Imagine that you’ve inherited a large sum of money from a distant relative. After jumping for joy (perhaps literally), you soon discover that your windfall comes with two stipulations:
1) You must use the funds to create a new magazine, and
2) You are prevented from knowing who your magazine’s audience will be.
Clearly these stipulations present a challenge. After all, how can you produce a magazine without a clear understanding of your audience? The answer is that you can’t – at least not well. Yet companies attempt to do this everyday. It’s just that their magazines are called websites.
While this scenario and analogy may sound strange, it rings true. Because in the rush and excitement of creating a new website, companies often overlook the most important element – their audience.
This is a big mistake. Websites are communication devices and those who are being communicated to (the audience) should drive the website development process. The way to ensure this occurs is by creating user personas.
I know it sounds hokey, but hang with me for a second.
Remember that scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy slowly opens the farmhouse door (post tornado) to reveal an amazing new world in Technicolor? That’s what user personas do. They give your website a new dimension. They take it from black and white to brilliant color.
So What Exactly Are User Personas?
User personas are fictitious characters that represent the kinds of individuals who visit your website. These archetypes allow you to identify, understand, and communicate what the user needs. Ultimately, user personas ensure your website delivers the most value to the visitor.
At Rhythm, we prefer to develop user personas by interviewing stakeholders and customers. Going directly to the source helps us uncover customer needs, wants and desires. It also gives us an unvarnished perspective that can prove invaluable.
While user personas vary in complexity, ours typically include a picture of the individual, a name, and specific background information including education, children and hobbies. Most importantly, our personas convey a story about why this individual will visit the website, how they intend to interact with it and what they intend to accomplish once they’re on the site.
Taken as a whole, the story acts as a roadmap for our design and development team. It informs our website architecture by guiding our user paths and helps our designers by giving them user insights including products visitors use, how they dress, and what they do in their free time, which can greatly influence how the website looks. In short, user personas ensure that we’re not developing websites in a vacuum.
But Don’t Companies Already Know All About Their Customers?
Yes and no. While some companies have already created personas, they often speak to business goals. Although important, these types of personas rarely shed light on how an individual plans to approach and interact with a website.
Also, while clients typically think they know what their customers want and need, by creating user personas we often uncover hidden nuggets. Sometimes the process reveals new customer insights that can lead to new business goals and services. At the very least, the process of creating user personas helps our clients test and confirm their customer assumptions, which in itself is extremely valuable.
Perhaps most significantly, user personas can be useful far beyond a website project. By helping clients put themselves in the shoes of their customers, user personas can be adopted to inform everything from marketing and customer support to new service and product offerings. In fact, a case can be made that user personas are relevant to the entire customer experience.
In conclusion, user personas matter. A lot. In today’s dynamic business climate, they can provide a solid foundation that helps anchor the enterprise and keep it on track. After all, companies can be dropped into uncharted territory by unforeseen whirlwinds. And that’s no fun – just ask Dorothy.
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