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I read an interesting article on usability and user experience posted recently on this site by Tom Stewart, the Chair of the sub-committee of the International Standards Organisation (ISO), which is responsible for the revision of ISO 13407, the international standard for Human Centred Design.

We are in the process of redesigning our site for a new platform being developed for release later this year, and the aforementioned article got me thinking about the planning for the design of a website.

Judging by the customer journey, purchase path and overall customer experience of many sites I visit, many companies still appear to base the fundamental decisions for the design of their site on their gut feel of how a customer might want to navigate through their site. 

They don’t appear to have considered any criteria when developing their wireframes, information architecture and user interface design.

How many companies do you know that do actually invest in research and developing user personas prior to designing their site?

Shouldn’t the user experience and usability of a website be driven by user centered design and this in turn be determined by the needs or tasks the different user groups have to fulfill on the site?

This can be achieved by researching the behaviour of existing users and by developing user personas for the tasks your customers are likely to undertake on your website.

Each persona can be a fictional character representing a set of your users and where possible, should be created after rigorously analysing and categorising the data from user research.

It’s an absolute must to undertake user research prior to the development or redevelopment of your platform and front-end.

Otherwise what do you base your decisions on when it comes to the user interface (UI), information architecture (IA), and the overall user experience?

Sure, web analytics will give you some indication of where you might improve as you’ll be able to see drop off points, and click paths etc.

But this will not provide you with the detailed understanding required to design your site to cater for the needs of a number of different user groups.

According to Webcredible, a usability agency, personas provide powerful (yet quick and simple) guidance for website strategy and planning decisions.

Personas are brought to life and made credible by including personal details (such as a name, age, background and a photo).

They capture the most important information about each user group:

Goals - What users are trying to achieve, such as tasks they want to perform. 
Behaviour - Online and offline behaviour patterns, helping to identify users' goals. 
Attitudes - Relevant attitudes that predict how users will behave. • Motivations - Why users want to achieve these goals. 
Business objectives - What you ideally want users to do in order to ensure the website is successful.

One of the upshots of this is that features can be prioritised based on how well they address the needs of one or more personas.

So what are Personas?

According to Wikipedia, they are...

..."fictitious characters that are created to represent the different user types within a targeted demographic that might use a website or product".

Webcredible states that personas from user research are based on totally different criteria to traditional market research.

Market research usually focuses on users' demographics, which for a website strategy isn't at all relevant. This intimates that user demographics are not relevant for web design.

I would contend that they are relevant but in the context of understanding in the first place, what needs and tasks these different user groups need to fulfill on your site.

Personas are most often used as part of a user-centred design process for designing software or online applications, in which the goals, desires, and limitations of the user are considered when designing the product or site.

They are also considered a part of interaction design and are useful in helping to guide decisions about a product, such as features, interactions, and visual design.

As stated previously, a user persona is a representation of the goals and behaviour of a real user group. In most cases, personas are synthesised from data collected from interviews with users.

They are captured in 1-2 page descriptions that include behaviour patterns, goals, skills, attitudes, and environment, with a few fictional personal details to bring the persona to life.

The use of personas as a technique was popularised by Alan Cooper in his 1999 book The Inmates are running the Asylum.

In this book, Cooper outlines the general characteristics, uses, and best practices for creating personas.

What are the advantages of Personas?

According to Pruitt and Adlin, 2006, the use of personas offers several benefits in product development (cf. Grudin and Pruitt, 2002; Cooper, 1999).

Personas are said to be cognitively compelling because they put a personal human face on otherwise abstract data about customers.

By thinking about the needs of a fictional persona, designers may be better able to infer what a real person might need.

Such inference may assist with brainstorming, user case specification, and feature definition.

Pruitt and Adlin argue that personas are easy to communicate to engineering teams and thus allow engineers, developers, and others to absorb customer data in a palatable format.

They present several examples of personas used for purposes of communication in various development projects (Pruitt and Adlin, 2006).

Personas also help prevent some common design pitfalls which may otherwise be easy to fall into.

The first is designing for what Cooper calls 'The Elastic User' - by which he means that while making product decisions different stakeholders may define the 'user' according to their convenience.

Defining personas helps the team have a shared understanding of the real users in terms of their goals, capabilities and contexts.

Personas also help prevent 'self referential design' when the designer or developer may unconsciously project their own mental models on the product design.

