We find ourselves over a year after most businesses adopted an all-remote workforce for the first time ever. Now, some organizations look to return to an office and incorporate remote work. For software development teams, it has become more critical to ensure we understand our target audiences—whether they be application users, clients, stakeholders etc. To do this you must employ the right tools to gain understanding and ultimately better customize your product or services to meet customer needs. To help with this, we are sharing insights gained from Excella’s Change Management consultants’ recent work on user personas with one of our application development teams at a federal healthcare client.
Step 1: Determine the Purpose of Your User Personas
According to usability.gov, the purpose of a persona is “to create a reliable and realistic representation of your key audience segments for reference.” The persona serves as a descriptive profile of the audience that interacts with your product or services and whom you would like to learn more about. Typically, personas are developed early in the product lifecycle to ensure that your product or services respond to the challenges and needs of the main target groups.
Excella has adapted the usability.gov definitions and processes with current and past clients with great success. At the client site mentioned above, our Change Management consultants were tasked with learning more about our users as the tool was in the early stages of development. We wanted to make sure that the development changes we were making made sense to users and that they felt comfortable enough to be able to use the tool on their own.
Before beginning to put together a persona, you need to define concrete questions of value about your target audiences. To figure out if you are in an ideal environment to start the persona-creation process, we recommend you ask yourself:
- What is the purpose of developing the persona for your team? Will a persona help the team more accurately and effectively design the tool around their needs?
- Has the team developed a plan for how the persona will be used? Have stakeholders or individuals in leadership positions at your company expressed interest in seeing the persona? Is there a strategy to radiate the information learned from the persona creation?
Step 2: Develop an Interview Guide
The second step in creating user personas is developing a Persona Interview Guide (below). Based on the insights and information you are looking to gather, outline the high–level categories. Our team found these themes to be most insightful to highlight:
- User background (undergraduate or graduate degree, field of study, geographic location)
- Main activities of role that requires use of the tool
- Feature Requests
- Training Preferences
- Communication Preferences
Next, you will build out your user persona interview guide with questions for each of these general sections for the user research stage. For our federal client, we identified 4 specific groups that we were interested in learning more about. In order to ensure that the personas were consistent across groups, we used the same guide for each interview.
After the user interviews, the team synthesized the major elements to identify the themes for the groups, which were incorporated into each group’s persona.
Step 3: Conduct the Interviews
“Your personas are only as good as the research behind them.” –Usability.gov
Before conducting interviews with users, be mindful that their time is valuable and that your questions should be clear and concise. The goal is to gather as much information as you can during the interview to inform development and your communication, training, and outreach efforts.
It is important to emphasize to participants that:
- the interviews are anonymous
- there are no wrong answers
- the feedback is synthesized into themes
- their feedback is valuable
Reinforce that the themes that are identified will inform future designs and iterations. Ensure a diverse pool of participants by interviewing users outside of the “power user” group which can potentially provide other use cases.
Here are some additional tips for conducting user interviews:
- Reference product usage metrics to identify top users if available or keep track of engaged participants in product or service communities of practice (if your team has these) to identify those who would be ideal candidates for these discussions.
- Consolidate themes between interviews.
- Ensure you are creating a safe space by assuring participants that their feedback is anonymous so that they feel comfortable sharing their thoughts.
- Limit sessions to 45 minutes to avoid overwhelming users.
- Do not overload users with questions.
- Record sessions with permission from users to ensure you don’t miss anything while you are facilitating the interviews.
Step 4: Design/Develop the User Personas
The value of a persona exists in its content, not necessarily in its presentation. However, we recommend considering using a design software to format and add design elements to your final persona draft. In the example discussed here, our team created different sections based on the themes mentioned above. We added anonymous user quotes sourced through the interviews and pull quotes to add dimension and personalize each persona. One of the most frequent comments we hear from users is that the most useful information they hear about our tool is how other others use it; thus, user quotes are very important. They add value to the persona and allow stakeholders using the persona to share those quotes with users in the future.
Step 5: Communicate Your Findings and Incorporate Lessons
After the persona is completed, the process is far from over. In fact, the last stage of the persona development process is the most important one! Sharing the persona with stakeholders and other parties involved in your product is where you will see the ultimate payoff. During communications with stakeholders about the value of a persona, make sure to highlight the main elements of the persona and show how they are relevant to the priorities of the stakeholder.
At Excella’s federal healthcare client mentioned earlier, we learned more about our stakeholders from their reactions to the personas. It was clear to see that they were excited about new insights learned from the personas. Additionally:
- Having a set of personas allows multiple stakeholders to be on the same level of understanding about their audience. The persona prompted new conversations about tool development plans because it helped the stakeholders understand the needs of users in a different light.
- Not only did personas give rise to new conversations about potential tool development, but they also helped our team understand the priorities of our stakeholders. Visualizing the diverse experiences and feedback we heard in one place helped our stakeholders visualize the top user needs and easily prioritize feature ideas. We learned that some requests were too far out of scope, while others sparked excitement and became top-of-mind.
Development Team Benefits
The development team gained crucial new insights into user behaviors and preferences through the creation of the personas. The personas have the added benefit of informing tool trainings around user needs shared during the interview process. In addition, we were able to use the communication preferences learned about each group we interviewed more broadly for other projects we had with the organization, so the insights weren’t limited to our understanding of users with regards to one tool. Since we were able to focus in on specific user behaviors, we were also able to develop user training more quickly. Thus, through this process, our Change Management Consultants acquired information essential to organizing future interactions with users.
The great thing about personas is that there is always a chance to iterate on what you have done, because there will always be more to learn about your users. Personas should be revisited after a defined period to keep pace with your users’ evolving requirements. We recommend that you align with stakeholders and establish a regular cadence. Personas are meant to be a living artifact and will become more robust and accurate with multiple iterations.