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Practical Persona Creation

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D. Keith Robinson

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User since: 29 Oct 2002

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An Overview of Personas

One of the most important things you can do to help make your site more usable

is to get to know your users. This can be done in various ways. Conducting

usability tests (gorilla or more in-depth tests), soliciting user feedback,

interviewing and surveying are all good ways of doing this, and there are many

more. Once you get started, you will have a pretty good basis of information

on your users to help you design and advocate for them.

You can further increase the usefulness of this information, as well as add

to it, by creating personas for your users.

A persona is a user profile that you can use to help make design decisions,

as well as use to aid you in other ways. These profiles are created from your

knowledge of your users, usually knowledge gained from user testing and research.

Think of it as having a “virtual” user to bounce ideas off and

help you keep the goals of the user in mind on a day-to-day basis. They are

another powerful and valuable tool you can add to your toolbox.

What I’ll do here is show you a quick and easy method to help

you create your personas, as well as the basics of how they can be used. This

is by no means going to be the only way this can be done, nor is it the only

way personas can be used. There is much more to the world of personas than

I’ll be discussing here.

The more you put into your personas (and any other usability strategy) the more you’ll

get out of them – I just hope to get you started. To that end I’ll

give you some links to resources that will explain in much more detail how

you can use, create and learn from personas when we’re done.

Start with Research.

The first and most important thing you’ll need to do is gather information

about your users. Depending on your resources and budget this can be done in

various ways and to varying levels of detail. Let’s concentrate on a

few simple ways that will specifically help you create personas.

One of the best ways you can get good information for your personas is by

interviewing your users one on one. If you are planning on doing some usability

testing, add ten minutes or so to users’ sessions and have someone

sit down and ask them some questions. If you can’t get in direct contact

with them, provide an survey (by email for example) for them to fill out

and send to you.

It’s fairly important to get a decent sized sample of user data. What

you’ll need to look for when building your personas is patterns or similarities

between users. You’ll want to avoid keying in on one particular person

for a persona.

Things you’ll want to find out about:

  • Personal information, such as age, gender and location.
  • Technical information

    like what kind of computer and browser they use, how and why they use the

    Web, and how often.
  • Their relationship is to your company, client or organization.
  • How they

    view your site, or potential site, as well as those of your competitors.
  • What they like

    in a Web site and what they don’t.

You don’t need to limit it to that, and this list should vary depending

on the type of site you are building, your audiences and the business you are

in. For example, I work for a children’s hospital, so when interviewing

parents we asked some generic questions about their kids and their relationship

with the hospital. All of that was very important when building our personas.

In addition to the interview data, you can gather some demographic type data

from your server logs (technical), and by talking to stakeholders. A good group

to speak with, as they will most likely have some of this, is your marketing


There are other ways to get information about your users that would be helpful

in persona creation. Focus groups, emotional response testing, site feedback

forms and surveys can all help you out.

Once you have gathered your data, and hopefully you will have enough to begin

to see some patterns emerge, you’ll need to sort that data and summarize

it for review. One thing you’ll want to keep in mind is to separate the

patterns so that things that apply to the majority of users are not lumped

in with patterns specific to single users or very few users. This way you’ll

be able to identify a common or primary user base (and persona) as well as

a secondary persona. More on that shortly.

It’s alive! Time to Create.

Now that you have gathered and grouped your data it’s time to create

a few personas. There are many ways you can do this, all of them good. What

I have personally found easiest is to create the personas myself, and not involve

a group. This may not work well for you, however. Feel free to involve others

if you need to.

I start with my raw data, and I take the groupings I’ve come up with

and try to form that data into the traits of a person. I do this until my data

is exhausted, or as close as I can get to that. This process will vary depending

on the amount of data you have as well as the variety. Hopefully you will have

a pretty decent understanding of your audiences and users through the process

of gathering the data that will allow you to make some assumptions. Another

way you can help yourself is try to find a few “real” people in

your pool of data and model the personas after them. Do change the names to

protect the innocent.

Once you have some personas mapped out with user data you can identify your

primary and secondary user groups. Pretty much all that means is you’ll

want to take the two personas that best describe who you think your largest

user group and a secondary user group that is very different from the first

but still very important.

At this point you should have a persona to represent the most common user

group, a secondary persona to represent another vastly different group as well

as a few other personas to fill in the rest of your user groups. You don’t

want too many, so if you have quite a few, or any that overlap, either combine

them or cut them.

If you like you can also get creative and create a back-story or add some

personality to your personas. This can not only be fun, but also help you later

on when working on real world problems.

Put Your Personas to Work

So now that you have personas, what do you do? Well, that is up to you and

the needs of you and your team members. I use my personas for many things.

Here’s a list to get you started thinking about how you (and others you

work with) can use your personas:

  • For surrogate user testing.
  • To help advocate for your users.
  • To communicate user needs.
  • To evaluate new features.
  • To help make design decisions.
  • To help weigh business decisions.
  • For task analysis and use cases.
  • For customer service scripts.

There is a certain amount of role playing and make-believe involved when putting

your personas into practice. However silly it may seem, just having the personas

around will help you not only think more user- and customer- centric, but help

communicate the wants and needs of your users to anyone who might not understand

how those needs and wants can help everyone involved.

There is a whole lot more to personas than what I’ve talked about here.

I’ve found them to be a very helpful and very interesting design tool,

but that is only the beginning. If you want to learn more about personas here

are some great resources. Some of these were instrumental in helping me get

my first personas created.

More persona resources:

target="_blank">The Inmates Are Running the Asylum. Alan Cooper.

My first ever run-in with personas.

target="_blank">Information Architecture: Blueprints For The Web.

Christina Wodtke. A great resource, with a lot of good information

about personas, and many other things as well.

target="_blank">Cooper: Newsletters on Personas.

target="_blank">Bringing Your Personas to Life in Real Life.

Elan Freydenson.

target="_blank">Taking the "You" out of User: My Experience Using Personas.

target="_blank">Personas: Matching a Design to the Users' Goals

Christine Perfetti.

D. Keith Robinson lives in Seattle Washington. To read more of his thoughts, visit asterisk*, to view his photography go to Almost Wordless and to get him to do some work for you hit up DKR Productions.

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