Personas: Matching a Design to the Users’ Goals

by Christine Perfetti

We hear all the time from designers that they’re faced with the huge challenge of designing products and web sites for a large number of different users. Many designers tackle this problem by making the functionality of the web site or product as extensive as possible. To do this, they outline all of the goals of each user, identify any commonalities between these goals, and add all of the functionality needed to satisfy these common goals.

This one-size-fits-all approach worked for designers back in the days when the functionality of software and web sites was simple, with users confined to a very limited set of goals. But today’s web sites and software are vastly more complex and present designers with the unwieldy problem of trying to include functionality for thousands of users all with very different goals. In theory, by increasing the product functionality to account for many users’ goals, designers are satisfying a larger audience base. We’ve observed, however, that by trying to satisfy the needs of all users, designers often fail to satisfy the needs of any one user.

To illustrate, imagine for a moment that you are a shoe designer. To design for all users, it’s logical to design a shoe that satisfies the needs of the average person. The average male’s shoe size is 8 1/4. So, as a designer, would you build all of your shoes to fit the average man? Probably not. The problem with this approach is that even though the average shoe size of a man is 8 1/4, this shoe won’t fit most men who are part of your target audience.

Recognizing the pitfalls of designing for the common goals of many users, Cooper Interaction Design developed a concept called personas. Rather than designing for all people or for averages, the Cooper approach suggests that designers focus on the unique goals of a specific person to develop a product that satisfies the needs of many users. A persona is a profile of a typical user; it is a description of an archetypal user synthesized from a series of interviews with real people and includes a name, a social history, and a set of goals that drive the design of the product or web site.

By closely adhering to the goals of a specific persona, the designers satisfy the needs of the many users who have goals similar to those of the persona. The process is even more effective when designers design for several personas simultaneously, as they can satisfy an even larger number of users. Although designing for one to satisfy many may initially seem counter-intuitive, teams we’ve talked to who have employed it tell us it’s a very effective technique.

A financial services client recently told us that they had thousands of users, each with very different goals, coming to the site every week, and the client didn’t know how to approach the design. Our advice was to develop several personas, one for each major class of audience member. In talking with the client, we determined that they could get by with a couple of key personas: a seasoned investor and an infrequent investor.

First, we recommended that the designers interview members of the two groups to gain a detailed understanding of the goals each wanted to accomplish. Then, the designers can develop specific personas by combining the interview data in each group. Once they have a clear understanding of these two personas, they can create designs that match the goals of both personas perfectly. With diligent research and frequent iterations, we believe they would end up with a final site design that delights thousands of users, even though it focuses primarily on only two personas.

The hardest challenge for this client will be for the designers to focus only on satisfying the goals of these two personas and not be concerned with the goals of the thousands of different users. If they succeed, the designers will create an excellent design with a more manageable design process that satisfies the goals of many different users.

About the Author

Christine Perfetti picked up on these approaches, refined them, and started using them in her daily work at leading companies like Acquia and Carbonite. Not only has she built successful design teams who’ve created business-changing products, but she’s transformed a design team from a siloed group into collaborative partners. Her ability to bridge gaps and fuse product management with engineering will be evident in this talk.

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