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How to Develop Basic User Personas

“Before I can walk in another person’s shoes,
I must first remove my own.” – Brian Tracy

This article discusses the basics for developing of a set of user personas. User personas are not a research method, but a communication tool. They are a visual, creative way to convey the results of research about the users of your software or website. Personas are fictional characters developed to represent aggregate statistical averages to profile a user group. They do not express all types of user or their concerns, but can give a reasonable representation of who might be using your product and what some of their goals or issues might be. Personas are not fixed precise definitions of your users; they are more of an empathy creating tool. They can help you get into the mindset of a user type and communicate that mindset to others.

One created, personas are a way of humanizing your users and providing a canvas on which you can superimpose ideas on how a given user type might interact with your system. A little bit like criminal profiling (minus the crime and vilification), you can think of it as role playing with the intention of gaining new insights into the other party. User Personas should not be confused with engineering use cases or marketing demographic profiling.

Why develop user personas?

  • A key benefit to developing user personas is to provide user-centric objectivity during product design, and reinforce the idea that you and your colleagues’ version of a great user experience is not necessarily the same as your end users.
  • User Personas can dispel common stereotypes about users, e.g., the site needs to be so easy to use the VP’s grandmother can use it.
  • Later in the design process, user personas can help you communicate the usefulness of a specific design to stakeholders.

While I used to be somewhat limited in using persona, I did create them a few years ago for a top-five business school. The project was in the context of a site redesign that included an overhaul of the site’s information architecture. I conducted a fairly exhaustive audit of the MBA space which included a competitive review, expert review, and stakeholder interviews. At the time, I didn’t create personas for myself, I just used the underlying audit data to restructure the site’s content and define a simplified navigational model. However, later, when preparing to present the new information architecture to the client, I took the time to create a set of user personas based on the original data I used to make my design decisions. They were created out of a need to help illustrate to the client how the new structure better addressed the needs of their prospective students, and to assure them that user’s concerns were being addressed. After realizing how effective persona can be for stakeholder buy-in and alignment I have since used them much more frequently in a range of UX projects.

When are personas most useful?

  • User personas are useful when there are a number of unsubstantiated assumptions floating around about who your users are. E.g. early adopters, soccer moms, the VP’s grandma, etc.
  • When there is a tendency for developers and product managers to make design decisions based on; their own personal preferences, technical constraints, chasing short term sales, or any other reasoning that does not consider the end user.
  • When there is a general lack of clarity about who your end user is, or when the data you have regarding your users does not seem to directly translate into insights about their behavior.
  • Whenever you need a communication tool to advocate and encourage empathy for end users.

Development Lifecycle

Persona creation is best done during requirements gathering stage. However, getting the most out of your user personas means that they should also be referenced during development and testing, as questions and changes arise. They should also be compared to, and updated against actual user testing and post-release feedback. If properly evolved and maintained, personas can be an effective guidepost throughout the development and product lifecycle.

Limitations of User Personas

  • It’s easy for personas to be taken too literally or become a stereotype. Personas should never be considered a definitive archetype of your users, doing so runs the risk of turning your definitions into pseudoscience, akin to phrenology. Direct user testing and feedback insights should take precedence over anything user persona derived.
  • User personas are not precise; they are limited by the innate prejudices, interpretations, and reference points of the authors of the personas and any subsequent user scenarios.
  • User personas are not an appropriate communication tool for everyone; some people prefer a well crafted presentation of the source data over a persona which can be perceived as containing superfluous data.

How to implement user personas

With a little research, a set of basic personas is actually fairly easy to put together. The first step is to pull research from multiple sources to gather data about potential users. Next, synthesize this data to form user groups and select representative data from each user group to form a user data profile. Finally, add supplemental character information to create a believable persona. As a general rule, you should start with trying to define three to five user types, adding additional types as appropriate. I would recommend against defining more than about eight or 10. Beyond this number, you start to exceed people’s ability to reasonably keep track of the information.

Consider This…

If you think you need more than ten personas, or have already been heavily relying on personas to drive development consider as a next step investing in an ethnographic study. Real profiles and insights derived from the results of an ethnographic study will provide more actuality than fictitious personas.

