The most valuable lesson I’ve learned in growing as a web designer was to stop designing for myself. Some of you may scoff and say “No duh,” but honestly, to embrace this mentality is a tough job. A personal philosophy has been to avoid assumptions and base my designs on real data. Harder still was to stop my addiction to “Best of” gallery sites and to stop designing the “coolest” site. Cool won’t sell.
Enter in user centered web design. It’s usability and utility that determine the success of failure of a website, not visual design or HiPPOs (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). It’s not the company’s CEO or the web designer that clicks the mouse; it’s the user that decides everything. If you’re seeking to embark on a journey toward a successful and profit-oriented website, you will first and foremost need to focus on those click-happy, eager-eyed users.
User Personas: a Definition
In 1998, Alan Cooper made mention of “personas” in his book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum based on the emerging user-centric method of designing software. As defined by Cooper:
“A persona is a fictitious, specific and concrete representation of target users.”
Personas act as stand-ins for real users and help guide decisions about functionality, design and ultimately marketing. As a design tool, they are a powerful way to communicate behaviors, goals, wants, needs, and frustrations.
Personas first and foremost force designers and shareholders to maintain focus. By defining your personas, designers, developer, business owners, and shareholders can reference the users’ goals and ensure a more successful final product. This is particularly important for larger websites where complicated architecture, lengthy feature requirements, and too many cooks in the kitchen can obscure the big picture.
A persona is a concrete, deliverable item. It’s not a vague concept running freely around the pastures of a UX designer’s head, but an actual, well-researched document that is passed between all parties involved in the creation of the website. Typically, a persona will answer these questions:
- Who is this person? Characteristics can include their name, occupation / salary, location, age, and even their picture.
- What are their goals? What does this persona need to accomplish? What information will they need to have addressed in order to accomplish their goal?
- What are their pain points? What about the process will cause frustration? How will their previous experience with your brand or on similar sites drive their behaviors? What information do they lack that will make this process more difficult?
How to Create a Persona
Okay, so personas sound all well and good to you, but now you’re faced with that awful question: Now what?
Collecting data for persona creation can be daunting if you’re lacking the time and resources. Larger agencies will spend months conducting customer interviews with real people and their end result will be an impressive document jam packed with great information.
But let’s get real here. Great personas aren’t exclusive to big brands and big budgets. There are methods to cut your cost and time and still have an extremely useful set of data.
Personas based on educated guesses are often called assumptive personas or ad-hoc personas. Assumptive personas are the result of an initial brainstorming meeting between your website planners, designers, and the client. In this meeting, you’ll hash out your initial thoughts on the website’s users. In this meeting, address questions like:
- Who are the current customers? Describe their demographics, what products or services are most popular, and how they interact with the company now (by phone, in a brick-and-mortar store, or through recommendations. How many are returning customers? How many are referred to the company? What words do they use to describe the brand?
- Who do you want to be your future customers? Discuss demographics that the company feels are currently being ignored or turned off by the website.
- What do you think the customers of competitors are like? Are they the same demographics? Do these users feel happier using a competitor’s website? Do you think they are unhappy about the current industry’s online options?
Simply developing these assumptive personas in a brainstorming workshop and fleshing out their journey makes a team think hard about the who, what, when and how. Assumptive personas offer an opportunity for validation; or in some cases, complete revelations. The validation process in and of itself is valuable, but isolating the critical differences between the designers / the company’s assumptions and reality grounds the design and produces real and lasting insight and understanding.
NOW GO FIND THE DATA...
You have some initial thoughts sketched out and it’s time to dive in and come up with some actionable research. My favorites places to go include:
- Google Analytics. Here you’ll find not only demographic information (e.g. location), but also excellent information about returning v. new users, popularity of mobile devices, and engagement with the site.
- Ecommerce analytics. If the site is an ecommerce platform, you can research top-selling items (how popular are they, how often are they ordered, are they re-bought by users). You can also find the site’s top purchasers to research buyer behavior. Don’t focus on just the peachy-keen; look at customers that failed to purchase to determine common user frustrations.
- Audience estimation tools. You can use audience estimation tools like Quantcast, Alexa, and Google AdPlanner. There you can find similar websites relevant to your users.
- Onsite reviews. If the site currently has unmoderated comments, what are the users directly saying to the company about their needs and desires? What do they have to say about the products or services?
- Offsite reviews. Look to third-party sites like Yelp or Google Places for more unmoderated comments. Examine both ends of the spectrums to see why or why not users are buying from you.
- Social media. Yet another place to hear from your customers in their own words. Search Twitter for mentions of the company’s name. Browse Facebook for feedback and engagement on the company page.
- Interviews. Unfortunately this extremely valuable method of gathering first-hand information will require resources to conduct the interviews: a trained interviewer, a private facility or room, and time to find and gather relevant customers. Luckily for those of you with smaller budgets still interested in conducting interviews, Jakob Nielsen has suggested that as little as just 5 people are needed to conduct effective usability tests on the current site.
Present Your Research and Create Your Personas
If you’re like me, you may have gotten overly-excited and created a smorgasbord of research clustered into a single unorganized file data. That’s okay. I’m glad to see you were so eager. The next step is to sort that data into distinct personas.
My approach to create meaningful personas is to move beyond demographics and photos (often based on traditional market research) and focus on needs and motivations. I create behavior-centric personas and will attribute characteristics in the final step in order to make them more real. This information is then sorted and displayed in a template.
Don’t get so wrapped up in the demographics and photos. Use online name generators (fakenamegenerator.com), random user generators (randomuser.me), profile photos from uifaces.com, pick demographics from your Analytics research, and base other characteristics on some basic reasoning. This persona personalization just helps with information retention; it’s easier to say “Mary would be confused by this functionality.”