Getting to know your user as a persona

By 5th August 2014 Agile, General

Have you ever noticed how adverts for charitable organisations are designed to increase the likelihood of you parting ways with some of your cash for the cause they champion?

There you are, sitting in front of your TV, when suddenly the face of a little girl appears on the screen.

A grave-sounding voice lets you know her name (Ann), her age (she’s 7-years-old), how many siblings she has (two younger sisters), her parents’ jobs (both unemployed) and the exact number of kilometres she has to walk to go to school each day (probably more than you do in an entire week).

In a short amount of time you’ve learnt more about little Ann then you’ll probably ever know about your next-door neighbour.

When you pick up the phone and make a donation, you’re basing your decision completely on your feelings towards Ann and your hope that her life becomes a little bit brighter thanks to your generosity.

Why personality goes a long way

Other people’s personality is a powerful factor in stirring our thoughts and emotions. The people you most likely spend a large time thinking about at work are your target audience and, unless you personally conducted usability testing, you’ve rarely had the chance to get to know them very well.

Yet, agile methodologies like Scrum place a lot of importance on clients and users. Scrum demands that both are at the centre of attention when designing a product and that your system includes an open and active channel to collect their feedback and opinions about your product.

Developing such channels is a challenging task, whether your aim is to write requirements or design tests. However there is no escaping the fact that agile methods give users an active role and in verifying and validating what your team develops at the end of every sprint.

Unfortunately, busy development teams often ignore this basic tenet of agile and fail to involve their end-users in any part of the process, except possibly at the very end.

This situation is akin to working blindly. You are creating a product that will be enjoyed by people of whom you know nearly nothing about, except the vague impressions you have about them in your mind.

Just like what happened in the case of little Ann, it’s time you learn who your users are by appointing one as an ambassador of your target user group and get to know him or her very well. Only then can you start designing a product that is truly intended for your users, rather for your image of them.

Creating personas is a powerful technique that helps the entire project team gain a better insight into what users want. In this article, you’ll find out more about how to harness personas to understand the needs of your users more effectively.

A portrait of the user as good persona

Creating a persona involves a great deal of work if you want to produce one that is a realistic reflection of your end-users.

You cannot conjure a persona out of thin air, but systematically set out to build on from the ground up by examining the details collected from traditional data-gathering tools such as interviews and questionnaires.

Using this information you can start piecing bit by bit the basic details about your typical user. Their age, demographics, educational levels and interests are all important aspects you have to consider.

You don’t have to limit yourself to a single persona either. You can create a whole constellation of them in order to design a system which caters for the needs of a more varied group.

Getting up close and personal

Crafting a believable persona requires imagination, however logic is also needed to make them realistic and make them effective ‘partners’ in your team.

Thinking behaviour that is logical for the age of your persona, for example, is a crucial element when writing down the requirements of a system.

An older persona might spend more time logged into the system to complete a given task (like reading an article), so the system has to accommodate a potentially larger number of people who are using it at the same time.

Likewise, an older persona would prefer a cleaner, simpler interface which dispenses with ‘frills’ in favour of a larger focus on emphasizes core functionality.

This process can help the team define the priorities that need to be followed in implementing the system and product an end-result which fits better with the needs and expectations of the target group.

Using personas in your team

Personas can also act as an ‘impartial judge’ when meetings on requirements development are heating up and going nowhere.

The question that is causing the impasse in the team can easily be ‘posed’ in relation to the persona’s preferences. This helps the team members sidestep their own biases and think in a user-centred way.

The team can also use personas to deduce the different behavioral patterns of their intended target groups and arrived at solution that integrate into their existing habits effortlessly.

Personas in other contexts

Personas can also be used in other contexts where a creative solution has to be delivered to a client or target users.

Whether it is designing a social media marketing campaign or article writing or developing a teaching course, personas are a proven technique that helps you focus on creating deliverables that are tailored to your audience.

In creative work it often the case that team members are trying to create a catch-all solution with the underlying hope that after launch it will stick with some users.

This haphazard approach often results in a product which doesn’t appeal strongly to any given demographic, resulting in a low to moderate take-up that quickly flattens out.

Carefully crafted personas on the other hand, help you deliver a product that fits like a glove with the lifestyle choices of your target group and makes adoption of any solution that much easier.

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