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VIPs: Very Important Personas

The word “persona” is Latin. Literally translated, it means “mask”. For designers, personas are easiest described then, by asking ourselves “can I put on the mask of this user and understand and use the system?” Effective persona development allows the answer to be a successful “yes” every time.

A persona is a representation of a type of customer. Customers and users are not the same thing. Sales pays attention to customers. Design and development pays attention to users. Customers typically focus on the value received. How many features do I get for the money spent? Users, however, don’t care about features. They care about what they can do with the product. Personas answer the question, “Who are we designing for?” Design is solving a real problem in the real world, which is why the research of real users is so important. Personas are a humanized representation of our users. An enhancement of perception and empathy. Personas guide us in the decisions we make in every aspect of your product development. From navigation to interaction, functionality and features, even visual design.

As Alan Cooper describes in his book, “The Inmates are Running the Asylum” a persona is a fictitious user that represents the amalgam of many real users – a representation of many needs and wants. The persona is the receptacle for the information you have learned through research. While stakeholders and customer support can provide an excellent start to user information, nothing replaces actual user interviews or surveys. The most effective personas are grounded in data, not in fantasy. They must be validated. A persona represents the distillation of the patterns discovered through your research and are only as good as your data. User interviews are the cornerstone of developing a persona.

The development of a persona includes high level demographics, technical knowledge, device usage, and behavioral traits, as they relate to the product. Use relevant details only. Include the role of the user and the motivations (goals) – what do they want to get out of using the product, why do they use it? We are more interested in the “why” than the “how” they use it. Focusing on the goals allows us to rise above the what and the how and really get at the why.

The visual representation of a persona is important because you want your entire team, at the mention of the persona, to picture that person and recall what they represent. We include photos because while not every team member will recognize the name of a persona, they will always recognize a photo. Using a photo that shows the user engaged with the product carries much more weight. If not the product, then something that reinforces their role in the use of the product. Be sure to share your personas with the entire team. The idea is to create the shared understanding of just who it is we’re working for so that every team member can better serve them.

Personas then become the basis for user stories. For instance: “As Peter, I would like to assign students coursework, so that I can provide the education students require.” Personas evolve as your product evolves so it is important to revisit them appropriately. User research is usually the most difficult aspect of a project to get approval and the first to be cut when budget adjustments are needed. Flexibility in your approach to research is key when considering every project has its own requirements and budget. It’s not as costly or time intensive as most people think.

Creating a persona is not enough. You must leverage the information gained in every product decision you make. Listen and learn. Let users drive all of your product and business decisions and your product will succeed.

For more information on personas, check out the following:

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