Persona Creation Is Here to Stay

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The personas method of marketing segmentation pioneered by Proctor & Gamble and its ilk for offline targeting is gaining increasing attention among developers and designers.

“It’s prevalent in software development,” said Paul Quigley, an independent Web design consultant based in Boston. “In anything to do with the Web, it’s the approach.”

Developers assemble user requirements through data collected on the usage of the current software or site, targeted-user interviews and real-time observation of user interaction with the solutions, sites or mainframe systems.

Interviewers do not ask directly about the subjects’ use of systems but instead ask about their goals and aspirations, said Ed Guttman, a technology strategist with CodeStreet in New York. Information about a solution’s strengths and weaknesses almost inevitably comes out in the discussion.

Attributes from this study take shape in a user profile constructed with such detail that personas are given names and often faces. They acquire demographic outlines: age, gender, income, marital status, career history and professional experience — even hobbies.

The personas method aims to compel development and design teams to put out a product that will maximize user value and engagement. This reduces costs because end users more directly receive what they need when they need it. “Online personas allow mass customization in software development,” he said.

But as persona creation becomes a standard practice, some worry its effectiveness is diluted through developer bias, competing interests within the organization or cost strictures that eliminate interviews and direct observation in favor of lower-cost or already available research. Plus, the research conducted to build a persona does not claim to be statistically representative.

“The contrarian point of view argues that personas make it impossible to understand who a user is and what a user wants,” Quigley said.

Another danger is the creation of too many personas — typically the result of a lack of clarity or focus on the true user or consideration of too broad a base. However, he said, “If you consolidate personas, you’re smoothing over some characteristics of why some people would use an application.”

Visibility for How a Solution Will Be Used

It is precisely for companies targeting a large group of end users, representing several interests or audiences, that Guttman recommends persona creation. For commercial sites or software, personas are highly valued, he said, because user groups are numerous.

“The more diverse the user groups and complicated the application, the smarter it is to develop personas,” he said.

Vivid descriptions about fictional archetypes make a project real and accessible to software and site designers. And teams of developers help diffuse any bias.

In big companies, where many people may be working on similar projects at the same time, personas help solutions builders and product stakeholders orient themselves around something other than politics and see the big picture of customer interaction. The task also gathers knowledge that may have been captured at an earlier time in a completely unrelated process and neglected or siloed in a remote corner of the organization.

Through persona creation, developers “feel they can get 80 percent [of end users] on the first pass and can do another iteration of software or a Web site to get an additional 15 percent to 20 percent,” Quigley said.

“Part of designing personas is determining who the primary target is,” Guttman agreed. “By solving their needs, you will solve the needs of 80 percent of people.”

The growing penchant for business analysis has driven developers and designers to personas, even when budgets skimp on interviews.

When gathering information about users’ needs, behaviors and preferences through face-to-face meeting or contextual inquiry — shadowing users in their environment — is not practical, phone or online surveys, help-desk records and “artifacts” that illustrate the end user’s requirements may fill in the necessary details to create a day in the life of a persona and eventually a design prototype.

“As long as you follow the process, you get a better result than you would have,” Guttman said.

Kelly Shermach is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y., who frequently writes about technology and data security. She can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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