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Personas: The Foundation of User First Engineerings


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The online world is one big mess.

The Big Online MessDon’t believe me?! Try to think of the last time you weren’t confused by something online. Whether it was trying to buy a product or navigating your way through a website to find an address on your smartphone. I bet that might have been yesterday… or the day before. No matter, if you think hard enough, you’ll remember a time.

Want to know the worst part?

With all the new technology coming out in the form of mobile devices, our expectations for things to work better, faster and easier have never been higher. Ten years ago one would have to wait minutes to load a low quality video onto their desktop computer. Today, frustration sets in within seconds if an HD quality video stalls on a smartphone.

So how did we get here?

In the race to become faster, better, more mobile, more optimized and more social we’ve almost completely forgotten about one key thing – that we’re human.

Complex Human Beings

We are extremely complex human beings.

  • We have unique personalities, habits and ways of doing things.
  • It’s challenging enough communicating with each other using basic speech and body language.
  • What is obvious to you can be completely obscure to someone else.

As human beings, it’s hard for us to step back to a place where we aren’t trying to design and develop technologies and experiences exclusively how we personally would like to have them. No wonder we’re not that good at it!!

Look at the myriad of websites, systems and technologies in existence today, and the vast number of platforms available to view them on. Each one of them is attempting to provide the best user experience possible – in their own customized, unique way, which is in essence… the “big mess”.

So knowing that we live in the “big mess”, and realistically that it’s only going to get larger and more complicated – the question becomes:

How do you design and build things so that the end user – who is very unique in his/her own right – can have a sensible, easy experience and ultimately perform the action(s) that you want them to take?

Have the exact answer? If you do, I’m guessing you can walk on water as well.

There is no answer to creating the perfect user experience.

Why? Because again, what’s perfect for you, might not be perfect for the person sitting next to you. So the REAL question changes from “What are you building?” to “Who are you building it for?” Once you have that answer, you can design and build the experience for the needs of those particular people (not yourself).

User Persona Document

Enter the “Persona”

You can call it a “Customer Persona”, “User Persona”, “User Profile” or whatever you see fit that describes the make-up of the person that you want to engage with your online experience.

Before you design anything, write a line of code or think about market, it’s absolutely imperative that you define whom you’re doing it for.

Because you can’t possibly tailor what you’re doing to every single individual’s needs, you need to define 3-4 types of people that are your ideal end users, and we’re not just talking about the basic stuff like age and gender.

Imagine how easy it would be to communicate with complete strangers if you knew absolutely everything about them ahead of time, such as:

  • Who they are personally and professionally.
  • What types of personalities they have.
  • All of their habits, good and bad.
  • When they like to do certain things.
  • How social they are, online and offline.
  • What technologies they’re using and how capable they are at using them.

Whether it’s trying to sell a group of people something, ask someone out on a date or simply convince someone to take a simple action, it would probably be a lot easier to get the result you’re looking for if you knew who they were ahead of time.

When it comes to the Web, it doesn’t have to be any different.

If you can get in front of the end user you’d like to be in front of, with the knowledge of who they are, you’ll be able to easier predict and anticipate the actions they’re going to ultimately take.

Large companies will go to great lengths to determine who their end users actually are, engaging in a research process that can take months and at a total cost that’s north of $100,000, according to UX Magazine. But don’t let that deter you if you’re a small to mid-sized business! The process of developing personas can often be much easier for these businesses as the size and scale of all factors involved – from product / service offerings to internal politics – is a lot smaller. Instead of having to create 30 personas for 10 different offerings, you may only have to create three personas for one singular offering.

However, it’s vital that you keep in mind that it’s not until you’ve actually interacted with your end user that you can know exactly what your online experience should really look like. The good news is that you’ll be a thousand steps closer to that goal IF you can can predict (ahead of time) who that end user might be and how they’re most likely to interact with you.

The best weapons are useless
without targets to shoot at.

