What are User Personas?
User personas are a fictional representation of your users, members, donors, customers and stakeholders. Like the narrator in a book, personas enable you to see the world (or your website) through the eyes of someone else. That perspective enables you to gain insights and make decisions based on the needs of your actual users.
In a previous series of blog posts we looked at User Experience Journey Maps – what they are, how they can be used and how to create one. You may have noticed that these maps include a mention of the user persona. This is because an important aspect of every user’s journey is the user themselves. Your website will have many different users who have different needs, capabilities and preferences. Someone coming to the site for the first time will have a totally different understanding from that of someone who knows your organisation well and is a frequent visitor to the site.
For most websites, as well as the general public there will be a range of different audiences that need to be considered:
- members of a profession, stakeholders and policy makers,
- service users, service providers, funders, volunteers and donors,
- union members, delegates, representatives, activists, and committee members.
But it’s not just the type of stakeholder where differences exist. It’s also in the personal preferences and capabilities of the user in question. An obvious example: those users who a less tech-savvy need to be considered alongside those who are fluent digital natives.
Creating user personas
Given all these variables, a set of personas needs to be created that can represent the different types of users that will be using your website. However, don’t go overboard here – if you find that you have a long list of possible personas it is likely that there will be a lot of overlap between them, and it becomes difficult to actually use of them. You could be spending a lot of time with these people and its useful to be able to remember them. Aim for a set of about three to six.
Although there are no specific rules it is useful to consider the following elements. Start by describing their character:
- A name – make the persona feel like a real person.
- A face – use a photo to give the persona some character and help create empathy and recognition.
- A role/description – describe who are they are in terms that are relevant to your website. This could be a job or role title, or it could be a short biography.
- Demographics – this information might help to ensure that your thinking and analysis is covering equality, diversity and inclusion, however it is important not to allow this to introduce social stereotyping and/or bias. (Note – one way to handle this is to describe behaviours rather than demographics – see below.)
- What type of website user are they? Reader vs scanner, clicker vs scroller, searcher vs navigator, mobile vs desktop? You could also include a user of assistive technologies.
Then you should describe their needs and behaviours:
- Goals, motivations and dislikes – what are the drivers that influence them, and what frustrates them?
- Some of their specific needs – what are the typical tasks they are trying to achieve when they visit the site?
- How your organisation can meet this need – list out the actions that you could take to serve the user.
- What would create/increase trust of your organisation for this person?
- What keywords would they use in a search engine to find the site/page? How else might they find your site?
Bring all these elements together in a single page layout (A4 or A5 is a good size to aim for) so that all the information can be seen at once. It doesn’t have to be over-designed, and you can find plenty of templates and examples online to provide inspiration.
How to use user personas?
A good tip is to have them available not just digitally but also in a physical form. This could be a poster or set of cards that can be printed out and stuck on nearby walls or kept close to hand.
You should incorporate them when creating User Experience Journey Maps to help get closer to the feelings and emotions experienced by your users. In the example map from that article, you can see that a small excerpt from the persona is shown in the top right corner.
It can also be effective to use them to sharpen your focus when working on a website’s content grouping and information architecture. This stops the questions being asked from becoming too abstract. For instance, you would be able to ask: what task does this user persona need to do, and how would they expect to be able to find it?
User personas are often introduced by digital agencies as part of the process of designing a new website, but this is not the only time that they can be created and used.
You can use the group of personas to provide a point of focus for teams across the organisation. They allow communications between different teams to have a shared connection which can help build consensus and drive decision-making. The personas will be relatable and will encourage empathy – when this is working well it can feel like they are so familiar that they are another member of the team.
Having these personas ever-present can help to inform thinking and discussions and will keep your teams focused on the most important part of your organisation – the users.