  1. Conduct Research. Pull together any reliable data you can find might describe your users or give insight into their goals, concerns or behaviors. Collect any potentially relevant demographics such as; gender, age, race, occupation, household income. Let’s, for example, take the case of developing personas around prospective MBA students. In addition to client interviews I was able to pull a large amount of key data from sources on the Internet. Some references I found were:
    • Graduate Management Admissions Council
    • GMAC: 2004 mba.com Registrants Survey
    • The Black Collegian: ‘The MBA: An Opportunity For Change’
    • The Princeton Review: ‘Study of Women MBAs’
    • National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)
  2. Form Relevant User Groups. To continue with the business school case study, research on MBA students showed that there were a growing number of minority women enrolling in MBA schools. In addition, the client indicated a desire to further attract this type of student. Armed with that initial seed data, I defined a user group of minority women who were considering, had applied to, or attended business school. Further research allowed me to compile a list of statistical information about this group (such as average age, current occupation, family status, etc) as well as formulate some ideas about their interests, concerns and expectations. When compared to more “traditional” MBA students, these women were; a few years older on average, more likely to be married with children, and were highly-focused on what specific opportunities this type of degree offered post graduation.
  3. Create and Embellish the Persona. Start by turning the data you have for the user group into a single individual. The “Minority Women” user group was converted into a thirty six year old, African American woman named Christine. At this point it’s ok and actually preferable to fill in the gaps with plausible details about this person to bring them to life a bit; e.g. “Christine Barnhart is a marketing communications manager who balances her time between work and family…” Since this is in large part a tool to facilitate empathy for the user group, as much realistic information as possible should be incorporated to develop the character. As long as the “filler” is not negated by other data it should be fine.  Even still, after you have finished writing your personae take a step back and ask yourself; “Is it reasonable to expect this person to exist?” Alter your description if necessary, or move on to the next persona.
  4. Develop and Test User Scenarios. Now that you have your personas and an idea of what your user types are, we can make some assumptions about what functionality or information they might find useful. You will need to develop some User Scenarios to help test any hypothesis you have. Unlike a use case, which is a description of how system functionality interacts (i.e. contact data is retrieved, error message is returned), user scenarios focus on the user’s perspective. A simplified User Scenario for our “Christine” persona might look like:
    • While successful in her career, Christine is not entirely sure she has the background and experience to be admitted to a top business school. In addition, she has a lot of specific questions about the program’s culture. She is concerned that it may be too aggressively competitive for her to get the most out of her business school experience.Christine goes to the program website and immediate looks at the eligibility and admission requirements. She takes her time looking through the information and prints out a few pages. Next, she starts to browse around through site, trying to get a feel for the culture. She finds a section that has video interviews with students and so she watches a few and begins to get a sense of whether this school is a fit for her or not.

User Stories Not to be interchanged with a user scenario (or use case), a user story is a short two or three sentence statement of a customer requirement. It is customer-centered way of eliciting and processing system requirements within Agile development methodologies[1].

Basic Persona Template

There are a wide range of user persona templates, and they can get rather complicated. Considering that the intention of this type of tool is effective communication, I tend to gravitate toward the clean, simple layouts that are one page or screen. Below is a basic example template. Don’t get too focused on templates however, if you find information that you think is useful or relevant but it doesn’t fit your template, rework the template to fit the data.

Persona Layout - Template



[1] More information on user stories can be found at: http://www.extremeprogramming.org/rules/userstories.html

Blog Post

Card Sorting: A Primer

Change your language and you change your thoughts.” –  Karl Albrecht

Card sorting is a specialized type of user test that is useful for assessing how people group related concepts and what common terminology they use.  At its simplest form, a card sort is the processes of writing the name of each item you want to test on a card, giving the cards to a user and asking him or her to group like items into piles. There are however, a number of advanced options and different types of card sorting techniques.

Open Card Sort – An “open” card sort is when you do not provide users with an initial structure. Users are given a stack of index cards, each with the name of an item or piece of content written on it. They are then asked to sort through and group the cards, putting them into piles of like-items on a table. Users are then asked to categorize each of the piles with the name that they think best represents that group/pile. Open card sorts are usually conducted early on in the design process because it tends to generate a large amount of wide ranging information about naming and categorization.

Given the high burden on participants and researchers, I personally find an open card sort to be the least attractive method for most contexts. It is, however, the most unbiased approach. As a general rule, I would reserve this method for testing users with a high degree of expertise in the area being evaluated, or for large scale exploratory studies when other methods have already been exhausted.

Closed Card Sort – The opposite of an open sort, a “closed” card sort is when the user is provided with an initial structure. Users are presented with a set of predefined categories (usually on a table) and given a stack of index cards of items. They are then asked to sort through the cards and place each item into the most appropriate category. A closed sort is best used later in a design process. Strictly speaking, participants in a closed sort are not expected to change, add, or remove categories. However, unless the context of your study prevents it, I would recommend allowing participants to suggest changes and have a mechanism for capturing this information.

