I know, you are probably thinking right now: “Alex is getting crazy! Of course I know my customer and my project audience!”.

No, I am not crazy. Fact is most user interfaces fail because they were not thought to be used for the right audience.

Customers tend to believe that their products have broader audiences than the reality. How many times have you asked your customer about their target website and have heard back “every person”? Sometimes your customers just don’t know about their real audience. In other situations, they are defining to you their dream customer instead of the real one.

Let me share a real case I had few years ago while I was teaching a user interface course in Brazil. One of my students came with a sample multimedia application and asked me to evaluate and provide him some reasons why the sales were not that good, although his product was very innovative.

Even before to load the cd in my notebook, I asked him about the project and his target audience. He briefly explained me that he was scanning top model (or girls trying to become top model, to be precise), shooting a video with them, and transforming the photos+video into a multimedia cd. Going further, I asked him the most simple question: who do you think is you target audience? He then promptly replied me: “models trying to sell their photo book in a digital way”.

Unfortunately, my student was wrong (as many of us are in several projects). He was thinking with his marketing side of brain. His potential buyers were the top models but, his product users were the agency owners/recruiters/beauty hunters which, sadly, didn’t use at the time (I don’t know if it change today) computer to view a photo or video book.

This simple example illustrates the importance of having a detailed persona page (or multiple persona pages if your application/website target is more than an unique kind of user), with the characteristics of a fictional target user.

Basically, the persona page has a profile with information about your real potential user. You can detail as much data as possible in this document. Things like gender, age, hobbies, equipment they use, etc. When built, this sheet must be shared and used by all team members, as a guidance during the development stages, helping you to keep focusing in the right people instead of bring unnecessary features to the end user (for example, maybe it will be not a good idea to have a multi-touch component, although it is brand new and cool, if your persona sheet tells you that your target user do not have a touch screen monitor).

Here go some tips on how to create your persona pages:

  • Find your real user group first (in my student case, the main group was people related to the top model business);
  • Separate potential buyers from potential users (using the same case above, top models were buyers, agency owners were users). Marketing strategies, and the overall user experience can contemplate a potential buyer persona, but it is another topic. For development, we will need only the user persona page;
  • When you agree about the correct user, create his/her persona sheet with as much details as possible. The first ones will may sound strange (I had problems with my first ones also, as I thought they were unnecessary due the fact I was convinced I knew my user) but they will be a valuable resource for your team and specially to your project managers, when your developer or designer come with a “very cool” feature that can delay your project in two weeks. Just reply them: is it targeting the persona we have? If yes, lets discuss, otherwise, keep the idea for a future project;
  • Deep down on the persona sheet. Try to answer questions like what is his/her equipment? how they use it? Is there any particularity in their work environment we should consider?
  • Share the sheet and make it mandatory during development phases. Again, the more detailed it is, less chance of change your specifications.

This a persona page sample I used while helping a friend’s project few months ago (my entire participation in this project, from conception to designing the final interface will be covered in the next topics, in order to illustrate how small teams of designers and developers can work together without major issues).

Let me know your thoughts and experiences using personas. Do they work for you? What you like (and dislike)?

Next topic: A Real Case