In “How to Create Effective Personas for Your Projects, Part 1″ I wrote about the three main components of effective personas: A name, a face, and an ecology (biographical data, lifestyle, and preferences). Creating personas that are a reflection of real people helps us as web designers and developers to empathize with our end users and more easily consider needs, goals, and priorities that may be different than our own. These are critical skills to have since we may not be part of the target audience for the site we’re developing.
Personas: Who Makes This Stuff Up?
While the information we write about a particular persona is fictional it must have its basis in reality. If we’re building a new website then we should have some idea about the target audience. In a perfect world the Information Architects, User Experience Designers, or other user-focused team members would be able to talk to some of the end users (or potential end users). There are several structured methods for collecting information about end users: contextual interviews, task analysis, focus groups, and surveys.
Contextual interviews are the most time intensive and costly. A contextual interview is conducted in the space where the end user actually works or lives. The UX professional basically shadows the person to understand what she is doing and also observes the “context” (or environment) in which she carries out her tasks. For example, if we were designing an intranet site for human resources professionals to record employee data we would literally sit in the office of an HR person, watch him process employee data, note where paper notes were used, when information was entered into or pulled from electronic records, when sticky notes were used to bridge information gaps, what he reached for when cross referencing records, etc.
The output of a contextual interview is copious notes that are synthesized into an affinity diagram, basically each note or piece of information is transposed onto sticky notes of various colors, put onto a wall and then grouped by the UX team. From these groups of sticky notes patterns, workflows, and associations are created that help us to understand what an HR person needs when working with employee data.
A task analysis is much like a contextual interview, except it’s not concerned about the environment, only the actual task at hand. In the example of the HR person, a UX professional would note each step he would take when creating a new employee record. Steps are broken down into smaller and smaller pieces so that it can be re-created in the new intranet site.
Focus groups are more general and collect the opinions and ideas of a group of people. We may ask six HR professionals to convene and proceed to ask them questions about their jobs, what they need in an intranet site, and what could make their jobs easier. The danger with strictly oral methods of information collection is that there is often a gap between what someone actually does and how they describe it.
Surveys are often easy and inexpensive to administer. There are many free or inexpensive web-based tools available for creating surveys. Writing survey questions should be approached carefully. Questions should be clear, free of any language that could bias the respondent, and specific enough to elicit a clear answer. Besides the pitfall of low response rate we again have the challenge of people translating their real world experiences and feelings into a series of multiple choice answers. Surveys are best at collecting empirical data: gender, age, salary, education, etc.
In any one of these situations the UX professional needs to be as careful as a courtroom lawyer in how questions and statements are phrased. People want to be seen a smart, hardworking, and agreeable and we don’t want our questions to lead someone into answering in a way that obscures information that could otherwise be valuable for our project.
Creating Personas on a Shoe-String
Often times because of tight schedules and limited budgets these activities aren’t included in projects and teams are expected to hit the ground running. In lieu of talking to actual people an IA/UX consultant may need to find alternate sources of information. For example, documented user feedback from website support forms, customer call center records, or even talking to sales people who have had customer contact.
Alternate Information and Data Sources
If there is an existing website there may be emails or contact form submissions that contain bits and pieces of user feedback. This may end up in different departments (tech support, marketing, sales, etc.) Be sure to contact anyone in the company you can to ask for this kind of user feedback.
If the company has a call center it may be possible to get a print out of customer call records or even talk to some call agents personally. I’ve dealt with some who knew exactly what customers liked and didn’t like and were quite frank in letting me know. These are the people on the front line and they can be a valuable source of information.
Salespeople also know the good, the bad, and the ugly. They, however, may internalize how customers feel about the company and thus aren’t always forthright with that information, feeling as though it could be a reflection on them. I’ve found that there usually are a few salespeople who are willing to share what they know because of their commitment to really serving their customers, but you might have to dig.
And If All Else Fails…
There may be times when even third-hand information is not available. Then we need to either press the client for any details they can think of about the target audience, or simply use our imaginations. As creative professionals we can also call upon what we know about people like our target audience. However, we want to be careful not to create stereotypes, which are a demeaning caricature of someone belonging to group. Our target audience might include middle aged white men, but that doesn’t mean our persona has to wear JCrew, work as an accountant, and live in the suburbs. Our personas should have depth, a unique perspective, and opinions that reflect his individuality.
In <a href=”http://www.softerwareconsulting.com/2009/02/04/how-to-create-effective-personas-part-1/”>Part 1</a> we talked about what makes a good persona, in this post we talked about how to get that information, and in Part 3 we’ll look at what we do with personas once we’ve created them.