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). In “How to Create Effective Personas for Your Projects, Part 2″ I blogged about the ways in which information can be collected to inform your personas: contextual interviews, task analysis, interviews, surveys, and other sources.
Now I’ll cover ways in which personas can be used during the project lifecycle to help guide design and content decisions. It’s an obvious statement but everything done during a project should be done to satisfy the target audience; and keeping your personas front and center will help you and your team stay focused on that goal.
Out of sight is truly out of mind; working in technology with our noses buried in our keyboards can alientate us from our user base. Once you’ve created your personas what do you do with them? My suggestion is to make sure everyone on the team has a copy or access to them. If you have a shared workspace I recommend printing them out and posting them on the wall.
I’ve attached an example persona (PDF) and will refer to it through the remainder of this article. This persona is one of about six created for a recent project that involved a site for sharing information about disaster risk reduction. The audience is governmental agencies, NGOs, academics, and some private industry. First, we see this persona has an ecology- we learn something about him personally and the world he lives in.
Second, it was created by the stakeholders who work with their end users. It was created based on the characteristics of people in Laslo’s particular user group (“international organization employee”). While this persona was created using tertiary information from our clients, it still does a good job of helping us understand his needs.
So now what do we do with Laslo? Let’s start at the beginning of the project lifecycle –Discovery. This is when we typically produce personas. I feel it’s important to create the personas first, even before documenting requirements. The reason is that Laslo will help to inform how we approach the requirements just based on our awareness of him. Often times we can ask really good questions of the stakeholders when gathering requirements when we know more about who the requirement will satisfy.
The CivicActions creative team is revising our process to fit even better within an agile development process. We’re moving away from creating highly detailed requirements documentation in favor of simpler “user stories” that capture much of the same information, but more quickly and from the end users’ perspectives. These user stories can also be included as part of the persona document. In the example you can see those “What actions…” questions at the bottom. Those could be developed into more stories. And if those user stories change for any reason we can refer to the persona information to ensure there won’t be any problems or conflicts with the changes.
During the design phase the IA creates wireframes and a visual designer may begin rough comps. The personas are used to validate this work, regardless of the fidelity of artifacts (wireframes or comps) at this stage. We can use the persona to ask questions of our work, for example: Does the persona have any physical differences (e.g. vision impairment) that might make this design challenging? does the persona have any technical challenges (e.g. low bandwidth connection) that might make this solution cumbersome?
Personas and QA
The next place personas become valuable is during QA. Since the personas will dictate the user stories the QA team can use the stories to develop their tests. And if usability testing is planned then the personas can serve as a model for the types of participants that need to be recruited and the stories will shape the test scenarios used during the study.
Personas & SEO
Personas can be useful even beyond the design phase. Personas can be used to inform your search engine optimization (SEO) strategy. We have documented ecological information for each persona along with their goals (user stories). For each persona you may want to think about how he or she might search for you.
Using the example persona of Laslo who works for an international organization, what words would he use to search for disaster recovery information? How are those keywords and phrases different from another persona, Helen, who works for a congressman in Iowa?
Also consider your personas in different contexts. What might Laslo search for during a normal work day? What might he search for after a major natural disaster when he needs to quickly find information for a press conference?
Personas & Strategy
After a site initially launches it’s easy to put away the personas and focus on maintenance and iterative improvements. But if these personas are your audience, how do you expect them to change over time? At the very least the audience will age. If the site is for a group of users who are in their late teens then what is the strategy for the site over the next five years, knowing the audience won’t all be teens forever?
What do the people that fit our personas, do with their lives? Will they marry in the next few years? Will they pursue additional education? Our strategies should take into account how the lives of our audience change so we can anticipate and prepare for their needs if we plan on serving them in the future.
This is another good place to consider context. If the persona finds himself or herself in a different context (“married,” “laid off,” “hungry”) will that affect how the site is used or the services you can potentially offer?
In this age of social networking it can be helpful to think about the social graph of our personas: who do they know, how do they connect and relate to these other poeple? Of those potential connections, who among them could also benefit from what we’re building? Could their influence affect how our persona interacts with our site?
The more often we can consider our personas during the process then the more we’re all practicing user centered design. And isn’t that really the goal? Designing websites around their intended users.