Should I use design personas or digital profiling?

Design personas and marketing personas (or digital profiles) are often confused. They can both be used to propel site designs to the next level but they serve very different purposes. Part 1 of this article describes design personas, whilst Part 2 explains the importance of digital audience profiling and segmentation and how marketing personas or digital audience profiles can be used.

PART 1

In both user centered design and marketing, personas are fictional characters created to represent users or audiences who might interact with a site, product or brand in a different way.

Ogilvy were the first company to use personas in marketing and branding whilst Alan Cooper pioneered an approach for using personas in software development.  Design personas and marketing personas (or digital profiles) are often confused. They can both be used to propel site designs to the next level but they serve very different purposes. 

Part 1 of this article describes design personas, whilst Part 2 explains the importance of digital audience profiling and segmentation and how marketing personas or digital audience profiles can be used.  

Strengthen your UX design with design personas 

Design personas (in the Alan Cooper sense) are often described as archetypes – characters with a clearly defined purpose and characteristics that will influence the journey they’d take through a website or the content that will capture their attention and service their needs.  Their purpose is to support story-telling, build user understanding and evolve designs.

It’s all about the journeys 

In fiction or storytelling, an archetype is a recurring character who has a key purpose or strong identity that unravels during the story. A great example is Gandalf, an archetype in Lord of the Rings who serves as a mentor supporting the story’s main protagonist, Frodo. He’s gentle, firm, familiar and wise, appearing in select chapters to advise and counsel the key player. His character develops as the story progresses and he becomes better known and more familiar to the reader – his traits and characteristics are reinforced through many interconnected stories. The same needs to be the case for design personas. Their characters can be brought to life through exploration and collaborative discussion of the journeys they could take through your website, using narrative to explore which features they’d adopt and the various pain-points that they may encounter.

Figure 1: A basic persona template for rich detail about user characteristics

Creating design personas 

Qualitative data from example interviews, contextual research and social listening are great foundations for design personas. Quantitative data can be useful too, if you want to data-back your personas.

A persona brings together common characteristics or behaviours observed in several different real individuals who all share motivations or goals.  A carefully researched and designed persona will help you to perceive design problems from someone else’s perspective rather than your own.  Ideally, you should have only the minimum number of personas required to illustrate the key goals and behavior patterns you want to change through design. Your personas should focus on why and how people come to interact with your site. For example on a TV, film and entertainment site, you may choose to characterise users based on their browsing patterns – those who just visit to browse and watch trailers, those who like to curate and plan their future viewing or those who love to share their TV and film tastes online with communities or networks of like-minded individuals.  

Using design personas

Personas are a great design tool when used in combination with other activities. They enable designers to focus on a manageable and memorable cast of characters rather than many individuals with diverse needs.  You need to be able to conceptualise the end goal that a persona wants to fulfil in interacting with your website or product innovation. 

  • Create future scenarios or narratives about the persona character, describing specifically how they’d interact with the website or product then tell and share these stories with your team. Exploring how different personas will use your website or software will really help you validate and reject design options.
  • Draw hypotheses about the features your persona character would actually bother to use, those which he or she would most appreciate and describe how they’d react to something new or different. 

Having first described an experience as a narrative, it’s much easier to plan and design the specific details of a user journey.  With personas, design exploration can be more lively, engaging, entertaining and even argumentative, as richer insights about how the design will eventually be used are shared during the design process.   

Design personas should be simple – they need just the right amount of information to bring observations and patterns identified in research to life.  Their most important role is to enable a group of designers to view and discuss problems from another person’s perspective. This in turn can support teams who want to reach consensus on a design approach or in stimulating new solutions to a specific problem.  Shlomo Goltz published an excerpt from a research study examining the effectiveness of personas and scenarios, in his Smashing magazine article on personsas:

Figure 2: An except from a Frank Long study on the effectiveness of personas. 

The study demonstrated that students employing personas and scenarios (the pink and blue beta and gamma groups) scored higher than those who used neither (the grey groups) in heuristic evaluations of their designs. 

In summary 

Use design personas when your users are different to you and to support collaborative design of features that need to work for users with different motivations or characteristics. They should be based on solid research – both qualitative and quantitative – which helps you to understand how and why people interact with your site. 

In Part 2 of this article, I will explore the difference between design personas and marketing profiles in more detail and explore how to use them in complementary ways.