Building Sustainable User Personas

We've done a lot of work over the last 12 months for sporting codes, energy companies and banks. (Maybe plural is overselling it. It was one of each.)

As part of that we built user personas.

Creating user personas is hard work but totally worthwhile. They give us a sense of who it is we’re really designing for: an audience to target. They help us ask questions like: "Is Jamie interested in getting the latest scores while at his desk?" and "How important is it that Sonja see an incident report immediately."

The personas help us make the myriad decisions that we might not otherwise be equipped to make. They boost our empathy.

But there's a hole that clients and colleagues often fall into when it comes time to create personas.

Often, when we're hired for a job, we are told what we'll be building. We know it's going to be a news portal or a dashboard giving users a snapshot of their business.

The temptation is to build the user personas with the existing apps—or the mere idea of those apps, if they don’t yet exist—as a component of their biographies. We might say "Sonja is always checking her phone to see what the latest incident report is." This is now a biased persona. We can’t build the best application for Sonja because we are now thinking of her in terms of what she currently uses.

It’s better to discuss her in terms of what she needs to do. "Sonja needs to act quickly when there is an incident at work."

The designer’s role should always be to help people to improve the way they perform. Just because Sonja is accustomed to checking her phone, that doesn't mean that it’s the way she should be spending her time.

Shifting the focus from what she currently does to what she needs to do in her daily life helps us discover that she mightn’t actually need the application we were hired to produce. We might discover through all the user personas that our client doesn't need the application they had in mind when we were hired.

This does not put us out of a job. Our clients are happy with us because we stop them from wasting money on a misdirected product and we point them in the right direction.

The personas we create help correct our clients’ focus. You’ll know from your own experience that when you’re in the midst of a problem it’s difficult to get the right perspective on how to solve it. Personas create an outside view and help give new perspective. Our clients are now able to see the problem from the point of view of their customers, or their shareholders, or their employees.

We create application-agnostic personas because they are sustainable. They will survive application development for several years and possibly adapt as the world changes, like real people. The needs of a business, its staff and its customers change gradually. When we create personas based on needs rather than a project's intention, we save time in every development cycle and also better identify the gaps in our knowledge about our audience.

This post was originally published in the Floate Design Partners blog