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Do I Need a User Persona? Walking the Users Path

An expertly developed user persona can be expensive.  Because they are fictional representations of real people, their value comes into question.

They say if you want to know what someone’s personal experience is like, take a walk in their moccasins. Unfortunately, when it comes to website and application testing, walking various user paths is often out of scope or saved for the future, which is too late.

To give you an idea of cost, the first time I was asked to apply user personas for a major website redesign, the company paid an enormous amount of money for four user personas.  The pages arrived in a large cardboard box about 8 inches high with glossy photos and lots of text. That was 16 years ago.

User personas are essentially like actors in a play.  Each persona is applied in various ways by designers, developers, project managers and software QA testers, with the main goal of predicting how each persona would use a website or application.  This is the leading reason why there is some debate about their validity, since nothing beats watching real people to learn how they conduct tasks. Hence, the rise in user testing.

User testing is expensive too. There are companies that specialize in it.  Their approaches are different and sometimes not helpful.  Asking a stranger to conduct tasks on a website brings back different feedback from someone the website is intended for. You’re not looking for “Do you like how it looks?” feedback.  You want to know if your website or application delivered what your target user needs. It is recommended to hire a company or consultant that specializes in remote or lab user testing because they have the proper tools, are trained in the right questions to ask and know how to discuss a project objectively without influencing the test subject.

User personas are created by SEO’s and usability professionals as tools to help with understanding searcher and user behavior.  When your team gathers for discussions regarding design, user personas act as guides to help determine everything from color choices to how to design for certain computer devices or environments.

For example, if you sell fitness products, that topic may come up within a small group of people at a dinner gathering.  One possible user behavior may be that someone pulls out a cell phone, asks Google a question about the fitness product, finds the content and shows the product image to the group. A user persona who wears reading glasses will have a different user experience from the person who can see.

That one task raises considerations for page load time, having a good phone connection, the lighting of the room, and if there are steps to follow, can this be done in an environment where there are distractions?  The user persona created for this may not be used to their cell phone, or had too much to drink. How would a designer improve their user experience? What do they need to do for mobile design, accessibility and older model cell phones? What about the user persona who is older?  Cognition, scanability and readability are now considerations for the design team.

What Would Specific Users Do?

The failure to accurately design for your target market can result in low conversions. In one example, I was assigned to audit a website for an expensive, high end, designer brand product.  The company decided to target people under the age of 18 who wanted to “look cool”.  The messages on the site were gritty and angry, raw and emotional. The two main colors were red and black. The language was crude at times. This was all fine, but they were not selling their products.  The user persona I created to help them understand why was of a mother whose son does not have a credit card, but wanted her to buy him the product.  She was put off by the images and language. I pointed out that even if she overlooked that, the point is that young people under the age of 18 don’t often have access to credit cards or at the time, PayPal, so even if they wanted to buy the product, they had little means to do so.

To make user personas affordable and helpful as testing tools, I created what I call “user characters”. They can be based on a company’s known or intended demographics.  For a redesign, there is usually existing data to pull from.  Using what is known as the “story teller technique”, I create a user persona by giving it a gender, life story, a bit of mental or emotional behavior, age, culture, family, any physical limitations and essentially let that user character “act out” tasks on a website or application. I feed in what I know from various case studies in human computer behavior to help companies understand the decisions the user character is making.

I like to think outside the box sometimes too and allow my user character to struggle or do something unexpected.  It depends on the type of website. One time I created a story for a company that manufactured parts for small private airplanes and I assigned the administrative assistant to a CEO to use the site   She knew nothing about planes, but her boss asked her to find a specific part for his.  What did she face? Did she abandon the task?  Did the website attempt to help someone who doesn’t understand the terminology?

When several user stories are worked into the design process, they provide insight and get discussions going by the whole team.  This is especially helpful in situations where everyone is familiar with the products and services and no longer recall what it is like to be new.  It’s easy to forget things like value proposition when you already know. Finding content is easier when you already understand the lingo. Younger developers and site owners have little idea what the experience is like for sight impaired people or someone with ADHD. Even a temporary hand injury makes using a keyboard or mouse difficult. What does the team need to do to design for those people?  Every conversion counts, especially when your competitor already is designing for inclusion and accessibility.

User personas should never replace user testing. Both are recommended during the design and development cycle rather than waiting until your website or application is launched. User behavior is part of your website’s business requirement and therefore research into how your specific target market conducts tasks, searches for information and makes decisions is part of site planning.  There’s information available from several organizations as well as case studies to help you choose best practices that fit your target market. A skilled usability person on your team is valuable for not only their knowledge and guidance, but for their role as the scout person who is always looking for new trends, studies and design techniques that might be applicable for your project.

Accessibility Updates

For those implementing ARIA, the latest proposed W3C recommendations were released November 2, 2017.  Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA) 1.1 

For those following the proposed amendment to the Americans With Disabilities Act, H.R. 620, which prohibits civil actions by disabled persons who find themselves prevented access to any business, including websites, the latest sponsors are Republicans 72 and 11 Democrats. It has passed the House Judiciary Committee. A reversal of the ADA, passed in 1990, this bill is intended to allow businesses a waiting period if they are notified of their failure to meet legal obligations before they must begin removing barriers preventing Americans with disabilities access. The burden falls on the disabled population, making it permissible for businesses to not provide any accommodations for handicapped persons unless there is a complaint. In addition, despite a span of over 20 years in which businesses were expected to be accessible, H.R. 620 is intended to spend millions to educate businesses and develop alternative procedures for handling complaints. As the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Rights Task Force and other civil rights organizations wrote in opposing this bill, “We know of no other law that outlaws discrimination but permits entities to discriminate with impunity until victims experience that discrimination and educate the entities perpetrating it about their obligations not to discriminate.”

Popular Article on Usability

Alan Cooper wrote a thoughtful and well received article called “The Endless Battle: User-centered versus designer-centered”Â 

“So, practitioners do “design thinking,” or “user experience,” or “product design,” or “service design,” or “product strategy,” but not user-centered interaction design. The word soup just reflects how we have let our mission and our effectiveness drain away. It creates hidey holes for weak performers. It delivers cleverness and coolness and flashy demos, but it probably won’t deliver satisfied users. When that happens, the bean counters will get wise, and they will call an end to the party. There will be resentment and anger. The money people will close the spigot. To paraphrase a popular TV show, backlash is coming.”







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