When you look at an overview of UX or user-centered design, there’s a large amount of research and documentation involved. It can seem a little daunting to do so much upfront work.
Just “shipping it” sounds a lot funner but going through the process really ensures you have a customer base, you understand them and you build something for them. It’s not a guarantee of success but it’s a whole lot better than guessing and no one using it.
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Ok, so how do we get in tune with our users?
The quick answer is doing research and documenting our findings. Early in the design process we identify, interview and learn everything we can about our users. One of the artifacts we use to do so is a persona. So let’s kick it off with some basics…
What is a user persona?
There’s two aspects of defining a user persona. First is the avatar or archetype that represents the person/people using our product. Second is the user persona deliverable, an actual document or artifact. The former is represented in the later so they’re used interchangeably.
In an article on UX Magazine, Kevin O’Connor defined personas as:
A persona represents a cluster of users who exhibit similar behavioral patterns in their purchasing decisions, use of technology or products, customer service preferences, lifestyle choices, and the like. Behaviors, attitudes, and motivations are common to a “type” regardless of age, gender, education, and other typical demographics.
This is great. It’s rooted in defining people by their behavior. Which is ultimately what we’re hoping to craft for and manipulate in UX.
The user persona deliverable will contain information about these users groups such as: goals, frustrations, needs, wants, motivations, environment, job, tools, etc. This information is created from qualitative (e.g., interviews) and quantitative (e.g., analytics) research efforts.
Here’s an example:
Quick note about the contents of a persona. Generalizations are ok but real life people make the best personas. Instead of “when a buyer clicks this,…”, you’ll find yourself saying “when Jane clicks this,…”.
If there’s a real person there, it enables you to empathize with them much better.
Why do we need user personas?
Many people have developed a negative view of personas. This can happen for many reasons. But it’s often from years of pencil whipping the deliverable and forgetting about the benefits it offers.
And yes, personas offer designers and the rest of the team many benefits.
They can inform other deliverables. You can use personas to settle disagreements amongst the product team. They’re particularly powerful when used with a feature matrix to prioritize features.
But they were really created to inform. Not everyone involved in the product will be involved in user research efforts. Personas are a way to put them front and center for everyone on the team. Not just the folks that did the research.
This is important because the best tech companies put the user first. Personas are your users.
Defining user personas
Who is your user? That’s really the question you’re trying to answer.
This is no time to be vague. Maybe you have a broad target market (e.g., marketers) or you were a little more specific (e.g., new marketers working for a SaaS startup). Specific is probably a little better but either is fine.
But that’s your target market, the big picture, we need to get deeper than that. We’re looking for the behavioral groups within it.
If you’re working on your own product or at a company with existing users, this is probably easily pulled from your personal experience or data available to you. You might already know you have multiple users. That’s great.
If this is a new product idea you’re working on, you may not know at this point and it is a bit hypothetical. That’s ok too. You just know you’ll need to validate and possibly refine these in the future.
We need to think about who we’re trying to design for and at this point we may not even know what they need. That’s actually a good thing going into personas. You don’t want to assume anything. Easier to have a beginner’s mind if you actually are new to the subject or people you’re researching.
Connecting with users
As I mentioned before, it’s best to connect with real life users. You’re connecting with these people to interview them. You don’t have to interview every user but getting a representation is good. Try to get 2-3 people per “type” of user.
How you connect with your users will largely depend on your user base. If they have a big presence online (e.g., developers, designers, etc.), you can connect with them through online channels (e.g., social media, forums, community sites, etc.).
However, there are a lot of user bases that use technology products day to day but may not live online extensively (e.g., property managers, retail business owners, construction workers, etc.). You may have to look through your personal network or just pound the pavement (i.e., go look for them) to find them.
You’re simply reaching out to these people and letting them know you’re looking to do some research on their profession/job. Most people are willing to spend 15-30 minutes talking about themselves.
Don’t over think user interviews. You’re just chatting with people and gathering information.
Talk to them about them. We’re trying to understand their goals, frustrations, needs, wants, motivations, environment, job, tools, and their day to day workflow completing different tasks (specifically in the area where you envision your product living).
If you can get their permission, I’d highly recommend filming or recording these sessions. Going back and watching (or listening) later you’ll notice things you missed. If you can’t record the conversation, take great notes or have a friend or coworker take notes. Being able to stay focused on what they’re saying is much better use of your time with them.
Documenting your findings
You’re going to take what you heard and turn these into personas. I have a template for you below so if you don’t have one, don’t worry about putting one together. Ideally, the information you put in there will be directly from what they say or do.
Want help with your personas? I have a free and easy to use template available.
We’re in the business of user experience. We’re designing something for someone else and we’d like them to use it.
User personas are a great way to ensure we design something that delights our users. I don’t actually mean the documentation but more so going through the process. It allows us to really cement what we’ve learned. We can refer to this as often as we’d like and we can share this information with everyone we work with.
It doesn’t have to be a big laborious and tedious task. Get out there and learn about who you’re designing for.