A persona, (also user persona, customer persona, buyer persona) in user-centered design and marketing is a fictional character created to represent a user type that might use a site, brand, or product in a similar way. Marketers may use personas together with market segmentation, where the qualitative personas are constructed to be representative of specific segments. The term persona is used widely in online and technology applications as well as in advertising, where other terms such as pen portraits may also be used.
Personas are useful in considering the goals, desires, and limitations of brand buyers and users in order to help to guide decisions about a service, product or interaction space such as features, interactions, and visual design of a website. Personas may also be used as part of a user-centered design process for designing software and are also considered a part of interaction design (IxD), having been used in industrial design and more recently for online marketing purposes.
A user persona is a representation of the goals and behavior of a hypothesized group of users. In most cases, personas are synthesized from data collected from interviews with users. They are captured in 1-2-page descriptions that include behavior patterns, goals, skills, attitudes, and the environment, with a few fictional personal details to make the persona a realistic character. For each product, more than one persona is usually created, but one persona should always be the primary focus for the design.
The concept of understanding customer segments as communities with coherent identity was developed in 1993-4 by Angus Jenkinson and internationally adopted by OgilvyOne with clients using the name CustomerPrints as "day-in-the-life archetype descriptions". Creating imaginal or fictional characters to represent these customer segments or communities followed. Jenkinson's approach was to describe an imaginal character in their real interface, behavior and attitudes with the brand, and the idea was initially realized with Michael Jacobs in a series of studies. In 1997 the Ogilvy global knowledge management system, Truffles, described the concept as follows: "Each strong brand has a tribe of people who share affinity with the brand's values. This universe typically divides into a number of different communities within which there are the same or very similar buying behaviours, and whose personality and characteristics towards the brand (product or service) can be understood in terms of common values, attitudes and assumptions. CustomerPrints are descriptions that capture the living essence of these distinct groups of customers."
Prior to this, Alan Cooper, a noted pioneer software developer, developed the concept of a persona. Beginning in 1983, he started using a prototype of what the persona would become using data from informal interviews with seven to eight users. From 1995, he became engaged with how a specific rather than generalized user would use and interface with the software. The technique was popularized for the online business and technology community in his 1999 book The Inmates are Running the Asylum. In this book, Cooper outlines the general characteristics, uses and best practices for creating personas, recommending that software be designed for single archetypal users.
According to Pruitt and Adlin, the use of personas offers several benefits in product development. Personas are said to be cognitively compelling because they put a personal human face on otherwise abstract data about customers. By thinking about the needs of a fictional persona, designers may be better able to infer what a real person might need. Such inference may assist with brainstorming, use case specification, and features definition. Pruitt and Adlin argue that personas are easy to communicate to engineering teams and thus allow engineers, developers, and others to absorb customer data in a palatable format. They present several examples of personas used for purposes of communication in various development projects.
Personas also help prevent some common design pitfalls which may otherwise be easy to fall into. The first is designing for what Cooper calls "The Elastic User" -- by which he means that while making product decisions different stakeholders may define the 'user' according to their convenience. Defining personas helps the team have a shared understanding of the real users in terms of their goals, capabilities, and contexts. Personas also help prevent "self-referential design" when the designer or developer may unconsciously project their own mental models on the product design which may be very different from that of the target user population. Personas also provide a reality check by helping designers keep the focus of the design on cases that are most likely to be encountered for the target users and not on edge cases which usually won't happen for the target population. According to Cooper, edge cases which should naturally be handled properly should not become the design focus.
The benefits are summarized as:
Ethnographic research has already been discussed as useful approach in computer mediated communication in the late 1990s even with a linkage to the concept of personae. Some designers feel that personas should be based on ethnographic research into users and should not be based purely on the creator's imagination. The use of ethnographic research helps the creation of a number of archetype users that can be used to develop products that deliver positive user experiences. By feeding in real data, ethnographic research allows design teams to avoid generating stereotypical users that may bear no relation to the actual user's reality.
The emerging field of inclusive design supports the identification of extreme outliers or edge cases to outline the archetype users as "real" users who lie outside stereotypical archetypes. Conventional persona creation is embedded in simplified averages,[full ] while an edge case persona thrives on diversity and uniqueness and describes personae needs in terms that are unsentimental, honest and candid descriptors.
In terms of scientific logic, it has been argued that because personas are fictional, they have no clear relationship to real customer data and therefore cannot be considered scientific. Chapman & Milham described the purported flaws in considering personas as a scientific research method. They argued that there is no procedure to work reliably from given data to specific personas, and thus such a process is not subject to the scientific method of reproducible research.
For practical implementation, Portigal has claimed that personas give a "cloak of smug customer-centricity" while actually distancing a team from engagement with real users and their needs. He argued that real-world stories and customer immersion would better serve designers to understand the needs of users.
A fourth problem with using personas is that some organizations are not ready for the methodology. Creating hypothetical users with real names, stories and personalities may seem unserious and whimsical to some people, teams or organizations.
In empirical results, the research to date has offered soft metrics for the success of personas, such as anecdotal feedback from stakeholders. Rönkkö has described how team politics and other organizational issues led to limitations of the personas method in one set of projects. Chapman, Love, Milham, Elrif, and Alford have demonstrated with survey data that descriptions with more than a few attributes (e.g., such as a persona) are likely to describe very few if any real people. They argued that personas cannot be assumed to be descriptive of actual customers.
A study conducted by Long claimed support for Cooper, Pruitt et al. in the use of personas. In a partially controlled study, a group of students were asked to solve a design brief; two groups used personas while one group did not. The students who used personas were awarded higher course evaluations than the group who did not. Students who used personas were assessed as having produced designs with better usability attributes than students who did not use personas. The study also suggests that using personas may improve communication between design teams and facilitate user-focused design discussion. The study had several limitations: outcomes were assessed by a professor and students who were not blind to the hypothesis, students were assigned to groups in a non-random fashion, the findings were not replicated, and other contributing factors or expectation effects (e.g., the Hawthorne effect or Pygmalion effect) were not controlled for.
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