They may be very different from those of the target user population so personas will help guide a more informed, and less subjective design decision.

Personas also provide a reality check by helping designers keep the focus of the design on cases that are most likely to be encountered for the target users and not on edge cases which usually won't happen for the target population.

According to Cooper, edge cases which should naturally be handled properly should not become the design focus (Cooper, 1999).

Criticism of personas

This falls into three general categories: analysis of the underlying logic, concerns about practical implementation, and empirical results (cf. Chapman and Milham, 2006; Rönkkö, 2005).

In terms of logic, personas have been argued to have no clear relationship to real customer data. Personas are fictional and therefore there is no clear way to determine how many users are represented by any given persona.

For this reason, critics have claimed that personas have no definite relationship to real customer data and therefore cannot be scientific.

Chapman & Milham (2006) described the purported flaws in considering personas as a scientific research method.

Conclusion

I believe that user personas have a big part to play in determining your web strategy, but should not be considered in isolation.

Whilst personas are important, there many other sources that should help form your thinking when it comes to your strategy.

I recently read an interesting article on user personas form Richard Wand, a user experience consultant from Conchango, one of the UK’s leading consultancies.

He is often quizzed on how he gathers the customer insight to produce accurate personas. The answer is “from whatever means he can”.

He goes on to say that personas are based on sound user research – talking to actual users might be the most effective method, but there's a host of other research methods which will surface valuable data on user attitudes and behaviours.

To follow are additional sources of user information he gathers to analyse their current and potential users:

• Interview real users, one-to-one or using focus groups. Nothing beats talking to actual users.
• Interview people within the organisation. This includes both office staff and store staff (online and bricks & mortar store).
• Talk to all other stakeholders and gather their opinions
• Review all available marketing research data
• Talk to friends and family to see if they are current or potential users. Sometimes actual users are closer than you think.
• Trends analysis. Use resources such as Forrester to understand specific consumer trends.
• Investigate site analytics. Provides data about site visitors and their online behaviour.
• Analyse search data.
• Review competitor’s sites.
• Gather data from customer satisfaction survey & site feedback forms.
• Study external audience reports (if available). For example, Quantcast.
• Call-centre listening and/ or call transcripts.
• Emails and letters from customers.
• Read relevant groups and discussion boards on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
• Directly observe users in the field.
• Read blogs to see what others are saying about the client's brand.

Related research:
Web Design Best Practice Guide

Related video:
Dr Dave Chaffey talks about Web Design

Martin Newman

Published 7 April, 2008 by Martin Newman

Martin Newman is an independent e-commerce consultant and contributor to Econsultancy.

4 more posts from this author

Comments (9)

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Lawrence Ladomery

Lawrence Ladomery, Founder at automatico

I don't think you will find anyone that will disagree with you on this, but I'd like to play devil's advocate a little.

Companies that don't invest in research and developing user personas are not necessarily clueless. They might not go into detail of things but often that gut feeling you refer to is better described as in-depth understanding of the audience that comes with experience.

Also, to what extent can we expect different behaviours? Do 20 something males cope differently with a shopping cart than 40 something women? No doubt they do, to the extent that it warrants building two different models for the shopping functionality?

I also assume that humans are comfortable in environments they are familiar with and that they are adaptable.

Investing thousands of pounds in research may be a valuable exercise for some (who can afford it) but following best practice, learning from what other people have done and following one's gut instinct will work too.

over 8 years ago

Martin Newman

Martin Newman, CEO at Practicology

Lawrence,

Many thanks for your comments.

Firstly, I'd like to say that I totally get your point in relation to the fact that not all Companies are in a position to pay for research and also that many people will trust their gut instinct when making design decisions. I too have been an SME with a limited budget for site design and development, never mind paying for research.

I would like to point out that I am not trying to suggest that Companies who don't invest in research are clueless, far from it. You'll notice at the end of my article that I highlight a variety of other sources that should be considered when making decisions about site design, and many if not most of these sources are free.

In addition, you can still have a go at developing user personas to build on your gut instinct and to bring to life the different user groups using your site, even if you don't have the budget for research. This can be a great way to engage all stakeholders in the process.

