At its core, good UX is founded upon a basic principle: putting your user at the heart of your design and development process. This sounds like a simple concept. But just think how many apps, sites and interfaces get it wrong, and frustrate you in the process. We’ve all come across these examples of poor user experience, and they can drive us to distraction, and often into the open arms of a more user-focused competitor.

The problem is that, despite being a simple concept, this doesn’t make good UX easy to achieve, and getting it right will require a commitment to changes in areas such as research, design, testing, and evaluation. But please don’t be put off, because when you do get it right, you will have happier users and deliver a wealth of benefits to your business.

Matrix of where certain personas are in relation to concepts, by Shlomo Goltz
Image used courtesy of Shlomo Goltz

User Personas

To be able to put your user at the heart of your process you need to know who they are. Your marketing or sales department may speak up at this point, and explain how they already have in-depth target markets-but these are not personas. A target market is about establishing interest and/or viability within certain criteria, such as gender, age, income and location. Personas, though, are semi-fictitious identities of real customers or users, which¬≠-although sitting in your ideal target market-will provide you with additional behavioural and psychological insight. You’ll need to know your target market before jumping into persona creation, but personas take you to the next level, and give you the ability to better understand and anticipate user behaviour.

There are differing opinions on the best ways to create and record user personas, but most will include a variation of the five key stages below. They are:

  1. Identify users
  2. Set questions and conduct user research interviews
  3. Record observations
  4. Highlight trends
  5. Create individual personas

Identify users and set questions

If you are working on a pre-existing site, then you’ll already have access to users, as well as demographics information (which can use to broaden your interview pool). If you’re working on a new product, though, a good course of action is to identify your competition, and approach their users as potential interviewees.

Cover of the Ethnography Field Guide released by the Helsinki Institute
The Ethnography Field Guide gives some great tips for conducting interviews

At this point you should also identify how many people you’d like to interview-a good rule of thumb is to interview five people per persona. This is a vital part of the persona creation process, so please persevere. It can be intimidating at first, but interviews form the foundations for all qualitative research. And if you’re worried about what you’ll say, here’s the best bit: the most valuable interviews involve you saying as little as possible!

To make things even easier, the Helsinki Design Lab has pulled together an Ethnography Field Guide, for people looking to include interviews as part of their user-centric process-it’s a brilliant resource. As well as a number of interview tips and techniques, you will also find a list of sample questions, such as:

  • Can you tell us more about your work, responsibilities, daily routines, etc?
  • Can you tell us some background for this-how it all began?
  • What is the situation at the moment?
  • What are the most important practices or the best means? Why exactly these?
  • What are the downsides or the biggest challenges?
  • What factors have made it easier? Why?
  • If you could change something what it would be? Why?
  • What would you keep as it is right now? Why?
  • Is there anything else that you want to say, or something that I didn’t ask yet that I should know?

These are generic, and will need to be tailored to your own scenario, but-as you can hopefully see from these examples-the more open you keep your questions, the more useful your final analysis will be.

Record observations

Conducting interviews can be tiring, and transcribing them even more so-but don’t wait. The more time you wait between conducting an interview and writing it up, the more you will forget. Connections and thoughts you have during an interview will ebb away over time, and you may even have issues with clarity in your recordings, and have to rely on memory to fill in the gaps.

Post-it notes used as a matrix for a persona
Image used courtesy of Liv Thompson

Having conducted your interviews, it’s a good idea to create a matrix for each interviewee. What are their needs and goals? What skills do they have? Where do they live and work? What are their pain points and motivation? What are their key behaviours? All of these can be equally useful, but it’s important to segment them. And over time you’ll find quick and easy ways to identify responses. For example, when looking at pain points and motivation you’ll find that responses are usually presented as non-continuous verbs (which includes words such as ‘like’, ‘love’, ‘need’, and ‘want’).

Highlight trends

Having completed interviews and written up your notes, it’s now time to work with this data in a more manageable fashion. That’s rights-it’s time to crack open the Post-it notes (other sticky notes are available). If you placed your research in a matrix earlier, this part of the process becomes much easier. First, list a number of key behaviours and attitudes that you’ve identified in your user research. Then write up each behaviour variable onto a Post-it, and place them on a spectrum (part two of Shlomo Goltz’s persona guide has some great tips on applying this approach to your research).

As Goltz points out in his post, try not to overlap different roles. If your product is aimed at people doing four different roles, don’t merge them (for example, compare writers with writers, not with designers). And as you add more Post-its to the spectrums you’ve identified, you should hopefully start to see users group together, at which point you can start building up personas based on their interview responses.

Create your personas

Having gone through the previous steps, this is now a relatively simple and enjoyable part of persona creation. You’ve identified your users, sat through your interviews, analysed your findings, and now you can flesh out your user personas. Hopefully you’ve identified and prioritised a handful of personas by this point, but having a primary persona can really help when measuring decisions against your archetypes.

Screenshot of Thoughtworks' PowerPoint persona template
Thoughtworks has created a PowerPoint persona template

You now need to decide on what details will be included in your persona, and because you’ve put all that effort into your research, you’ve got plenty of information to play with. But try to keep things simple. Personas tend to include the following pieces of information:

  • Name
  • Personal group (i.e. manager)
  • Job title and responsibilities
  • Demographic info
  • Goals and tasks they are trying to complete
  • Pain points and motivations
  • A quote that sums up the persona
  • A list of core behaviours

The technology consultancy ThoughtWorks has created a PowerPoint free to download persona template that provides you with a great starting point, especially if you don’t have a designer to hand.

As is often the case when it comes to user-centred design, research is paramount, and the simple act of speaking to real users will provide you with a deeper understanding of how they think and behave. Put in the ground work, create a robust set of personas, and you will find that they eventually take on a life of their own, enabling you to measure your UX decisions against genuine user needs and goals.

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