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Creating Personas and Designing for Them

Alan Cooper, author of The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity, posits that a great way to encapsulate user information is in a persona—a user profile in which the mystical "user" has a name, photo, and some personal details that bring him or her to life. The basic idea is that attaching a name and face to the "user" helps lock down who that user really is, making him less open to interpretation when the time comes to decide whether real users will be able to decipher how the Data-Juicer widget works. Personas also help show programmers that the person on the other side of the screen is not made of rubber, and therefore cannot bend to the programmers’ supposed insights about what the user is capable of handling: Cheerful Molly from Sales may not really understand how the word publish translates to pushing her unfinished screenplay to the intranet where everyone can see it.

A persona need not be complicated. It can be as short as a single paragraph or as long as two or three paragraphs. The important part is that it describes a particular group of users who will be using your product, how savvy they are, how much experience they have, and so on, and you top it off with a couple of fictitious personal details, a name, and a photo. The photos don’t need to be high quality. The cheap versions from any stock photography site will do just fine. You can get them for just a couple of bucks on sites such as iStockphoto and Getty Images.

If your product is used by a wide range of people, it’s not necessary to write a persona for every single user type out there; when it comes to the particular activity your product is meant to support, the problems of one group will often be extremely similar to the problems of others. It’s only necessary to capture a couple of key user types: the ones that are either most prevalent or trickiest to satisfy (while still being important). Narrow the list of user types to three or less, and create personas for each of them.

Once that’s done, add the personas to the beginning of your PRD, so everyone knows right away who is going to use your product. And throughout the rest of your design and development process, make sure that everyone has the personas in front of them all the time. Everyone on the team should know those personas well enough to know exactly how they’re likely to respond when faced with a programmer’s pet feature, and (hopefully) decide to scrap it. Armed with information about real people (in the form of fake ones), it’s a much shorter leap to designing something that comes across as obvious to those using it.

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