Reverse Card Sort – Can also be called a “seeded” card sort. Users find information in an existing structure, such as a full site map laid out on index cards on a table. Users are then asked to review the structure and suggest changes. They are asked to move the cards around and re-name the items as they see fit. A reverse card sort has the highest potential for bias; however, it’s still a relatively effective means of validating (or invalidating) a taxonomic structure. The best structures to use are ones that were defined by an information architect, or someone with a high degree of subject matter expertise.

Modified Delphi Card Sort (Lyn Paul 2003) – Based on the Delphi Research Method[1], which in simple terms refers to a research method where you ask a respondent to modify information left by a previous respondent.  The idea is that over multiple test cycles, information will evolve into a near consensus with only the most contentious items remaining. A Modified Delphi Card Sort is where an initial user is asked to complete a card sort (open, closed, or reverse), and each subsequent user is asked to modify the card sort of their predecessor. This process is repeated until there is minimal fluctuation, indicating a general consensus. One significant benefit of this approach is ease of analysis. The researcher is left with one   final site structure and notes about any issue areas.

Online Card Sort – As the name implies, this refers to a card sort conducted online with a card sorting application. An online card sort allows for the possibility of gathering quantitative data from a large number of users. Most card sorting tools facilitate analysis by aggregating data and highlighting trends.

Paper Card Sort – A paper sort is done in person, usually on standard index cards or sticky notes. Unlike an online sort, there is opportunity to interact with participants and gain further insight into why they are categorizing things as they are.

Why Use Card Sorting?

  • Card sorting is a relatively quick, low cost, and low tech method of getting input from users.
  • Card sorting can be used to test the efficacy of a given taxonomic structure for a Web site or application. While commonly used for website navigation, the method can be applied to understand data structures for standalone applications as well.
  • When designing new products or major redesign efforts.
  • When creating a filtered or faceted search solution, or evaluating content tags
  • For troubleshooting, when other data sources that indicates users might be having a hard time finding content.

When is Card Sorting Most Useful?

Development Life-cycle

Card sorts are useful in the requirements gathering and design stages. Depending on where you are in the design process you may get more or less value from a given method (open, closed, reverse, etc).

Limitations of Card Sorting

  • The results of card sorting can be difficult and time consuming to analyze; results are rarely definitive and can reveal more questions than answers.
  • The results of a card sort will not provide you with a final architecture; it will only give you insight possible direction and problem areas.

How to Conduct a Card Sort

Card sorts are one of those things that are somewhat easier to conduct than to explain. Because there are so many variations, I’ve decided to illustrate the concept with a walkthrough of an actual project case study. I was recently brought into a card sorting study by a colleague of mine[2] who was working on a complex taxonomy evaluation. The project was for a top toy retailer’s e-commerce site. After weeks of evaluating traffic-patterns and other data, my colleague had developed what he hoped would be an improved new site structure. He wanted to use card sorting techniques to validate and refine what he had developed.

  1. Define your research plan. Our research plan called for some online closed cards sorts to gather statistically relevant quantitative data, as well as the rather innovative idea to go to one of the retail locations and recruit shoppers to do card sorting onsite. The in-store tests would follow a reversed sort, using the modified Delphi method. I.e. Shoppers would be shown the full site structure and asked to make changes. Each shopper would build off of the modifications of the previous shopper until a reasonable consensus was achieved.
  2. Prepare your materials. In the case of in-store card sorts, we needed to take the newly defined top and second level navigation categories and put each on its own index card. The cards would be laid out on two long banquet tables so participants could see the structure in its entirety. Single page reference sheets of the starting navigation were printed up so we could take notes on each participant and track progressive changes. We had markers and blank index cards for modifications. A video camera would be used to record results, and a participant consent form was prepared.
  3. Recruit Participants. Unlike lab-based testing where you have to recruit participants in advance, the goal for the in-store testing was to directly approach shoppers. The idea was that not only would they be a highly targeted users group, but that we would be approaching them in a natural environment that closely approximated their mindset when on the e-commerce site i.e. shopping for toys. Because we would be asking shoppers to take about 10-20 minutes of their time, the client provided us with gift cards which we offered as an incentive/thank you. Recruitment was straightforward; we would approach shoppers, describe what we were doing and ask if they would like to participate. We attempted to screen for users who were familiar with the client’s website or at least had some online shopping experience.
  4. Conduct the Card Sort. After agreeing to participate and signing the consent form, we explained to the participant that the information on the table represented potential naming and structure for   content on the e-commerce site. Users were asked to look through the cards and call attention to anything they didn’t understand or things they would change. They could move items, rename them or even take them off the table. Initially we let the participant walk up and down the table looking at the cards. Some would immediately start editing the structure, while others we needed to encourage (while trying not to bias results) by asking them what they had come into the store for and where might they find that item, etc. After an initial pass, we would then point out to the participant some of the changes made by previous participants as well as describe any recurring patterns to elicit further opinions. After about 15 participants, the site structure stabilized and any grey areas were fairly clearly identified.
  5. Fig 3 Card Sort
     
