Design Usability

Personas: How creating user profiles can help inform design decisions

PersonasWeb design has a simple goal: to convey to the user the desired message in the most effective manner possible. An infinite number of design possibilities exist; however, the “right” design choices rely on the web designer understanding the audience.

When beginning a project, the team should determine the target audience of the piece. Once that target has been identified, it is possible to create a “persona” – aka user profile – of a specific (yet fictional) individual user to help guide the process.

Personas are fully fleshed-out potential site visitors that aid in understanding how the target audience may interact with a design. The persona should contain specific attributes of the “person” developed for the project.  The individual’s age, gender, profession, education, socioeconomic status and household makeup may be included. More detailed information specific to the project may include more psychographic information, such as the person’s interests and lifestyle.

After creating a persona for a “typical user,” the entire project team can reference the document to ensure that the website will resonate with the target audience.

Serving many audiences

Many projects in higher education have multiple audiences and goals. For example, recruitment sites typically have two extremely varied demographic groups: high school juniors and seniors, and their parents.

By creating personas for both the potential student and her/his parent, the writing and design team can have those specific individuals in mind while creating the site. Having personas to reference during a project helps the team develop navigation as well as justify design decisions to clients.

For example, understanding the demographic profile of the target audience allows the designer to create a persona for whom the cost to attend the university is an important factor. Armed with that knowledge, the designer can ensure that information about the cost to attend the university and available financial aid options is easily accessible throughout the admissions section of the website.

Personas are extremely valuable tools that give an entire project team — from project managers to writers to designers — an understanding of whether the final product will meet the desired communications goals. Disagreements about design elements can often by solved by referring back to the persona document. Further, developing a persona with a client helps prevent problems and solves others later in the project. “But talking about the cost is so tacky” no longer becomes an acceptable reason to “bury” tuition and fee information when it is clear to all that that information is important in the decision-making process.

Personas are an excellent starting point for a project team. This document should sit next to the writer as he/she writes copy; next to the designer as he/she makes design choices; and next to the client/project manager as he/she reviews the final product.

By Jaime Hunt

After five years as a reporter, Jaime Hunt “sold out” to public relations in 2003. Eventually Hunt realized that the best parts of her jobs involved working on the Web. After developing sites at two other universities while simultaneously handling media relations, Hunt accepted a position as director of web communications at Radford University. The recipient of 17 industry awards across various fields, Hunt loves helping departments make the most of their online brands. When not building websites, she spends her free time making stuffed vegetables, taking photographs of the Milky Way and trying to convince her husband that a third Chihuahua would be a really great idea.