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Personas - enabling the design of experience differentiated services March 22nd, 2013

On my desk right now sit three research documents. Two of the reports have been carried out by third parties, the third having been created by in-house resources. On average the reports run to 60 pages. All result with a set of ‘persona’ that are being or will be used to inform design decisions in the related projects.

Each client clearly understands the value of having an insightful vivid view of their users having invested a great deal of time in getting the information they require to design experience differentiated services.

However each documents fails in its key objective of delivering a concise informative and importantly memorable picture of the prospective users we are designing journeys that support business criteria, agendas and goals.

Without further work applying understood best practice - the majority of which is typographical and information design - the content will remain impenetrable and unable to influence or inform the direction and decisions we will be taking whilst we collaborate on the projects.

To resolve this problem we have to take a lead from the following structural and presentational requirements of persona documentation.

Personas aim to support effective customer experiences

Design personas have become widely used as tools to facilitate customer centric design. A well-crafted persona becomes particularly valuable when helping the collaborating parties to focus upon customer needs. The following three collaborative design challenges are managed and facilitated through the use of personas.

1. Establish a common understanding of customers.

Web design projects typically require collaboration that involves multiple divisions and often more than one external agency. Regardless of how talented the individuals may be, they will struggle to act together unless they share a common vision of their target customer, his goals, attitudes, and behaviors. Personas simplify the findings of observations and interviews of real customers into vivid narratives that describe people. The clarity provided make them the ideal tool to establish a consensus view whilst fitting naturally into the decision-making processes of design and strategy teams.

2. Focus product vision.

When stakeholders with different opinions and preferences agree upon a common set of personas, decisions about what to design can be made in the light of how well particular pieces of content or functionality meets the target personas need.

3. Differentiate on customer experience.

Personas play a significant supporting role in defining the differentiation that a quality experience can provide. By highlighting what’s most important to a firm’s target customers, personas help organizations to be single-minded about satisfying customer needs. Additionally, by showing how a firm’s core brand attributes relate to its target audiences, personas can help designers to present applicable attributes in the appropriate way for those customers. Finally, when personas are applied companywide, they serve to align all points of the design, development, marketing, and support process on customer needs.

Best practice

Delivering these three promises can prove difficult without the inclusion of the following best practice. Personas that lack these practices struggle to communicate the findings and specific detail that support future design decisions.

Feel authentic.

When personas are crafted with content that’s accurate and believable, stakeholders can easily empathise with them. Rich detail serves to correct stereotyped mental images of who real users are provide the persona a three-dimensional quality.

Incorporate engaging narratives.

Most people find it easier to recall stories than to recite data points from memory. That’s why well-composed persona narratives help stakeholders remember the people they’re designing for. Successful techniques included using first-person voice — “When I’m not working, I’m almost always with my two best mates, Julie and Lauren. We go to the gym together at least three times a week.”

Call out the most important details.

Graphics, bulleted lists, and charts that highlight the most important information about personas separately from the main narrative help stakeholders keep the key points at the front of their minds.

Focus on supporting design decisions.

Personas are created to support design initiatives. Therefore, they need to be viewed as tools to help teams create useful, usable, and desirable online experiences. Each phrase used should contribute to the readers’ understanding of the persona’s needs and the constraints within which the ultimate design solution has to work.

Make it easy to find and use information.

Personas that make it easy to find and understand the insights they contain enable stakeholders to focus on satisfying customers rather than struggling to find information.

To meet these best practice observations we need to;

Insist on valid ethnographic research. Personas are only meaningful if they are founded in truth. To get to the bottom of how customers behave in the real world, there’s no replacement for observations and interviews. To avoid leading design teams astray with poorly founded personas, we must base our understanding and narrative on qualitative research - resisting pressures to rely solely on existing customer data.

Treat personas as evolving tools. When firms experience success with personas that support an individual channel or product, they often want to introduce the practice throughout the business — progressively evolving customer experience to a competence. Therefore personas should also be designed as modular documents that can be expanded to incorporate information on additional channels and aspects of the personas’ lives.

Information included within the personas should be tagged with dates and information on research methodologies. This allows firms to “retire” outdated information and ensure that appropriate insights are used to inform new projects.

My next step, take what’s been given and make it usable.

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