    Figure 3: Sample Card Sort Display: Cut Index Cards on Table

  6. Prepare the Analysis. At the end of the study, there was a reference sheet with notes on each participant’s session, video of the full study, and a relatively stable final layout. With this data, it was fairly easy to identify a number of recurring themes, i.e. issues that stood out as confusing, contentious, or as a notable deviation from the original structure. As in any card sort, the results were not directly translatable to a final information structure. Rather, they provided insights that could be combined with other data (such as online sorting results) to create the final taxonomy.

Additional Resources

 


[1] The Delphi Research Method http://www.iit.edu/~it/delphi.html

[2] David Cooksey, Founder & Principal, saturdave, Philadelphia, PA

Blog Post

An Introduction to User Testing

“You can see a lot by observing.”Yogi Berra

User Testing is an established method for evaluating the effectiveness of an application or set of design concepts. It involves interviewing and observing users as they interact with a system or prototype. User testing is commonly used to help validate an interface, resulting in a set of insights to improve a specific design. However, depending on the goals of your research, user testing can be used to elicit feedback from users about concepts that will be used to inform additional research.  From an implementation (and cost) standpoint, user testing can be as simple as a handful of users discussing design sketches on paper; or as formal as a sophisticated lab study with a dozen carefully screened users and a panel of observers.

The value and accuracy of a user testing study is not measured by the technology used, but by the appropriateness of the interview techniques and competence of the moderation. That said, there are a number ways to conduct user testing.

Lab Testing – User testing conducted with users in a lab environment. While lab configurations vary, the basic components are most often; a computer setup with additional chair for an interviewer, some method of capturing the session such as a video camera, and a two-way mirror for observers in an observation area. Some labs approximate a home environment with couches and furniture. However, a sophisticated setup with observation area is not necessary. The first user testing lab I created was in an extra office. It had been vacant due to the fact that it was an odd triangular shaped space. This made an observation window or other advanced amenities impractical. We got by with a desk, computer, two chairs, webcam, and screen-capture software.

Remote Testing – Remote testing is conducted with users in their home or office environment. The interviewer conducts the study remotely via testing software. Depending on the software used, the interviewer can speak with the user, see his or her actions on the computer screen, and view the user via webcam.  In addition to the sometimes significant cost savings when compared to lab testing, remote testing allows users to stay in their own environment using their own setup and so can provide more true-to-life observations. In addition, remote testing allows you to recruit users from diverse populations and markets without having to have them come to a set location.

Field Testing – The most accurate type of user testing is conducted by the researcher in the user’s environment. The interviewer may go to a user’s home or office and sit with them as they use the system, or even ride with them in their car to monitor mobile phone use. Field testing may not be practical or economical all cases, especially when testing consumer oriented products. However, it can provide additional insights that are otherwise impossible to obtain. Field research is particularly useful in a business context for testing operational systems such as billing or call center applications. It can be exceedingly difficult for users to give substantive feedback on transactional-type systems without using them in the context of their day to day work.

In addition to ways of testing, there are a few different types of interview techniques.

Task-Oriented Inquiry – As the name implies, task-oriented inquiry is when a user is asked to perform a specific task or set of tasks. I.e. “How would you…?” Researcher can then observe the user and ask follow-up questions about what they are thinking, and how they perceive the process (sometimes called the “think out loud” methodology). When conducting the study it is valuable to both observe and ask for the user to evaluate tasks. Often, the user’s perception of the process deviates from what the observational data shows. For example, a user might in reality struggle with a task, but then indicate that it was easy. Having both types of information provides a clearer window into the user’s mindset and what’s actually going on. Task-oriented inquiry is particularly useful for evaluating a system design and for validating against standard usability metrics.

