If you’re building an interactive experience or redesigning an existing one, there's one thing you can’t get away from: personas.

What is a Persona?

A persona takes business goals and gives them life. It’s a personification of the business goals. It keeps the true user top of mind. 

Let’s put it this way. Have you ever found yourself presenting designs to an executive? They stop you midsentence to say your design will not work for their aunt/mother/husband because their aunt/mother/husband doesn’t use the web that way.

If you have personas, when your executive attempts to re-design for their relative you can gently guide them back to the personas. And if the personas are based on data, then there should be no argument.

How to Build a Persona

Get the facts. To start, you need clearly defined goals for your website or mobile experience. Business requirements or even a marketing strategy could be a good place to start. If that isn’t available, hold meetings with the business partners to build the objectives together.

Find out what they want to achieve with this site, experience or application and why they think that. If they reference any data that supports their opinions, it may be a good idea to ask for it. You may be able to draw more conclusions from it.

That’s a nice segue to the next piece of the persona puzzle: research. Look for quantitative research (like large-scale surveys, data from the call center or website traffic) and qualitative research (such as focus groups or usability studies) to help justify your personas.

Qualitative research is a hunch about the user, and the quantitative tells you if your hunch is right. If your research is out of date, conduct interviews with both the sales people and real users. If you get a chance to interview users, ask the questions you want to know most.

Questions you might ask the user:

  • Where are you when you use the site or mobile app -- work, school, home or in transit?
  • What device or browser do you use? 
  • What time of day, week or year do you use it? 
  • Why did you interact or what were the motivations to interact with the site or app? 
  • What are you trying to do with the help of the site?  
  • What do you like about using the application or site? What are some of their biggest pain points?

Spending the time to gather these facts is critical to building a persona. If personas are not based in fact, you either end up building personas based on your own opinions or beliefs, or the personas simply won’t be believable. And if they are not believable, the team can’t or won’t use them.

What do you Need for Personas

To begin constructing your personas, you need basic information such as name, age, occupation, where they live. Are they married, single, divorced? Do they have children? Are they a homeowner or renter? (A sidenote: If you don’t nail the name, it sets a tone for the entire persona. If a persona is described as a woman in her 30s and you give her the name such as Sue, it’s not believable. Sue is a name of my grandmother’s generation. It has not been popular in decades. Make sure your persona is credible right down to the name.)

Now, layer in the more important details. How do they use the website or app? Are there distinct patterns? How would you describe their acceptance of technology? I like to use Evertt Rogers's diffusion of innovations. Are they innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority or laggards?

Layer more information into your user. Who is this person? What are her hobbies? Likes and dislikes? How does your website/product/mobileapp help fulfill her dreams or make life better? What are her motivations? What goals does she want to do with your website? What are her pain points? (Again, be careful not to add in your own personal agenda or your pain points unless they are backed up by the research.)

In the end, you should have a handful of personas. If you have more than that, it may be too much information and your team may have trouble keeping the users straight and prioritizing the users and their goals. Just go back through your users and find which ones are probably just a variation on a theme and eliminate any duplicates or true edge cases. It’s like that old marketing motto: try to market to everyone and you end up marketing to no one.

If you’ve written all your personas, try writing one more -- for the edge case. The book, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, suggests writing a persona of who you are not designing for.

Who Should Create the Personas?

Typically one person creates the personas. Often it’s the person at the beginning of the process like a usability engineer or an information architect. But James Costa, who writes on UX Booth, suggests instead of one person writing personas, take a team approach. The team can help by being responsible for different user goals or different personas and they can offer checks and balances when a sole writer gets too subjective.

Editor's Note: To read more by Lori:

-- Content Gardens: The Content Lifecycle