When executed correctly, Personas can offer a valuable insight into your product’s requirements, outline the behavioural patterns of your users and in some cases even change the trajectory of a project. In this two-part series we explore the process we recently used at UX Connections to create useful user personas for a multinational client.

“Having gone out into the wide world to understand your users’ lives, motivations and environment, a big questions arises: How do you use this research data to come up with a design that will result in a successful product? We solve this problem by applying the powerful concept of a model. Using research to create descriptive models of our users is a uniquely powerful tool for interaction design.” Alan Cooper, About Face 3


What are Personas?

There’s always been a bit of confusion as to what personas are and aren’t. The most important thing to remember is that personas are not real people, however, they are also not completely fictional characters. Whilst this may sound conflicting, personas are simply a model of the different types of user which may use your product, based firmly in real research.

Don’t Cheat, Do Your Research

How many times have you seen beautifully designed personas which simply don’t have any research behind them — based purely on assumption? We see this all too often; usually because as UX designers, we think we know a lot about our users. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t true. You should never assume that you ‘know’ your users; even if you are one! It is vital that for every project you work on, you spend time talking to your users, learning from them and ensuring the experience you design is catering for their needs.

We understand that conducting proper user research is time consuming. We realise that not every project will have the time nor budget for a full discovery phase, with finely crafted, detailed personas built on hours of user research. However, this does not mean that smaller projects should suffer. It doesn’t matter how little time you have, or how small the budget is, there is always time for an hour or two of true field research. You would be surprised how much you can learn from just a few hours of guerilla research! Find a small group of people who could become potential users of your product, Put together a short survey and interview them! There really is no excuse not to get out there and meet your users.

Behaviour Patterns Create Personas, Not Demographics.

In a recent project, we were very fortunate to work with a client who understood the benefit of a proper discovery phase, and we had around a month working to the brief — “get a better understanding of the potential users of our new product concept”.

We knew the users of the product would be the creative employees of a huge multinational organisation, but with thousands of employees across many different job roles — how would these translate into personas?

Alan Cooper Persona Research
Alan Cooper’s process for allowing a segmented organisation to naturally cluster into personas.

This was when we referred back to Alan Cooper’s “About Face 3″, a great book which has an excellent section on crafting personas. As outlined in his diagram above, we remained careful not to instantly associate job roles or other demographics with specific personas. We wanted to ensure we were researching user behaviour, not demographic information. Therefore, we segmented the organisation, building a well-rounded pool of more than 50 interviewees from across many different departments around the world.

Get The Information You Need

In order to get a full understanding of our users and their behaviour patterns, we quickly realised we would need a combination of qualitative and quantitative data to build our personas. To achieve this we conducted user interviews for qualitative insights (for a deeper understanding of our users’ needs and requirements) whilst at the same time running an interactive online survey to record quantitative data; revealing the facts and figures beneath our research).

1) User Interviews

Too much user research is based around asking straightforward questions. The problem with these questions, is you get straightforward answers! Black and white answers aren’t really what we need from our user interviews (we have surveys for that!) — we’re looking to get a much deeper understanding, and the best way to achieve this is through natural conversation. The real aim here is to get participants to tell stories, offer real-life examples and really open up about the issues they face in relation to your product.

For example, on this project we were researching for an organisation who were struggling to ensure their employees were complying to brand guidelines when producing new products. During an interview, one of our participants told us a story about her hectic everyday work life. Balancing meetings alongside her never-ending to-do list, she told us how she simply doesn’t have the time to trawl through pages and pages of a guideline document to find brand information. This is when she told us — “I usually just email someone who I think will know the information. To be honest; this tool you’re designing has to be faster than sending an email”. That was it: “Faster than sending an email” became the number one priority for the project. We had a direct quote we could use, a story we could re-tell in meetings and an example stakeholders would really relate to. At that moment, the difference between asking participants to answer questions, and allowing them to tell you stories became really clear.

Our Top Tips For User Interviews:

  • When preparing for user interviews, create a short ‘conversation guide’ with a few discussion topics to talk around. This is not a script and you should never be afraid to stray a little off topic — the key here is to allow the conversation to develop naturally, your role is simply to ‘steer’ the conversation as it flows.
  • Begin by introducing yourselves and telling the interviewee as much about the purpose of the study as you can; it’s important to create an atmosphere where the interviewee knows they can be honest.
  • Try to have two UX consultants conducting the interview (even on a telephone or skype call) as this allows one person to keep notes whilst the other takes lead of the conversation. Where this isn’t possible, record the conversation and listen back to make notes afterward to ensure you aren’t distracted by note-taking.
  • Keep the conversations relatively short (most of our interviews usually last 30–40 minutes). Always try to keep them under one hour as most people would struggle to stay focussed much longer than this.
  • Give yourself a break! Try not to schedule too many interviews in a day — they are exhausting! We usually schedule 3–4 interviews throughout the day and use the breaks in-between to discuss findings from previous interviews, compile our notes or work on other projects.

2) User Surveys

The importance of collecting genuinely useful data from your surveys cannot be stressed enough. We see countless user surveys asking questions which are irrelevant — Do you really need to know which magazines your users read? What car they drive? How many kids they have?

We’ve found the best way to avoid asking irrelevant questions is to reverse engineer them. First, write a list of all of the data you need to discover about your users and then write the corresponding questions you need to ask in order to find out that information. Finally, work hard to figure out ways to link questions together and make logic jumps throughout the survey. is it possible to assume an answer to a question based on the participant’s previous answers? The trick is to ask as few questions as possible to get the all of data you need.

After around a month of user interviews and survey responses, we had a bank of user insights, quotes and hard data about our users to our disposal. The next stage was to compile this into a usable communication tool to distribute to all of the stakeholders on the project…

By Tom Adcock, User Experience Consultant