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.


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