The Importance of User Profiles, Personas or Audience Archetypes

(written back in 2012, but re-published in 2017)

I lose count of the amount of times that as a designer I’ve heard responses from clients like “My wife likes the blue” or “James in accounting really liked the shadow you put in here” or even the ultimate in useless feedback “Can we make the logo bigger?”.

All of these responses are perfectly understandable reactions to plonking a design in front of a client and expecting them to give you something in the way of feedback.

The problem here isn’t in the presentation of the design, but in the preparation of the client and their mindset when evaluating the design.

More often than not, the client takes a wholly personal view, and the requirements of their audience or key users are cast aside or were never apparent in the first place. This is a difficult mindset to eradicate, after all if they don’t like the look and feel then it’ll be hard for them to understand that anybody else might relate to it or benefit from a function the client sees as useless.

One way to help appease this is to work up front with the client to create or refresh their target audience. Once defined, the target audience become your guides. Metaphysically guiding your re-design process like the ghost of Patrick Swayze, except probably less erotic.

I’m not saying personas should only be done to avoid useless feedback from client either. The benefits to creating personas are apparent throughout the entire design process. Alongside testing and other UX devices they help a great deal. Informing content creation or research phases, being the catalysts for creating user journeys at the prototype stage, informing design decisions, helping evaluate proposed features or even helping the executive team get to grips with a proposed direction for the design. The profiles will help a designer justify decisions, help a client understand them and hopefully help a design become more usable and effective.

When you mention “user profiles” or “personas” to a client, quite often there’s a shifty look and a shuffling of feet or a clearing of throats. This is assuming that the client doesn’t already have some sort of user profiling that was done with their original business plan or work in the past. Even still, they may be something that require updating.

The prospect of profiling their perceived audience can be a seemingly daunting task for your client. Without a shed-load of cash to pump wholeheartedly in to lengthy user testing and research, how does one profile an audience effectively?

The answer: Proto-personas. (props to Jeff Gothelf for introducing me to the term in his UX Magazine article a while back.)

A manageable exercise for putting together personas that are not so much based on extensive, expensive, and perilously pensive (sorry) user research, but based on gut feeling about audience, combined with expertise from within the field and existing knowledge of current users.

Remembering this is about your target audience is important, but bear in mind it may be easier to start with an existing audience, since they are people you should know well. Work outwards from there.

The persona format

I’ve noticed that personas can take many forms, from a 3 or 4 page document per user type, to a single sheet for each. Illustrated, photographic, divided in to question and answer format, divided in to quarter-page areas, or written as a few paragraphs.

The way you put personas together will likely depend on your client, or your own preference, but ultimately there are a few basic areas to cover.

1 — The person
Give your profile a name. Give them a personality, describe their looks, their life, their clothes and appearance.

2 — Their demographics
Where does your user sit demographically. How old are they, what did they study? Where do they work, what’s their income? What devices to they own?

3 — Their behaviour
What political party does your user support? Do they like sports? What do they do in their spare time? How do they use the internet? When do they see their friends and family?

4 — Their needs goals and fears
What do they worry about? What do they need (in general and perhaps from your company or client)? Do they have any concerns? What are they aiming to do in life? What are their personal and business goals?

All of this information will help you build up a user profile. You can also ask specific relevant questions. Things that are relevant to the client you are making the personas with. Perhaps “Is this person a decision maker?” or “Does this person use mobile apps?”.

These should help lead to a thorough profile — and boiling this down to a handful of key users is the first step. At QueryClick we worked with 5 key user profiles for the re-brand work I did. Prior to that I worked with up to 12, but between 3 and 5 is usually a healthy number. Once you have them in a presentable format, you’re good to review them and move forward.

What now?

First of all these users should provide insight in to the direction and goals for whatever work you intend on continuing with. If it’s a re-design, then how will that impact these users? You may find that once profiled, you realise some of these users push the re-design in a different direction. You may find some don’t even require you to re-design your site, and that something different is in order. The key here is that these user profiles should provide insight — and help you and your client to think from the audience’s point of view.

During design processes you should consider these users. Why have you made certain design decisions? How do these decisions affect these users? You should find yourself asking “does this work for [user name here]?”. Treat them like real people. Describe how they might react to elements — this should help you refine things from content creation right through to final creation of the site and beyond.

Remember that throughout the design process you will also likely discover new things about your users. You’ll realise perhaps some assumptions were wrong, and so it’s important to refine the profiles to keep them in line with discoveries about your real customers as you go along. They should be living documents.

So then when you place a design or an idea in front of the client or your boss, they might then consider things from their audiences point of view. “Make the text smaller please.” might turn in to “Well, [user x] has difficulty with his eyesight due to older age, so the titles should be a bit bigger and have more contrast”. (Let’s hope we’re beyond the days of having to put forward an argument for accessibility on the web).

Hopefully the time and effort put in to the user profiles means that ultimately when you launch the site, it should prove more proficient in targeting your desired audience, and satisfying their needs and fears. Not only that but any executive team or client will be on the same page as you with regard to goals and audience and the entire process should be far more effective.