Originally published January 2007
Before starting any Web project it is imperative to understand the target audiences. The target audience may be existing users or, in the case of a new site, new users. User profiles (also referred to as user personas) are an excellent way to document and illustrate realistic sample users. User profiles are short bios or narratives about a user and their use of a Web site. These personas typically are concise one page documents.
Creating user personas is often the job of an information architect or designer who understands the target user groups and is experienced in creating these documents. However, in some situations it’s beneficial having the combined Web group or project team collaborate to develop the user profiles. Working as a group will force the team to focus on and understand the various user groups you are targeting. Typically how profiles are developed will depend on the size of the site, budget, and timeframe.
It’s important to make sure your personas accurately describe the target (or existing) audiences. They should be based on your current understanding of existing users (if they exist), research, user interviews, and the knowledge of content experts and clients.
A user profile should include;
- Computing and Web experience
- Personal Web behavior patterns (how do they use the Web in their personal time)
- How they will use the site
- Any additional site specific demographics (e.g. a Newspaper site might find lifestyle, location, race, etc. important)
- Stock photo (putting a face to a name)
Once the user profiles have been created they help to keep the project team and clients focused on the users and their needs. Information architects, designers, and usability specialists are trained to keep user needs in mind, others need a little help. Giving copies of these user profiles to programmers, managers, or clients will help them think about the users.
Web Personas assist in decision making
It’s very helpful to be able to refer back to the personas when functionality and requirements questions come up. Being able to say “Susan – our realtor, might have trouble if we implement it that way.” Based on our profile we know that Susan has little Web experience and has trouble with searching for information.
How many personas should be used?
There is no magic number. You want enough profiles to represent a wide range of users, but not so many that they overcomplicate the development process. Generally 2 – 4 profiles will do the trick. It is not necessary to create profiles for every distinct user group or scenario.
User Profiles and Scenarios
User personas can be used in conjunction with user scenarios to offer a comprehensive picture of a sample user and their interaction with the site. In some instances these documents are combined so that the persona offers the users bio and sample scenarios. This is a more advanced, but effective approach.