design process. Now is the time to change that.

Okay, time to own up. Have you created a user persona for a project that you ignored once the project was underway? Or have you created personas to look clever, but not found them particularly useful? Perhaps you are one of the people who just don’t see the point of user personas.

Whatever the case, personas often fail to live up to their potential. This article is going to fix that. We are going to make a persona the heart of your design process.

It begins with what should be a simple question — what is a persona?

What is a Persona Anyway?

Personas have been around for years, originating from the advertising industry. They come in lots of different shapes and sizes and focus a team’s thoughts on the target users.

Some lean on the demographics of the person. How old is the person? What gender are they? What social class do they fall into and what is their economic background?

Others focus more on the person’s tastes. What brands do they like? What newspapers do they read? What car do they drive?

More recently we have seen a move towards visual personas. These give a sense of the person through the items associated with them.

Mailchimp have even gone as far as turning their personas into posters and displaying them in their offices. Their hope is that in doing so the customer will always stay in the front of people’s minds.

Each of these approaches have their merits and yet none of them make personas an indispensable tool for most web designers. Somehow they all fall short.

Where Personas Fail

Personas never quite prove their worth because they contain too much backstory. They also lack the relevant information that we need as web designers.

Don’t get me wrong, it is useful to know what brands a user likes and a bit about their personality. For example, if they buy Apple products, it’s not unreasonable to assume they will want a clean, minimalistic website.

This kind of knowledge helps shape the design and set the tone of copy. But, it doesn’t help define what the content is or how to structure the site. That is because it doesn’t answer the crucial question — what is the person trying to do?

The Real Focus of Personas

What a persona needs to do is focus on the questions a user has and the tasks they want to complete.

Tone of voice and design style are both important, but only if the user can achieve what they want to. No amount of engaging text or inspiring design will please a user who cannot get an answer to their question or complete their task.

Yet too often personas lack this kind of information. 

A good persona should be able to tell us what questions the user has and where they are in the buying process.

When I say ‘buying’ I don’t just mean ecommerce. I am referring to buying into the site’s offering, whether that is signing up for a newsletter or making a donation to a good cause.

In sales this is called objection handling. You need to understand the questions that prevent the user from ‘buying’ and then address them. A good persona should identify those questions.

Not that users always have questions that need answering. Sometimes they just want to complete a task. In these situations the persona should identify these tasks. 

State of Mind

But they shouldn’t stop there. They should also identify the state of mind the person is in when trying to complete the task.

State of mind is a characteristic of a good persona that is often overlooked. If somebody is short on time and wants to visit your site and get out as soon as possible, that is not the time to up-sell another service to them.

Equally, if they are visiting your site looking for support, you can guess they are not that happy. Now is not the time for friendly banter in your copy or a comical character in the design.

So if a good persona focuses on questions, tasks and feelings, how do you create one?

How to Create a Useful Persona

The first thing to say upfront is that you cannot produce a good persona without talking to real users. Period!

Your clients might not want to pay for it. They might say they know enough to inform a persona. But whether the client is paying or not, always talk to users.

The best approach is to visit them in their homes. You learn so much about somebody when you can see where they live. Desks where you can barely move the mouse because of the clutter. Or screaming children that must make concentrating on anything impossible. But I accept that if the client refuses to pay, this kind of visit is not an option.

That said, speaking to users over Skype or the phone is easy. You can learn a lot about somebody in a 20 minute chat. Failing that, run a survey on the company’s Facebook page or get chatting with some of the members. There is no excuse for not engaging with users.

I would also encourage you to talk with some front line staff. The people who interact with users on a daily basis. They will be full of invaluable insights into the user. They will know their likes, their dislikes, the questions they have and what it is they wish to achieve.

Putting a Persona Together

So now you have done your research it’s time to put your personas together. Start with the basics. A photo, age, gender, job and a bit on their personal tastes.

Add to that a bit about their use of technology. Do they use a smartphone, laptop or tablet? What kind of situations are they accessing your site in? Are they sitting on the couch or at a desk?

Then move on to the important bit. Include some of the key interactions or touch points the user will encounter. For each of these interactions include any questions the user might have. Also include something about how the user is feeling at this point too. Knowing this information will help shape the way you deal with that interaction.

Let’s say you were creating a persona for a charity website. As well as information about the type of user, you also want the persona to communicate the questions and concerns they may have. Questions such as:

  • How do I know my money will be well spent?
  • Can I cancel a direct debit if I set it up?
  • Am I going to get a lot of junk mail if I make a donation?

Understanding these kinds of questions helps inform the direction of the site. It makes a persona useful.

But even the most useful persona is useless if it sits in a drawer.

Making use of Your Persona

For a persona to be useful it has to be seen. Only when it is looked at regularly will it start to influence people’s consciousness.

You can start by presenting your personas to anybody working on the website. It is particularly important that those designing or writing for the website attend. But, that is nowhere near enough. A presentation can quickly be forgotten when faced with deadlines and demanding stakeholders.

Instead print those personas out and stick them everywhere you can. Take a leaf out of Mailchimp’s book and pin them up in the office. Preferably in the eye line of your copywriters and designers.

Even a simple summary of your personas pinned up by your desk is enough to remind you to think about the user.

Finally, add those personas to whatever project management software you are using. Whether that is basecamp, Evernote or Trello, make sure the personas are front and centre.

In Conclusion

It is time for us to stop producing personas that get put in the drawer. Instead we need to rethink how we approach them. We need to better tailor them for our work, rather than just lifting them from the advertising industry.

Further Reading

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