Personas as a site design tool

As Alan Cooper – software visionary and author of The Inmates Are Running The Asylum – put it, personas are “the single most powerful design tool”. In his book, he provides a very detailed analysis of personas and I strongly recommend that if you’re interested in interaction design you get yourself a copy.

In this article though, I’d like to offer a taster of how personas should be used as a design tool. All too often, personas are whipped together based on flimsy research at the beginning of a project and then cast aside never to see the light of day again. Personas, though, are only really useful if they’re carefully devised and remain at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

Don't base personas on actual people

Carefully devising your personas involves embracing the nitty gritty. It’s true that personas should not be based on actual people, but represent a product’s archetypal users and their hypothetical behaviour and goals. This ensures a far broader range of the product’s target users are focused on in just a handful of believable personas.

However, these hypothetical characters won’t be believable without a bit of detail. The sort of detail I use is age, a photo or illustration, personal/family life, pet hates/loves, ethnicity, political beliefs, aspirations, attitudes and motivations.

Alongside this, it’s important to include details of their level of competency with technology, computers or whatever type of product you’re designing, and how, why, where and when they
use it. Most importantly though, this information shouldn’t be plucked out of the air, but based on thorough research and interviews with the product’s actual target users.

Bring personas to live with mood boards

To add further meat to the bones, I also like to produce persona mood boards. These really help bring personas to life and offer clients an impressive representation of what their target user consumes or is influenced by. Placing the personas in a visual context also gives them more depth, which can inspire a project’s team to think about what ‘Katie’ would do in a certain situation, rather than the needs of the ever-slippery, generic user.

The challenge, then, is to sustain ‘Katie’s’ presence and influence across the continued development of your product. There’s little point in crafting personas so thoroughly if, for example, they’re used as just another nice document for the client that’s shelved when you start work on the next deliverable.

Re-distribute persona profiles

Personas are most useful when reflected upon and incorporated into every stage of your design process. To do this, it’s a good idea to re-distribute persona profiles to clients and co-workers at every review stage and with every deliverable. Their goals and behaviour should also be featured across your documentation, from IA diagrams to prototypes and visual concepts.

Making personas unavoidable in this way is how they can become one of the most powerful instruments in a UX designer’s arsenal. Personas can make design decisions traceable and empirical. They also shift the emphasis from ‘Let’s create the most amazing product that does everything’ to ‘Let’s create a product that Katie will think is amazing and does what she needs.’

And fundamentally this is the most crucial role of the persona, as only then can you start designing and developing a product with specific human behaviour in mind. This is also the point at which you might just get clients, developers, designers, producers, programmers and copywriters all speaking the same language, too.

This article originally appeared in issue 191 of .net magazine - the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

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