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Chapter 4. getting to know your users > visualizing your users

visualizing your users

When you’re trying to build a site with your users in mind, it’s helpful to have an image of who they are. But user profiles, while valuable, can be hard to warm up to. They paint a picture of the user in broad theoretical brushstrokes and are often more useful to advertisers than the development team.

To really picture the user, it helps to build a story around them—using personas and scenarios.

You can visualize your audience using

  • Personas. Fictional characters who represent your site’s users.

  • Scenarios. Fictional, but true-to-life circumstances under which a typical user might visit the site.

creating personas

Personas are fictionalized characters, based on the user profiles you’ve developed for each segment of your audience. These characters help bring your users to life by taking the stereotype and giving it a name, a face, a job, and perhaps a dog—all the trappings of fictional characters that allow them to become real to us.

This way, as the team is developing and designing the site, they can ask themselves what “Madeline” or “Eric” would do, rather than just thinking generically about “users.”

Personas help tell the story of your site. And humans need stories.


Though slightly, well, cheesy, personas can be quite helpful for creating awareness and understanding throughout an organization. They help tell the story of your site, and humans need stories.

Creating a persona is relatively easy and fun. Start by giving him or her a name. Then fill in the details of her life, using your site’s user profile. Run through all the major demographic information: How old is she? Where does she live? Where does she work? Add in details: What are her hobbies? What kind of car does she drive? What’s the last book she read? Does she own a pet?

a sample persona

Name: Madeline

Age: 32

Profession: High school history teacher

Home: Palo Alto, CA

Married? Yes

Kids? Not yet

Car: Honda Civic

Internet access: Home and work

A high school teacher, Madeline occasionally checks email during her lunch break. But most of the time, she uses the web from home, where she and her husband have high-speed access. She uses the web a few times a week, to find source material for her lesson plans or research purchase decisions.


Be specific—and feel free to be funny! But remember to stay within the stereotypical confines of your user profile. Don’t give your persona too many unusual characteristics. They’ll just distract you from the bigger picture.

Once you have your persona’s basic stats down, you should think about issues specific to your site’s focus: Why would she come to your site? What needs does she have that aren’t being met? What problems does she need solved? Think also about her Internet use: How does the Internet fit into her daily or weekly routine? What sorts of things does she do on the web? Is she comfortable online?

Also: Does she have a spouse? Does she happen to have a spouse who happens to embody one of your other user segments? I thought so. It’s helpful, actually, to have your personas interact with each other. So, if one fictional couple happens to embody two of your user segments, all the better.

Finally, don’t forget to picture the personas: Find clip art or magazine ads with models who look the way you imagine your personas. Make posters with their pictures and descriptions, and hang them in your development area or throughout the organization—in the conference rooms or the bathroom stalls or above the coffee maker. They’re great conversation starters (and it’s OK if people laugh at them a little. No need to take yourself too seriously!)

lesson from the trenches: you are not your user

“You are not your audience. You don’t see things like they do, know what they know, want what they want, or work how they work.”

Mike Kuniavsky

When you’re building a web site—especially a site on a topic you know well and care about—you may find yourself assuming that everyone in your audience is just like you. If you’re drawn to the subject matter, and fit into the target demographic, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re the average user.

But you’re not. You know more about the topic, more about your site, and more about the web. This means you know less than you think about what your real users want.

This is one of the hardest lessons for web developers to learn. As author of Observing the User Experience, Mike Kuniavsky, likes to point out: “You are not your audience. You don’t see things like they do, know what they know, want what they want, or work how they work.”

Even if you do fit squarely within your site’s user profile, you still aren’t you’re audience. It’s impossible for you to figure out what a person “just like you” would think of your site or need from it. And if you make assumptions about your audience based on yourself, you run the risk of building a site that suits no one but you.”

“This is something I’m always called to task for,” laughs Lara Hoyem, senior marketing manager of BabyCenter. A parent of two, Hoyem says she tends to assume that other parents are just like her. She has to fight that impulse when she’s considering promotion techniques or content strategies.

“For example, I’m a minimalist in terms of what I buy for my kids,” she says. “I just can’t imagine why anyone would buy a bassinet. Why would you buy another piece of furniture? Just put them in bed with you!”

“So I have to remind myself,” she said with a smile, “Not everyone’s like you. Some people like bassinets.”

