Creating effective user personas

By Nick DeNardis - Wed, Feb 2, 2011-->

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General, Usability

Creating effective user personas

Last week I was in the Mango Languages office for a Refresh Detroit meeting and I noticed something interesting, two manikins in the middle of their space. The wall next to them was titled “Tom” and filled with all the aspects of their target user. I promised I would not reveal their secrets but it got me thinking about user personas and how effective they can be to get everyone on the same page. It gives the team something, or someone, to bounce decisions off.

tom 179x300 Creating effective user personasI have found removing decisions from the personal and leaning on data or something external is far easier to justify. Higher education is an interesting animal, very few campus staff the word “web” in their title but everyone feels like they’re an expert. It is both a luxury and a curse from having a decentralized past. As Web departments get more structured (centralized) the need to back up decisions beyond “we’re experts, just trust us” becomes greater.

When you think of language learning software Mango probably doesn’t come to mind, if it does you’re a unique person and they know this. They also know the ones who have discovered their software have been successful. Their target audience is a specific user type, a lot like specialized universities. Although it would be great if everyone came to your school, only a certain type of student is going to blossom and be successful at your institution.

Not just a stereotype

User personas are not just a type of person, they are the motivations and life experiences behind your target audience. Although personas end up embodying a person, essentially because an individual is the easiest thing to relate to, the description should not describe anything about their physical being. A photo, age and location are necessary to bring the persona to life but the core of their existence has to do with their life experiences and motivations.

I am including a few resources at the end of this article to give more insight on this, these far more experienced people have been creating personas longer than I have. They know how to create personas for any type of site, now adapting that to higher ed is your next step.

Starting out

To be honest, after seeing and reading all of this it really made me feel behind. Our department (like many I have talked to) has never worked from personas or seen any from the originally inherited design of our website. You may think the higher ed homepage has too many audiences to construct an effective persona, but I beg to differ. Hundreds of thousands of visitors hit and take an action on our homepage every day, there has to be some motivation behind the visiting and clicking.

Start out simple, use existing data and include everyone. Even if your Web team is one person you can start digging through your analytics to determine your visitors motivations. I can tell you up front your current students, faculty and staff cannot be ignored. There is no perfect amount of personas but I feel over 10 is too many, five or six is probably a good middle ground. If you get too many personas and need to removing some start with the staff then faculty. Unless your goal is to attract new faculty or staff they can overcome some hurtles that prospective and current students shouldn’t have to.

A great resource is the famous graph by Dr. Lene Nielsen which shows the 10 steps to creating effective user personas.

Bringing it all together

Have everyone involved write down what they think brings visitors to interact with your institution, what brings them to the website, why they click and what they want out of the experience. Then read them all out loud. After a handful you will start noticing some patterns, write down the patterns and work from those. Try to validate those patterns with Web analytics, paths through the site and goals. If you can get real students involved it can help out a lot.

Your institution might be attracting the brightest in certain fields with a high degree of internal motivation to excel. Or it might be attracting students who have a family and a full time job, they are going to class after work, need to have their progress monitored closely and their primary focus is to provide for their family.

Every institution is going to have different personas. The goal is to identify who your real audience is and build everything you do off the motivations behind their personas. Personifying the reason for the day to day grind can change the motivations behind mundane web tasks.

Displaying so all can see

Personas are not just an exercise to do with your team, print and take out again in six months. Your personas need to be created by all and embraced by all in every decision. The one at Mango Languages actually had a manikin brought in by a staff member. One of the points on the list was “Closest personality match in the office is …”. This may not always be a good way to add personality because people may start identifying the person with the persona, they may not always match.

Place the outline on a big sheet of paper or whiteboard for everyone to see. It forces people to think and re-think the persona. It is not set in stone, like people changing over time personas have the same ability. Displaying the attributes and persona builds buy in and enforces the importance of the end user. They are the center of attention, not the motivations of the hierarchy of staff.

Beyond personas

The next steps after determining who your users are and their motivations is putting them in to scenarios that force your designers, developers and content creators to justify their decisions. These scenarios put the persona in situations where they need to make decisions. For example, it is two weeks before classes start and “Tom” doesn’t know how he is going to pay his tuition, he goes on to the site to see what his options are. What is he going to look for? What search terms is he going to use? What is going to come up in the results? What office/person is he ultimately going to call? How can we prevent this from happening? How can we change his experience? Or can we do anything proactively? These scenarios give the staff basis for making important decisions on a website beyond “I think people are looking for events so put them higher on the mockup”.

Additional resources

  • Ten Steps to User Personas
  • Usability.gov - Develop Personas
  • Usability.gov - Create Scenarios

The content of this post is licensed: ©2011 All Rights Reserved


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creating, personas, strategy, Usability, user

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This post was written by:

Nick DeNardis

Nick DeNardis - who has written 27 posts on .eduGuru

Nick is the Associate Director of Web Communications at Wayne State University by day. By night he hosts the video blog EDU Checkup where he reviews higher education web sites live. Nick is an active member of the higher education web community and is an officer of Refresh Detroit, a group of web professionals whose goal is to promote web standards, usability, and accessibility.

Nick's LinkedIn Bio


  • https://www.labmonkeys.net/blog/ Michael Cousin

    I agree with everything here. When I studied advertising as an undergrad one of the best things any professor every taught us was creating personal images of the target audience. I still do this every time I take on a new client or project. Taking the demographics and psychographics that your target has and applying them to a fictional person helps the entire team relate to the target, even if you don’t fall into that group yourself.

  • https://www.tyndale.ca Andy Smith

    We were talking personas in our office a while back and came up with the idea of creating a baseball card set of our personas. We are a central marketing office helping everyone from the 17 year old prospective student to the 77 year old donor - understanding and communicating our wide variety of audiences can be tough. The cards would have a representative photo on the front and all of the “stats” on the back. These cards could be pulled out at meetings to review and get everyone on the same page. Sets of these cards could also be given to upper management to help them understand who we are targeting with certain decisions.

    Right now it is just an idea - we have been too busy to make it happen - but I’d love to try. The biggest decision is to whether or not we should include a stick of gum in the package!

    What do you think of this concept?

  • https://nickdenardis.com/ Nick DeNardis

    Andy,
    This is a really cool idea! My only concern is that the cards are too easy to put away. We started with printing large scale photos and placing them on the wall with their attributes. It keeps them in the forefront of everyone’s mind.

    If that sin’t a concern of yours then I can’t see anything wrong with it. It may actually be interesting to whip it out during a meeting and randomly pull one out to see how that user would interact with the flow of the site or application.

  • https://www.tyndale.ca Andy Smith

    Nick - agreed - I don’t think it should be your only solution but I think it would be an interesting addition. My problem is when I am away from the Marketing office - like in the boardroom - speaking with an academic dean who forgets that we are targeting this content/design to a 17 year old who has not spent the last 20 years engaged in the academic culture. These cards would be great to pull out then as a reminder of the people we are trying to get into their academic programs - heck, I’d even give them a set :)

  • https://nickdenardis.com/ Nick DeNardis

    Andy,
    It sounds like the baseball cards would work perfect for you! If you end up going through with it be sure to let us know how it goes! :-)