Making Sure Your Users Feel Seen

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Marketers and content strategists create personas – or composite profiles of archetypal users – to help writers and designers make complete websites that are easy to use. In state government, personas are a great way to help your agency and its digital products align with constituent needs.

Personas are not actual people, but they represent broad categories of your actual users. It takes a little bit of imagination and a lot of real data about your users to create generalized character profiles that stand in for your website’s stakeholders and constituents. Basically, your personas have a seat at the table when you're planning and creating your digital products. They help us empathize, reminding us of our users’ needs, experiences, and motivations.

The most effective personas are developed through a process of data analysis, research, surveys, and interviews with real users. We have worked with many state agencies over the years where creating user personas was foundational to understanding technology requirements, designing an effective user experience (UX), and writing concise content. We are happy to partner with agencies to create personas as part of a larger website project or as a stand-alone effort to better align agency staff with users.

We imagine ourselves illuminating a path forward with exactly the right wayfinding words and icons.

In 2019, we were asked by the Georgia Public Safety Training Center (GPSTC) to develop personas as the center prepared for a website redesign. We’ll check back in with them and revisit the project later in this column. But first, let’s do a little mythbusting:

Myths about Personas

When creating a website and creating content, one of the most important steps is understanding your audience. That’s where personas come in. However, there are some myths about website personas that can trip up even the most experienced writers and web developers. Let’s dispel some of those myths right now!

Myth #1: You only need one persona per website

Fact: Depending on the size and scope of your website, you’ll likely need more than one persona. For example, a small agency website or agency division page might only need 2 or 3 personas, while a larger site could have dozens. The key is to make sure that each persona represents a distinct group of users with different needs that your website has to address.

Myth #2: Personas are static

Fact: Just like your user base, personas can change over time. As your target audience's needs evolve, so too should your personas. That's why it's important to revisit your personas periodically and update them as necessary.

Myth #3: You can create personas without talking to real users

Fact: One of the biggest mistakes you can make when creating personas is basing them solely on assumptions rather than real data. If you want your personas to be accurate, you need to talk to real users about who they are and what they want. The best way to do this is through user interviews and surveys.

Using Personas in Website Design

There are two main ways to use personas in website design: as part of the UX process and as part of content strategy.

In UX design, personas help us focus on the needs of users at each click through a website. We call this the user journey, and we imagine ourselves illuminating a path forward with exactly the right wayfinding words and icons. The goal is for users to find what they are looking for, and complete whatever business they came to do as quickly and frictionless as possible.

In content strategy, personas help determine what kind of content will resonate with the audience and what kind of tone to use. 

Creating Effective Personas

There are a few different methods for creating personas. The most important part is that they’re based on real data. You can use surveys, interviews, focus groups, and even analytics to gather data about your target users. Ask yourself:

  • Who are your target users?
  • What are their needs?
  • What motivates them?
  • What might prevent them from using your site?

To get started, you can either hold a brainstorming session with your team or survey your target users directly. Once you have some initial ideas, fleshing out your personas becomes a matter of giving them descriptive names, ages, occupations, etc. The goal is to make them as realistic as possible so that you can better understand how they would interact with your site.

We created 6 personas for our own customers, and we regularly share them with our vendors so that we’re on the same page about who we’re working for. At times when we feel stuck and are having a hard time thinking of the right solutions, we recall Driven Debbie or Tired Tina out. It helps us refocus on the mission and sparks creativity. Here are a few things we’ve learned by doing this over the years:

Use secondary research to supplement your persona research. Persona research should not be conducted in a vacuum. In addition to conducting primary research (interviews, surveys, focus groups), it is also important to review existing data about your users. This may include website analytics, call center data, and customer service reports. Hard numbers provide the backbone for accurate personas.

Be specific when describing your persona’s demographics: It is not enough to simply say that your persona is “a middle-aged man” or “a young professional.” You should include as much specific detail as possible when describing your persona’s demographics including age, gender, race/ethnicity, education level, income level, geographic location, etc. The more specific you are, the easier it will be for others to understand who your persona is and what their needs are.

Describe your persona’s goals in detail: When writing your persona’s goal statements, it is important to use language that is specific and measurable. For example, instead of saying that your persona “wants to learn about XYZ topic,” you should say “to find information about XYZ topic in order to be able to <insert a specific task> within 3 minutes or less without having to click more than 2 times.” This type of specific and measurable language will help you (and others) better understand what your persona is trying to accomplish.

Describe your persona’s needs in detail: Just as with goal statements, use language that is specific and measurable. Again, this type of specificity will help improve communication among team members and make it easier to design solutions that meet user needs.

The Benefits of Using Personas

Including personas in your website design has several benefits, such as:

  • Helping you empathize with your users
  • Improving communication between team members
  • Focusing your efforts on what's important
  • Reducing the risk of building features or writing content that no one will use or need

And those are just a few! If you're looking for more proof that personas are worth the investment, check out the following case study of our work with the GPSTC in which we worked with them to develop personas during a complete website redesign.

Quick Case Study: Georgia Public Safety Training Center

GPSTC asked us to help them develop personas as they prepared for a redesign of their website. Even though GPSTC isn’t on GovHub, the center wanted to leverage our expertise in content strategy and user-centered design.

GPSTC knew their site had an overwhelming amount of information, but they didn’t know how to start sorting, organizing, and restructuring it. Our team spent time at the GPSTC headquarters in Forsyth learning about their users and developed personas based on the gathered data. The purpose of the project was to help GPSTC understand their site’s audience. At the time, the site was full of helpful content, but it wasn’t organized for users to intuitively find what they need. Like many agencies, the GPSTC team gets a lot of phone calls about information that is already on their website. Perhaps a better organized website could eliminate some of those phone calls? We set out to develop personas of their users so they’d know how to prioritize their content. 

We discovered that their homepage was not focused on the user’s needs. For example, the most valuable areas of the site – above the scroll of the home page – didn’t have the most sought content, which created uncertainty and confusion as soon as users arrived. We developed 4 user personas, a new information architecture (IA) plan for their website, other homepage recommendations, and general best practices for usability.

Several months later, after GPSTC’s site redesign launched, we returned to see how well their new site performed for their users.

Referring back to the personas – which included trainers, firefighters, and law enforcement officers – we created some real-world tests and recruited users to watch how they interacted with the site. Usability tests asked participants to find a particular GPSTC location, contact a specific GPSTC division, and register for training. We observed how those users interacted with the site and how easily they completed the tasks.

The results? Testers agreed that the new site felt trustworthy and was not confusing, even to those who were familiar with the old site. They easily found the information they needed.

Key Takeaways

Personas play a key role in making design and content decisions for your website. By considering the needs of different types of users, you can create a better overall experience for everyone who visits your site. What's more, using personas can help improve communication between team members and focus your efforts on what's truly important.

If you think your agency could benefit from developing personas, we encourage you to reach out and we’ll be happy to share more about our process or even help you get started.

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