With regards to your comment about how to address different behaviours and whether one can justify a different model for different audiences...
I'm not suggesting that businesses should develop different models for different users.
You will most likely have a core customer group, just as you would in the offline world, and I'd suggest focussing on them whilst attempting to still cater for other user groups and other needs where possible. As you rightly state, humans are certainly adaptable to different online environments.

Finally, your comment on following best practice and learning from what other people have done is spot on. Hopefully you can take some best practice from this debate even if that doesn't entail spending thousands on research, and combining this with trusting your gut instinct.

Regards,
Martin

over 8 years ago

Chris Turberville-Tully

Chris Turberville-Tully, Managing Director at Inspiration Inc

Martin,

Can I ask, did you deliberately discount the Eisenberg's work on persona creation for your article?

Regards,
Chris.

over 8 years ago

Martin Newman

Martin Newman, CEO at Practicology

Chris,

An interesting question and thanks for posing it.

As much as I would like to admit to having a current and existing view on Brian Eisenberg's work, I don't. I still have much to learn and I will endeavour to read up on his theories. If you like, I'm happy to debate the pros and cons of his work after having had the opportunity to consider his views.

Clearly there are still many conflicting views and opinions with regards to all areas of e-commerce. However, whatever your view point is, with the adoption of more considered and well supported strategic choices, the World of e-commerce will become increasingly objective as opposed to subjective. And I do believe that the creation of user personas can only help in understanding the different needs and objectives your website needs to cater for.

Regards,
Martin

over 8 years ago

Chris Turberville-Tully

Chris Turberville-Tully, Managing Director at Inspiration Inc

Martin,

I agree whole-heartedly with your comments and cannot recommend the work of the Eisenberg's (& Lisa Davis) highly enough. As a SME consultancy I can honestly say that it has proved itself invaluable when explaining to larger clients many of the needs of users.

I'll await more debate once you have had the time and opportunity to read their work.

Regards,
Chris.

over 8 years ago

Martin Newman

Martin Newman, CEO at Practicology

Hi Chris,

I have now had the opportunity to review the Eisenberg’s work in more detail.
They use the term ‘Persuasion architecture’ which is about predicting the scenarios that people will navigate.

The Eisinberg’s state that persuasion architecture begins with intelligence collection in a process they call "Uncovery". The goals of the Uncovery include:
• Knowing/Understanding Your Customers
o Their needs, motivations, and their buying process
o Using customer research, web analytics, societal archetypes

• Knowing/Understanding You, The Persuader
o Your goals objectives, principles and values
o Products, Services, selling processes

• Knowing/Understanding The Environment
o Competition
o Context of the sales process
o Brand strength

My conclusion is that these guys are undoubtedly on the pulse when it comes to user personas and their role in the web design and e-commerce process.

That said, it doesn’t appear that their thinking on developing user personas specifically is ground-breaking, but what I would say is that they have developed some very relevant terminology and concepts, which help to make the process of developing user personas more effective whilst also helping to understand them in the context of all of the other information and considerations you should make when designing a site.

Regards,
Martin

over 8 years ago

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P.K.Rao

I feel that the generation which is using the web ,behaves more on social popularity of the web,and the present web specs are somewhat conservative and more oriented towards longitudanal development rather than depth of each issue on the design,
however personas play an important role like the meyer's briggs or mcgregor's,since the bulk of college going team look at the websites and get disheartened by the brief synopsis we much avoid synopsis which is a mockery of the article according to me.
even infact i am against writing of journal articles in the traditional sense of synopsis and keywords etc.
The truth is we have run out of concepts ,the ontology of web design is the cycle of evolution as also the epsitemology of website which can build history of website evolution eeach one of them and present stuff more in relationship to meaning ful for X-generationers and boomerites.

If we can have an open content which impresses everybody,a whitebox and help build basics for web design in this it would help develop best practices ,including diversity in personas.
Zander has done some work on this and classified the solutions into socially acceptable categories.

P.K.Rao

over 8 years ago

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Paul Web

I agree with everything. Too many companies just rush into redesigning a website. You must make sure you you do thorough research of competitor websites and customer analysis before starting your web design. Interviewing real industry users and customers is a great way to get feedback before you start.

about 8 years ago

Martin Newman

Martin Newman, CEO at Practicology

Thanks for your comment Paul.
I see you're in the web design game yourself.
I'd imagine with a number of clients in the housing sector, you'll be looking to extend your reach into additional market sectors.

about 8 years ago

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