A key process in user-centered design is to...well, understand the user! Rather than basing our understanding on past experiences, assumptions, stories shared, etc., designers spend some time developing "Personas".
What are Personas? In a nutshell, Personas describe customer archetypes that bring the user to life. They are short, engaging summaries of the key customer groups, that place the emphasis on specific users.
Why use Personas? Sometimes, we wish that we could just please everybody (at least I know I do). That there exists out there one magic bullet that proves our conviction that there is such a possible way to design "the perfect product for every user". The hard truth and reality is, though, is that the key to failure truly is trying to please everybody. That when we design with this goal in mind, we often produce something that really becomes useless to everybody, and serves no clear purpose in the end. By focusing on key users and their goals, Personas limit our choices, and thus help us make better design decisions.
How do we get Personas? Personas must absolutely be based on research. Customer or user interviews and observation are the backbone of Personas; not surveys or anecdotal evidence. When interviewing users, you will start to see a pattern forming, that one user resembles another, and yet another. When you start seeing the consistent overlap, you can at that point decide to discontinue the interview process (anywhere between 18-25 interviews may be required to reach this point) to yield 4 Personas (for example).
There is a Primary Persona that must be selected as the main focus of the development effort. After satisfying the Primary Persona, the designer can then focus on the needs of secondary and tertiary Personas, in an effort to accommodate the needs of other users. Importantly, due to this fact, it is crucial not to have too many Personas, as the design team can then be easily overwhelmed, side-tracked, and lose focus on the task at hand. I would aim for in or around 4 Personas.
Important differences that should be made evident when determining Personas are what people do (behaviour) and why they do them (goals and motivations). Demographics should not be the focus here, though they may influence elements of visual design (for example, targeting female shoppers to a jewellery website).
Some elements of a Persona can include:
- User name
- User's photograph
- A quote from the user that captures their key objective
- A short narrative describing the user
- A list of key goals of the user
When I think of Personas, I imagine these life-sized cutouts of ordinary people, from various stages, and walks of life. I imagine them with background stories, jobs, a family. I see that they may have frustrations, challenges, and are motivated to succeed. When placed literally in front of a design team, they serve as a critical reminder to always stay user-focused, and to empathize with the genuine needs of the users. They allow designers to relate to the user as a real person, and make accurate judgments on how a design element would help or not help Jane Doe achieve or not achieve her primary goal.
There is some current debate (as is always the case in UX design) on the real value that Personas create, and whether they are truly necessary to make a material difference to the bottom line. It would be interesting to see what other viewpoints are out there! Please feel free to share :)