Take your personal data: age, sex, job position, location. Then add something genuine that tells us more about your everyday life: stories, quotes, anecdotes, computer usage habits and goals. And there you have it: a persona. According to Alan Cooper, pioneer of user-centered design, “personas are hypothetical archetypes, or ‘stand-ins’ for actual users that drive the decision-making for interface design projects”. We are not talking about real people, of course. Rather, they result from personal information pertaining to web users (or any high-tech consumers), collected through interviews and other qualitative research methods.
Say, for example, that we want to build a website dedicated to sports-car drivers. We could start by displaying cutting-edge images of some of the best car brands on the market, along with editorial reviews, test drives and news from the car manufacturers. But without involving the would-be final users, we cannot be sure we are meeting their actual needs and preferences. We could end up delivering something they can already find on the shelves of the newsstand: the online version of a printed magazine.
Instead, what about asking a panel of sports-car drivers what they like most in a car? Its unique style, comfort, performance or maybe the options? They could also perhaps add details about their own driving experiences: places to go, a picture of themselves in their cars, meeting with other sports-car enthusiasts? This and other qualitative information, together with personal data, could be used to make the profile of a web user (aka a web persona).
In the attempt to define a profile for our website, the elements that are most pre-valent amongst the interviewees combine to form the primary persona, i.e. our most likely web user, and the one that all designers and developers should keep in mind when building websites. Less prevalent details might instead define the secondary personas – users with different needs and web habits – even though they are still part of our audience. There could even be negative personas; those whose characteristics do not match with our profile. What is relevant is the rigorous method used to collect all this information. Here are the key points identified by the guru of usability, Alan Cooper, in his best-selling book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum1:
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