Using personas for web and service design

ByMichele Ide-Smith

Using personas for web and service design

I’m a fan of personas. In the user experience (UX) field, personas are fictional profiles of your users based on research data. Personas can bring your users to life and help guide the design process. Giving your personas names, pictures, personal profiles and using believable narratives will help everyone involved in a project to empathise with user goals, behaviours and motivations in a very tangible way.

Personas have been used in web UX design for a number of years. Alan Cooper has long promoted the use of personas as part of his goal directed design method. I have recently been reading an excellent book by Steve Mulder on personas. Turning research data into personas can be overwhelming and I’d recommend Steve’s book if you want a really good understanding of how to develop and use actionable personas.

Examples of personas
Photo by CannedTuna on Flickr

Since working in local government I’ve found it difficult to grapple with who our users are and how they use our website, because our site serves an incredibly diverse range of users – in theory everyone in our area is a citizen and potential user of our website. Our users visit the website to achieve their own goals (e.g. finding out bus times, renewing a library book) and they also use the website with, or on behalf of, family members, friends or neighbours (e.g. applying for a Blue Badge, finding out about eligibility for social care).

It can be challenging when working with colleagues to agree exactly who the primary users of their service are and what their goals and behaviours are. Often we feel we know our customers, but in reality our assumptions are probably not always accurate.

As we starting doing more holistic service transformation projects it’s becoming all the more important we know who are customers are, what they want to achieve, what channels they prefer and how and when they use different channels. If we don’t, we’ll only be wasting effort and money trying to persuade customers to access a service in a particular way, that doesn’t align with their mental model and preferences.

So I don’t believe our personas can just focus on website users. We need to make sure they are rich enough to describe situations when customers might prefer to phone us or use social media, for example. But our personas must also consider our business goals, for example we need to try and encourage our customers to use cheaper channels (channel shift) where possible to reduce service delivery costs.

When reading Steve Mulder’s book I was really struck by his reference to how personas are now being used more widely for business strategy, not just by user experience designers.

“Personas are expanding from a design tool you use to decide how to implement a strategy into a strategic tool you use to help define a strategy in the first place.”

In a chapter on using personas as part of a business strategy framework Steve writes:

“Personas give you a valuable framework for creating and prioritising business initiatives, and a way to enable more effective distribution and alignment of strategy throughout the organisation.”

Steve Mulder with Ziv Yaar (2007). The user is always right: a practical guide to creating and using Personas for the web. New Riders, Voices That Matter.

Personas are created using both qualitative and quantitative data. In marketing personas are used to illustrate different market segments (although sometimes these customer profiles are called ‘pen portraits’, not personas). The Sport England segments are a good example of using personas to summarise and humanise market segmentation data.

So where is all this leading? We’re now starting to pull together research data and develop a set of personas we can use within service transformation projects. Which means thinking about which of the data we could analyse. The type of data we are looking at using to create our personas includes:

Thinking about Localism (which I posted about recently), our personas might need to be broad enough to consider preferences for service providers as well as channels.

We’re at very early stages in this process. And I think one of the challenges will be using the data effectively to create realistic segments and evolving those segments and persona characteristics  over time.

Do you have any experience of using personas for service design projects in the public sector (particularly for local, public services)? I’d be really keen to learn more about your experiences.

If you are relatively new to personas, here are some useful resources (although they are mostly related to web and UX design):

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6 Comments so far

PaulGeraghtyPosted on2:30 pm - Jan 2, 2011

Probably the most overlooked persona in #localgovweb sites is that of the Councillor.

He/she maybe checking something from their own portfolio/responsibilities or be a Committee Documents “power user”, who knows exactly what they want.

They use your site behaving as proxies for their residents too.

They are so few in number it is easy to just ask them individually.

They have so much sway about what gives in a council, that you ignore this group at your peril.

Michele Ide-SmithPosted on2:33 pm - Jan 2, 2011

Very good point Paul. I’m sure we probably will have a Councillor persona. We have involved Councillors (all 3 tiers) in user research and user testing when developing web applications in the past, particularly those that we know they use on behalf of residents.

John GoodePosted on3:51 pm - Jan 2, 2011

Great post. Love the reference to Kenneth Craik’s mental models too!

PaulGeraghtyPosted on5:46 pm - Jan 2, 2011

I guess the new persona for 2011 will be the visitor who just wandered into your catchment area with a geo-enabled mobile device, and wonders where to park his car/take kids to toilet/pay that darned parking fine.

Gail KnightPosted on6:24 pm - Jan 2, 2011

I love that you’re looking at this in relation to local government. It’s so easy to forget who your users are and just think about how you yourself use services (designers are as guilty of designing for themselves as anyone).

Your point about situations where customers may prefer to use other means than the website made me think about extreme users. At our inclusive design research centre we use personas to communicate ethnographic research. We tend to focus on extreme users, which in this case may be those that can’t use the internet, or are at a physical or social disadvantage, are looking for specific unusual information or perhaps even superusers, whoever they may be. If you can communicate and design for the needs of these personas then you’ll have met the needs of the rest by default.

Mike SoperPosted on2:59 pm - May 25, 2011

Here is me googling – Personas in local government – looking for some text and look whos come up top of the list! Great job Michele.

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