For each of your product’s user segments, you will want to write up a brief description of those users in terms of their characteristics, general tasks, and usability requirements. One way to approach this task is to use personas, a modelling technique first introduced by author Alan Cooper.
A persona or user persona is a brief textual description of a fictional character who is representative of a stereotypical user in a user segment. The persona describes some invented personal details about the character, explains in general terms what they do with the product, discusses the context or environment in which they use the product, and mentions some of the problems, frustrations, and concerns that they might face.
You should invent a fictional name and a descriptive title for each persona; for example, Carol Jones, insurance adjuster, or Bob Davis, middle-aged man wishing to book a family vacation. To make the persona more tangible and memorable, you might also include a photograph (perhaps selected from a stock photo repository).
For example, a sample persona for a new word processing product might be as follows:
Example persona: Alice Smith, aspiring first-time novelist
Alice is 29 years old, divorced, and has a two-year-old daughter. She has a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from a state university, and currently works full-time as a marketing assistant for a major pharmaceutical firm. Alice sees herself as a very artistic person, and dislikes the fact that her corporate job offers no real opportunities to express herself creatively. She is particularly passionate about reading historical fiction, and so she now wishes to pursue her long-time dream of writing her own novel in this genre.
Because of her job and child-care responsibilities, Alice tries to get her writing done in small blocks either early in the morning, or late in the evening after she has put her daughter to bed. On weekends, she enjoys writing while sitting in her favorite coffee shop. She is frustrated it takes her a lot of time to get warmed up and into the “flow” of writing, and because she only has short windows of time to work on her book, she doesn’t feel that she is making very good progress.
Alice is currently using Microsoft Word on her MacBook laptop, but she is finding it difficult to organize her notes, plan out her plot structure, and generate an outline. She has character and plot notes and multiple chapters spread across multiple Word documents, as well as hand-written notes in a notebook and on various loose scraps of paper, and switching between these is becoming a hassle. She feels she could be more productive if she could just get a better handle on organizing all of her project materials.
She would like to have her novel published by a big-name publisher, but she knows that this is difficult for a first-time fiction author. She is considering self-publishing but has not had an opportunity to research what is involved, and she is particularly worried about the costs involved. She would also like to make her novel available on e-book readers like the Kindle, but she is unsure of how to convert her manuscript to an e-book format and get it listed on major booksellers’ sites like Amazon.com.
The advantage of personas is that they help your team develop a shared understanding of the requirements of each user segment, and they encourage empathy with the end users of your product. By bringing to life someone from each user segment, with a human name and face, designers can design specifically with that particular user in mind. When designing a task flow or a screen, you might ask, “How would Alice want this information presented?” or “How would Alice react in this situation?”
Personas can also help focus usability tests and evaluations. For preliminary evaluations of a prototype, tests could be carried out by somebody pretending to act in the role of the persona, or at least with that persona in mind. (Of course, it is preferable to involve real users from the user segments, but this is not always possible.)
You can also use the personas to prioritize the requirements. For instance, one release could concentrate on the core features needed by the Alice persona, and then next release could concentrate on another persona.
Personas are not without criticism; many people find the invention of fictional names and personal details to be highly gimmicky. Trying to represent a diverse user segment with a single persona runs the risk that the persona doesn’t accurately represent a large percentage of the members of the user segment. And if you try to write up personas without ever actually investigating or speaking to real live users, these completely hypothetical personas may have no relation to reality.