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Making User Personas More Useful

In the User Experience process, User Personas are created as “actors” who should drive your motivations when designing. Who are you creating the software for? You’re creating it for “Liz,” a workaholic freelancer you just made up off the top of your head as a potential candidate, or “Derek,” the Instagram-loving cyclist who fosters dogs when he can, and who you pulled right out of your imagination.

Personas have become a part of the process that we almost take for granted, as if the first thing we need to do is make up some fake people before we can get started on the actual work of the project. We understand what their purpose serves, and they remain an important exercise to put ourselves in the shoes of a user (especially when we ourselves aren’t the intended user). But are we getting the most from personas, especially through the entire life of a project, instead of only at the start?

Is there a way to instill your personas with even greater value?

Don’t Be Afraid to Be Realistic

We have a tendency to create for a binary of casual user or power user personas, but consider instead building personas from three different frames of mind – someone who loves the app, someone who likes the app just fine, and someone who isn’t sure they even want to keep it on their device. This is a realistic worldview, and it’s a fair one – not everybody is going to love everything!

For the persona who’s in love with the product, it’s probably because of one or two key features or pieces of elegant design. Their love distills the product into its best qualities. Think about how this user might tell another person about the app. What would they say in a sentence or two? Not your elevator pitch or the client’s, but someone’s else’s words in casual conversation when discussing how useful they’ve found the software.

The persona who likes it is a great study in details. Imagine a situation where you have the chance to sit down with them for a one-on-one interview. You’re going to discover small ways that you might influence this persona to learn to love the app. Maybe there’s a central common action they perform that needs to be spotlighted as its own button instead of navigated from a menu? Maybe there’s a frustrating flow that they forget how to maneuver every time they use the product? Your goal is to ease those pain points for this persona.

And how can you make the “hater” happy? Start by listening (yes, listen to this person you made up!). Get brutal with it – they’ve downloaded the app, looked at it, and are ready to remove it. How did you fail to connect with this intended user?

You might discover that the persona you created wasn’t the intended user at all, and that’s okay. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, if the discovery is that they may not be part of your intended audience, that’s still important information (especially for marketing later). If they are part of your intended audience, but there’s still a disconnect, then make a list of the features this user wants to see and evaluate their importance in the launch of the product.

Which leads to our next point…

Let the Persona Make Your Case

So, dissatisfied personas reveal that either design-wise or feature-wise there’s just something that’s not clicking with them. Maybe it’s a feature you considered when you started the project, that might’ve been shot down, or maybe it’s the constraints of a design decision that is going to cause problems down the road.

A user persona can carry any doubts about the project for you and your team. It’s one thing if a detail bothers you – you’re the designer; not the audience. Logically, you’re easier to dismiss. It’s another thing entirely if a detail might bother the intended user base. If you can let the personas affect the change the app needs, it’s doing do in service to the users, and not to your perceived design whims. Derek, the Instagram-loving, dog-fostering cyclist (who you made up) is the one who needs to be satisfied here. It’s your job to make the case that the changes you want to implement will directly affect him and how he uses the app.

Consider How the Persona Found Your Product

There’s rarely a point of origin explored in user personas. We assume they are just going to use the product, or are already using the product, but the “why” is often relegated to a problem that needs solving. For example, Liz, our workaholic freelancer persona, needed a smarter calendar, so she uses ours. All right, that’s fair, but how did Liz hear about ours in the first place? Why did she choose it? What else did she consider? Were we her first choice? Her last?

Evaluating how a person comes across your product naturally opens up a lot of thought about how the product might be marketed, but also creates more real world scenarios to work through with your persona. Maybe a friend told them about it. What was their elevator pitch? Maybe Liz saw a YouTube review. What screens did they see that sold them on it? Was the product as advertised on social media? What compelled them to give the product a chance?

Answering those questions might open up the product’s possibilities for greater social sharing, more compelling design inspiration, or a monetization strategy that entices ROI. Think about how we discover apps in our daily life and apply that toward the persona. Apps don’t just appear out of nowhere for us. We research, we evaluate, we take somebody else’s word for it, and sometimes we just download on a whim because a product looks cool. Thinking about how a persona might discover your product can have a positive influence on your design decisions.