• User-Centred Design

29th Sep 2016

6 min

I’ve always found personas to be useful and effective tools for creating truly user-centred website experiences. However, during my time as a strategist, optimiser and all round UX geek, I have come across many who don’t feel the same way. For example, Steve Portigal, author of Interviewing Users, suggests that “personas are user-centred bullshit’.

What are personas?

Personas are generalised characters that encompass the needs, goals and observed behaviour patterns among your real and potential customers. In his book The Inmates are Running the Asylum (1998), Alan Cooper introduced the use of personas as a tool for use in interaction design. Nowadays personas are a well-known and widely used tool within the user centred design processes. There are a range of benefits of using personas in a UX context, from helping to communicate trends, aiding in making user-focused design decisions and providing a shareable and actionable deliverable.

So, why do personas get a bad rep?

I would argue that negativity around personas is really just a result of bad personas and misaligned expectations. As with any UX tool, misuse will result in poor quality outcomes and end up leaving a sour taste for those involved. Take moderated user research as an example; participants who aren’t carefully recruited, leading questions and small sample sizes can all negatively impact the effectiveness of research outcomes. Similarly, if you expect moderated user research to give you all the answers about how to solve your on site UX issues, you’d be sorely disappointed.

What makes a bad persona?

All too often, personas are quite simply made up. Made up personas are about as useful as non-sticky post it notes. To avoid this and create personas that can be used effectively as part of website optimisation, personas should be based on user research, and ideally lots of it. Really, personas are really just a method of visualising insights from user research that is ‘usable’ for UX designers and senior stakeholders alike.

Another downfall of personas I’ve experienced firsthand is that they often contain essentially useless information that has no relevance or influence over users onsite behaviour. As a furniture retailer for example, what difference does it make to know one of your personas enjoys a round of golf at the weekend? Personas should focus on behaviours, needs and considerations as opposed to hobbies, interests and inside leg measurements.

My final frustration around perceptions of personas in the industry is unrealistic expectations. Seth Godin suggests we should “treat everyone differently, anything else is a compromise” and I can sympathise with the argument that personas are very generalised representations of large groups of, inevitably different, people. However, I would argue that the purpose of personas is not be to represent individuals, but to identify and communicate key themes amongst the majority of users.

When do personas work?

There are actually some pretty cool reasons why personas can be such effective UX tools, which are rooted in our subconscious. Narrative practice and concrete thinking are two examples of this. Narrative practice is simply defined as the ability to create, share and hear stories. Whereas concrete thinking is the tendency for people to better relate to and remember tangible examples, rather than abstractions.

So, personas help us as humans to put ourselves in the users shoes and therefore empathise with them. Being able to understand, relate to and even share the feelings of users will help us effectively predict their behaviour and ultimately help us design for them, rather than ourselves.

To expand on this further, in their excellent book on personas, “The User is Always Right: A Practical Guide to Creating and Using Personas for the Web,” Steve Mulder and Ziv Yaar present 5 key reasons for using personas.

  1. Focus

You can’t build a website for everyone. Serving a specific audience really well is often better than serving a larger audience less well. Developing personas will help you to identify which users are critical to your business.

  1. Empathy

You are not your users. You are not your users. I cannot repeat this enough. Your users do not necessarily care about the things that you do and so you really need to do your research. Personas used correctly will act as a reminder of these differences.

  1. Consensus

By developing personas collaboratively early on, you are able to address issues before they become a source of tension later on. Personas can make reduce the political nature of working in teams.

  1. Efficiency

Making effective decisions upfront can provide answers to questions that might be costly to address at a later stage in the process if you are forced to change direction.

  1. Decisions

Good personas should be grounded in research meaning that you will being making evidence based decisions. It’s obviously not completely foolproof, but it’s about as close as you’ll get. Personas can also provide a platform from which to achieve buy-in from key stakeholders.

When should I develop Personas?

In our experience, it’s best to work on personas as early as possible. This is because they can be helpful at virtually every stage of a project. As an example, we have recently completed a detailed customer insights project for a high quality conference centre, in which we developed personas for them before they even appointed an agency for their website redesign.

In fact they found that having website personas as well as a usability and persuasion blueprint for the new website in place early on has helped them in the process of selecting agencies that have demonstrated that they are able to match their vision for an outstanding user experience.

But don’t worry; you don’t need to be embarking on a major re-design project to get value from personas. As you know, managing websites throws up new challenges on a regular basis and personas can allow you to respond with your key users in mind.

Top tips for creating great personas

Used well, personas are an effective tool for communicating key themes, by utilising psychological principles to help ensure user needs are considered throughout website optimisation efforts.

Here are some tips to help you create a valuable set of personas:

  • Think of personas as a method of visualising user research insights; they are a great tool to provide top-level insights to a range of audiences.
  • Make sure the information you include in your personas is actionable and relevant.
  • If you’re ever presented with personas that you weren’t involved in creating, be sure to confirm how they were created before you use them.
  • Make your personas are as visible as possible within relevant teams; print them out and stick them on the wall if necessary; they should serve as a constant reminder to be user-centred.
  • Learn and optimise; all too often personas are created as final deliverable and are never updated. As you learn more about your users through research and testing, don’t be afraid to re-visit.

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