It always astonishes me that so much time, energy and money is spent on design, development, search engine optimization and content development without giving the slightest bit of attention to whom it’s being done for. This is even more astonishing considering the average human being will only usually care about 20% of what you have to offer.

The 80/20 Rule

Consider the following points:

  • Who cares about anything you’re doing if your not speaking to someone who’s interested? Always define your end users first so you can attract those who might be more interested in what you’re offering than the next guy.
  • Who cares if your site has amazing photography of your office and great write-ups about your team if all your end user cares about is getting a better deal on the product your selling than your competition? Even though it’s your site that your investing the time, energy and money into, your opinion doesn’t matter, so create content and user experiences based on what your end user actually wants, not what you think they want.
  • Who cares if you’re getting thousands of unique visitors a day to your website if you’re not getting any of them to take the action you want them to take? Better to have a 50% conversion rate with 100 users than a 1% conversion rate with 1,000 users!

Without a target, you have nothing to shoot at. No fancy design, complex functionality or great links to your site will get you past this reality. Period. In turn, you could have the most rudimentary website on the Web, but if that’s what will resonate with your end users, and you’re getting a high percentage of them to take the action you’d like them to, then you’ve done things the right way.

So, if you want to build things for human beings,
how do you do it successfully?

Step One: Create Your Personas

  1. Pick four distinctly different user types you expect to be interested in what you’re doing online – whether it’s selling products, attracting clients, etc.
  2. Create a new document for each one, and give that person a name and title (ie. Jamie Taylor, Engineer).
  3. Collect as much information as possible about each person through researching and communicating with existing users, interviewing and gathering second hand information about potential users, and building assumptions about all of them. This information includes:
    • Personal Details. Age, gender, education, profession, status.
    • Lifestyle. Where they live, what they participate in, their hobbies.
    • Psychological Profile. Personality traits, habits, intelligence level.
    • Professional Details. What role they play in their profession, their work habits and career ambitions.
    • Technical Aptitude. How tech-savvy they are, how fast they adopt technology, what technologies they use.
    • Social Engagement. Are they active on social media sites, what social sites are they most/least active on, and how often.

Step Two: Put Your Personas to Work

  1. Map out the experience you want the users you’ve identified to have with you and your online presence.
    • How do you want them to interact with you?
    • What action(s) do you want them to take?
    • What pitfalls do you want them to avoid?
  2. Use the traits of your end users to define and shape that online experience. Every decision you make should be based upon the make up of those people. A few examples:
    • Older, retired users will want information in bit-sized, easy to understand chunks and the legibility of how it’s presented is always a factor.
    • Socially active users will want the ability to quickly comment, review and share what you’re offering.
    • Mobile users will only want the most important information and actions to take, and will completely ignore content that isn’t relevant to them in that moment.

Step Three: Build, Measure, Learn, Repeat

Despite all the time, energy and investment up to this point, once you launch to the world, you’ve only actually reached the start line. Now is where the real fun begins when real end users start engaging your online experience. Using tools like Google Analytics or paid services like ClickTale, take the time to follow and measure exactly how your end users are interacting with your website.

  • What are they doing the most?
  • What are they ignoring?
  • When do they leave your site?
  • What are they missing completely?

Thumbs UpWith all of this information coming at you in real-time, here’s your opportunity to measure and learn about what is happening with what you’ve built. Then you can constantly tweak and refine the experience until it’s getting the best results possible as they relate to your original goals.

Even at this point it’s important to remember that your work is never done. Staying current with that changing mess of technology while redefining your goals to be even higher, then repeating this process again and again will ensure you’re success online is a long-term deal.

So What Have We Learned?

Despite the big mess of technologies, information, platforms and devices that sit in right front of you, the person on the end is still a human being. Keep that thought front and center when you build anything online and you’ll win again and again and again.

That’s the benefit of working from user personas – they change your thinking. So instead of asking your team for their opinion – you’re looking to your personas for the answer as a team. Then when a future question comes up to add, remove or build something for your site – it becomes a question if it’s right for your users… which is all that will ever matter.