Using Personas & Scenarios in web design

Personas are an extremely powerful design tool, which help you to visualise an end-product that you can be confident will suit your users' needs by helping them achieve their goals, and help you test your success.

Why detailed personas work for web site design

Fleshing out your personas with names, desires, attitudes, prejudices and goals stops them becoming ‘the elastic user’. The elastic user manifests different priorities at different times.

Designers, developers, and businesspeople often use phrases starting "The user might…" or "Users might…" in order to add functionality to a product.

The problem is, because this fictional "User" might be a geek power-user at one moment, or an elderly first-time visitor with poor eyesight the next, the end result can be a jumble of features that doesn’t really suit anyone’s real needs.

Designing for personas is a great discipline, because it (at the very least) forces you to focus your design process on something realistic, instead of an infinity of possibilities. It also helps you to go beyond a site design that is only functionally complete, and visualise the qualitative factors that will really make a difference to success.

Another positive aspect of using personas is that they give you a way to empathise with your end-users and care about their experience, which can lead to key insights that improve the experience for everyone.

Primary personas

If you have several personas, it’s not easy to design for all of them and maintain a coherent product. The solution Cooper developed is to identify which persona or personas you have to design for, and then to design for them alone.

The trick is to identify ‘primary’ personas. These are "personas whose needs must be met, but whose needs cannot be met through an interface designed for any other persona."

Primary personas provide you with test cases that you can be sure deliver the desired results for the complete breadth and depth of use contexts. In simpler projects, they can give you a "lowest common denominator" whose needs you need to meet, but deliver a lot more besides: a way to model positively your site as it will be used in the real world, and to test design decisions with confidence.

To discover your primary persona(s):

  • Go through each one and ask "Do I have to enable this person to succeed? If this person can’t always use my site successfully, is it a failure?"
  • If the answer is "Yes", hang on to the persona for now. If not, discard them.
  • Then start comparing your personas in pairs. Consider their typical contexts of use, and imagine that there is a solution that works for each persona in their own context. You don’t have to visualise how the solution works just yet.
  • Ask, "Will a solution designed for the Persona A also let Persona B achieve her goals?" And vice versa. "Will a solution designed just for B also work for A?"
  • If you find one persona’s solution that doesn’t work for a different persona, but they will work the other way round, you can discard the persona with the less widely-useful solution. They are clearly not a primary persona.
  • If you find that neither solution is applicable to the other, keep both personas, because they might both be primary.
  • Keep comparing different pairs until you can truthfully say, "My solution must work for all these, but none of them can succeed with an interface designed for anyone else."

You will usually end up with one primary persona for each major user group, such as one representing consumers and one for administrators. You’ll create different parts of the site for different primary personas. Some will use the same pages.

If you end up with just one primary persona, that’s great. By designing your web site for this person alone, you can be confident that it will work for all kinds of other visitors. Because you’ve tested your persona against lots of other realistic personas, you know that his or her particular needs represent a highly reliable test case.

Designing with Scenarios

In goal-oriented design you play through a full set of usage scenarios for each persona. A scenario is a complete journey from first point of contact with your system, right through to a goal being achieved (hopefully).

You’ll use scenarios to test your site structure, to make sure it offers an experience flow includes all the basic elements your personas need to reach their goals.

Like personas, scenarios also work best when they’re based on facts you know about your real users, rather than imaginative guesswork. Can you find out through research interviews what are their priorities when they interact with the site? If you can’t speak to anyone who fits your actual target market, or someone who has been in that position before, you may have to rely on to creative imagination.

Building on the basic structure, you’ll iterate through your scenarios several times, refining each time to create a richer and more realistic final design.

For each persona, describe a few scenarios of use that will be typical of the way real people might use your site.

Devise a few realistic, typical scenarios for each persona, following the steps below, and record notes on each one:

  • Consider carefully the typical environment your persona is in. Where are they when they’re interacting with your web site. Are they at work? At home? In an airport?
  • What other factors impact the persona’s context of use? What speed of internet connection do they have? How much time do they have? What distractions are there?
  • What specific goal is driving the persona to interact with the web site on this occasion? What event triggered this scenario?
  • Picture the scene. What considerations will be foremost in the persona’s mind? What clues are they looking for in particular?

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