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Personas: Matching a Design to the Users’ Goals

by Christine Perfetti
on July 21, 2005

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.