And all web developers need this reminder. Otherwise, they’ll unconsciously design the site for themselves.

“The most important thing to think about when you think about users is that they don’t think the way you do. They never do,” says information architect Jesse James Garrett, author of The Elements of User Experience.

“You’re never designing for yourself,” he explains. “You’re always designing for someone else. What that means is that you have to be able to identify your own prejudices and your own preferences and be able to cast those aside when you’re making design decisions. It’s a difficult thing to do.”

Indeed, it’s hard to set aside your preferences. Often, our biases are so deeply ingrained, we don’t even realize they’re there. Unchecked, though, they’ll shape everything about the site—from the features you include to the way the site is organized to the names you choose for sections.

Jargon, in fact, is a common problem on web sites, because the words used within an industry are never the same as the lay-terms that customers would recognize.

“One of the hardest transitions for people in a given business to make is from the mind of the seller to the mind of the buyer, and from the language of the seller to the language of the buyer,” says online marketing expert Hunter Madsen.

“So what you often see in web sites is jargon—sometimes hilariously piled upon itself—so that some higher concept for the product is articulated in the abstract, which is completely impenetrable to the visitor.”


However you do it, it’s important to spread the idea. The more awareness you build around the idea of these personas, the more receptive your organization will become to making user-centered decisions. And that, as you know, is a very good thing.

creating scenarios

To really put your personas to work, you’re going to want to create some scenarios, describing true-to-life circumstances under which they might be using your site. Scenarios should describe the situation that led the personas to your site, and the ways in which they use it.

It’s important, though, to get the whole picture. Scenarios should include all the distracting details that might happen in a person’s life as they use your site.

“Scenarios should be messy,” says usability expert Jeffrey Veen, a partner with the consulting firm Adaptive Path. “Just like real life—where the kids are screaming and the modem is slow.” It’s important to capture these distracting details, in order to stay as true to the actual user experience as possible.

“Don’t make everything work like magic,” Veen says. “Be real.”

segmenting your users

It’s a rare site that attracts a monolithic user base. Most audiences can be split into groups of customers with different needs and goals.

Creating a site that serves all of them is a real challenge. But by segmenting your users early on, you can identify the different ways people will use your site.

Not all users are equal. It’s important to decide which are the most important to you.


For example, let’s say you’re building a site for a crafts store in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Your first group of users may be Santa Fe residents who already come to your store and who want to check in on your new arrivals. Your second target group may be Santa Fe residents who haven’t found your store yet. The third may be tourists planning a trip to Santa Fe, and the fourth may be craft lovers looking to buy online.

Of course, not all users are equal, and it’s important to decide which are the most important to you.

Our Santa Fe store would probably prioritize the first group—existing customers. (After all, the people most likely to buy in the future are those who’ve bought in the past.) The store’s other priorities would depend on its goals and its assessment of the market. Is there a large untapped crafts market in Santa Fe, or should the store look outside the city to grow the business?

These are the types of questions that a site owner must answer as she decides who her site is for. By acknowledging—and then prioritizing—these different groups, you can consciously build a site that serves at least one—and probably all—of them better.


Keep thinking about the user!

designing for the user, p. 82

how people navigate the web, p. 111

usability testing, p. 129

typical traffic patterns, p. 248


action section: create personas for your users

It’s easier to build a site for “Lucy” or “Virgil” than it is to design for an anonymous “user.” Create 2 personas to represent your users, then spin the scenarios in which they’d use your site.

Persona 1

Name:

_______________________________________________

Age: ___________________________________________

Location:________________________________________

Occupation:

_______________________________________________

Income: ________________________________________

Marital status: ___________________________________

Kids?

_______________________________________________

More about him/her:

_______________________________________________

_______________________________________________

Why does she/he need your site?

_______________________________________________

_______________________________________________

Describe a typical scenario of him/her using your site:

_______________________________________________

_______________________________________________

Persona 2

Name:

_______________________________________________

Age: ___________________________________________

Location:________________________________________

Occupation:

_______________________________________________

Income: ________________________________________

Marital status: ___________________________________

Kids?

_______________________________________________

More about him/her:

_______________________________________________

_______________________________________________

Why does she/he need your site?

_______________________________________________

_______________________________________________

Describe a typical scenario of him/her using your site:

_______________________________________________

_______________________________________________


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