Who’s Your Audience, Kenneth: The Value Of Personas

I’ve included a template persona. Download it here.

If I’m working with a client who has an idea for a site or application but he/she can’t identify the target audience (i.e. users of the site), I sit the client down and ask, “So who are these people that you want to make money off of?” The client usually doesn’t know. In an effort to define that audience, I do so with personae.

How important are they?

Your target audience affects almost every decision you may make for a website or application.

This includes technology selection, look and feel, interface design patterns to use, and the tone of voice the content may take. Personae are used by the business owners to define their target audience and can be used for understanding the application. It gets everyone up to speed from designers, information architects and developers to business users.

The personae may even affect whether or not you do the project at all. If your web application can’t meet the needs of the personae, is it really worth spending money at all?

Personae are used to enforce the spirit and direction of the application; and more often than not, are the foundation of a website or an application design.

What Is a Persona?

A persona describes a fictional character, or who your target audience is. Usually, personae describe five typical actors that cover 80 percent of the site audience based on demographics that can be ascertained from what the site is or what the competition already has. Sometimes that can be hard, especially if you are starting service that no one’s ever seen before or are defining a new market segment. For other projects, the personae are easy to define.

Take the Apple iPhone versus Google’s Android G1, for example. Who are using these phones? Does open source or cost of applications affect the customers’ buying decisions? Do they need or not need keys on their phone? So they like slick versus ease of use? All of these details would be used to describe the consumers that may, or may not, fit the personae required for your project.

Why You Should Create Personae For Every Project?

The biggest issue I’ve seen with many of the consulting and internal projects that I’ve worked on is that we didn’t have a single document describing the target audience for the website or application, because the client hadn’t done any market research. Usually, the client or the company wanted a website, and we built it regardless of whether or not it fit the target audience.

In absence of studies and other detailed information about target audience, personae are the first attempt to define a target audience and, thereby, any decisions made about features and functionality. In a few cases, the personae further defined the project that we were working on and those definitions radically changed the direction of the application or website. As a result, the feature set changed drastically.

Clients forget their audience shouldn’t be everyone, because an application designed for everyone fits precisely no-one. Think about it. Just how many 90 pound children like wearing an XXL t-shirt? Now, imagine telling your client this approach wasn’t going to work at all. That’s a fun conversation to have.

Personae not only define how the target audience should be approached in human to computer interactions but the complete brand experience. How you speak to a person with limited computer knowledge versus an expert is very important, even in email and customer service communications.

The personae can be written by the client, the web designer or the programmer. Usually, they are constructed by the information architect or business analyst. Most importantly, personae should be created by a key figure who has an intimate knowledge of who the design is targeted toward and can communicate each persona to other team members.

Who Should the Personae Describe?

Once we have five typical users selected, describe them in semi-fictional detail:

  • General Information:
    • Age
    • Ethnic Background
    • Occupation
    • Education
    • Home Life
    • Lifestyle
    • Activities
  • Web Usage:
    • Web Competency
    • Frustrations with the Web
    • What kind of information is hard to find
    • Frequent sources of information
    • How they find the website
  • Why/How Barriers
  • Typical Use Cases

It seems like overkill; but typically, we are able to fit this into one page. The amount of information to include should be enough to be intimately familiar with the personae as friends but not too much to overly define them (like, do they drink Coke vs. Pepsi?). For fun, attach pictures. Your co-workers and clients will identify with them as a target audience easier with a visual representation.

I like injecting a bit of humor here, because people inherently have a sense of humor. One project I worked on, we named the personae Jim Coder and Johnny Bedroom. After a few weeks, the personae became so ingrained that the developers used them in conversations. This approach defused a very stressful situation and made the project more fun.

If you can get each persona on one page, post it on the wall — everywhere!

Even the smallest websites benefit from at least sketching out who the typical users are.

Another project I worked on was a shopping cart for niche aftermarket automotive parts. The products covered six years of a specific make and model manufactured by an American automotive company, and the site was targeted as such. This is a potential audience of no more than 100,000 people, but very targeted. The result? The site had a mailing list of 6,000 members, and the owners sold the company for a huge profit.

Where Can You Find Information for the Personae?

One of my clients had the information needed to start detailed personae. The client provided us with reams and reams of reports based on focus groups that the company had done on their audience. Their target audience was a few hundred thousand people. Additionally, there were resources online that further defined who the client was targeting. The research did not extend to psychographics, but it was sufficient enough to affect project approach and design.

The result: detailed personae that the team could use to match just about any user. This included being able to walk into any bar or restaurant in the website’s targeted location and identify if patrons were the target audience and which persona they fit.

For most projects, this is not the case. The best way to go about creating personae is to sit down with the stakeholders and ask them, “So, who’s going to use this application?” After defining a target, use anything you can find such as web reports, similar applications and market research to further categorize personae.

If you are really lucky, meaning the client has money to pay for this, you get to do contextual interviews such as watching in the target market in its native audience. This can be everything from watching for just an hour to diaries full of daily activities. Most imporantly, figure out what the target market is doing, not what it is saying, by watching its tasks.

I usually research websites that are close to the feature set but don’t completely match what they are developing. For internal projects, we model websites after some stakeholders who we met in face-to-face meetings, changing the names and ages of the personae to protect the innocent.

What Happens If Personae Aren’t Defined?

Good question. What happens if you don’t know what the target audience is, and the application built doesn’t meet their needs?

There are studies about the failures of software projects and not all of them are due to inability to meet the target audience; but if ten percent of them are, how much money are we talking about? Millions? Billions?

I’ve been involved with a lot of software projects, and there’s nothing more frustrating than a project that goes off the rails and doesn’t meet the needs of the user. Money is wasted, time is lost, and we’re non-the-better for it, other than surviving another frustrating experience. We do learn from our failures, but we should have more successes.

But here is a better metric to use. A Standish Group survey found that the number one reason IS projects succeed is because of user involvement, stolen from Classic Mistakes Enumerated. That’s an old study, but think about it. If the target audience gets involved, projects succeed.

Number one reason.

End of story.

So, just how important is that target audience again?

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