Contextual Inquiry – Contextual inquiry is observational data collected as users use a system, i.e. user “show-and-tell”. In the strictest sense, it is a field study technique by which the researcher observes the users in their own home or office, interacting not only with the system but their environment (answering the phone, talking with co-workers, etc). However, the basics of a contextual inquiry can be used in a lab or remote testing scenario. The researcher asks the user to use an application or website the way they would naturally and then observes the user interacting with the system, for example: please show me how you normally access your favorite shopping sites. The researcher may ask some clarification questions as needed, for example:. I noticed you went to a search engine first, why is that?

Ethnographic Interviewing – A variation on contextual inquiry, ethnographic interviewing is where, instead of directly observing the user interact with a system, the researcher asks questions about the environmental issues around system usage. While this type of information is considered most accurate when directly observed in the user’s environment (i.e. in an ethnographic study), ethnographic interviewing can offer substantive insights when direct observation is either impractical or impossible. For example: “We’re interested in how you shop online. Tell me, when and where do you usually do your online shopping? You said you shop from your desk at work, how your desk is setup?”

Why Conduct User Testing?

  • User testing allows you to gather direct feedback from users and collect observational data that will help you improve your designs.
  • User testing will reveal the majority of usability problems before you release the software.

When is User Testing Most Useful?

  • When you want to validate the success of your system design.
  • When you want to explore the concepts and contexts of a potential system.

Development Lifecycle

User testing is often used during the early design stages to test concepts and in later design stages to drill down into the most successful designs for intended use. User testing is also helpful in the quality assurance phase to evaluate implementation details.

Limitations of User Testing

  • Tests are limited by the quality of your test’s materials and methodology
  • User testing will never be as accurate as beta testing or identify 100% of the issues that will occur in the field.

How to Conduct User Testing

  1. Define your research plan. A research plan for user testing includes considerations such as the goals of your research, what you will be testing, who you will be testing, how many people you will test, how you will recruit participants, and the mechanics of how you will conduct the research itself.  At a high level you’ll need: a participant recruiting screener, a script (more formally called a test protocol), a testing location, moderator, participants, and your prototype or live system. Your study can be a simple “friends and family” paper prototype test, or a formal study. Either way, having a thought-out, documented plan will facilitate the process and provide credibility to your study once complete.
  2. Develop a screener. A recruiting screener is the criteria by which you will select your participants. The screener is used to determine if a potential participant matches the characteristics and demographics defined by your research plan. The screener should not only disqualify users based on answers to questions, but it should indicate how many of each type of user (such as the number of users in each age range) need to be recruited for the study.
  3. Develop a Test Script. – A test script is the outline of the discussion and questions or topics the researcher or moderator will cover with the participant when conducting the test. It should include a full walkthrough of the test such as the welcome, purpose of the study, ice-breaker topics, permission requests, evaluation scenarios or questions, closing feedback and handing out any incentive once the test is complete.
  4. Moderator & Location. You’ll need to identify your moderator and testing location in accordance with your research plan. You want the user to be comfortable and feel free to respond honestly. A usability testing session is usually an artificial environment so it is important to put users at ease so they will behave as naturally as possible. Moderators should be able to be objective and ask questions to elicit feedback without swaying results.
  5. Recruit Participants. There are a number of ways you can recruit; for larger formal studies it is common to hire a market research firm to get people. However, you can build your own list of participants. Normally, you do not need more than five participants for most user research tests (Nielsen 2000). However, anticipate the fact that people will back out or not show up, and recruit a few alternates.
  6. Conduct Testing. Before you get started, make sure the participant is familiar with the environment and understands that you are not testing them, but the system. Follow the test script, but be open to actions that may fall outside the predefined activities. You may need to balance letting users go off on their own, with reining them back to predefined tasks.
  7. Analyze Results. Categorize your findings and bubble up relevant insights for your report. If you outsource testing, personally view all the interviews or review the video. Summaries are helpful but are only one interpretation; you’ll miss a lot if you don’t see for yourself.
  8. Schedule Readout. As with all user research methods, conducting the study is only half the process; you need to evangelize the results. After conducting the read-out, publish your documentation and let people know where you’ve placed the information.

Fig 6b Paper Test

Figure 6: User Testing with Paper Prototypes. Users are asked to describe what they see as well as to expound on how they would expect to perform certain tasks.

Additional Resources

  • Ethnio (www.ethnio.com) – recruit people from your website for research
  • UserView (www.techsmith.com/uservue) – Web based remote user testing tool
  • Morae (www.techsmith.com/morae) – User testing application
  • Craigslist (www.craigslist.org) – Popular community board to recruit participants