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Understanding User Needs: Creating the User Persona

Project success hinges on creating a solution that ultimately meets the user’s needs. Oftentimes there is a large population of users for whom a solution is targeted, each having various needs, desires and tendencies that must be accounted for in the project solution. In order to achieve a successful solution, it is crucial to define classes of users whose needs must be addressed, and to understand the needs of each of those user classes. One way of doing so is to create a persona for each user class that is identified: a representation of the similar characteristics and needs within that group. Personas can be textual descriptions of a hypothetical person within a user class. However, in this example, we will represent personas through the use of a visual model.

To demonstrate the use of this methodology, we will use the following example:

A publishing company, whose core product is editorial content distributed through the web, is investing a significant amount of resources to recreate the brand’s website. The main revenue source of the company is advertising. Additional revenue is generated through paid subscriber content.

Identifying User Classes
Given the impossibility of analyzing the needs of every individual within a user population, you must group users into classes with similar characteristics and needs. The way that users are classed can change from project to project, but it’s typically good to consider daily tasks, feature usage and frequency of usage to distinguish various user groups. Once user classes are identified, select representatives from each group and extract key elements of their perspective through your selected elicitation method (commonly the one-on-one interview). In order to maintain a level of consistency across interview findings, be sure to structure each elicitation session around a common questionnaire, and record responses from each individual in a way that makes it easy to compare the similarities and differences between each interview. It is helpful to create an elicitation response matrix in Excel with interview questions in the first column, and details from each interviewee’s individual responses in additional columns to the right. It is important to note that an individual often wears many hats in an organization; one individual may fall under multiple user classes, depending on the various roles they play within the company.

In our publishing example, the various user classes might be:
• Editorial Staff
• Consumer Marketing Dept
• Advertising Dept
• Production Dept
• Customer

The Stakeholder Diagram
The Stakeholder Diagram is a visual model that can be a particularly useful tool for documenting user attributes in a consolidated place. You can create a Stakeholder Diagram in Excel; dedicate a row to each user group, and include the following columns to describe each user class: responsibilities, interests, success criteria, concerns, and constraints. Below is an example of what the Stakeholder Diagram might look like for just a few user classes from our publishing example (click to enlarge).

Stakeholder Diagram_Blog post 1.7

The mapping of these user class attributes creates a user persona that can be used to easily analyze the similarities and differences among groups, and to identify any conflicts that must be resolved before developing a product concept. In this example, you can see there is a fundamental difference between the Editorial Staff users and the Consumer Marketing users: the former wants as much exposure as possible with little barrier to entry for content viewers, while the latter is concerned with subscriber revenue and limiting content views to paying customers. Understanding this difference can help the project team to develop a solution that fits both of these needs. Developing user personas as a way of understanding user needs very early in the project can help to ensure all users are considered, thereby increasing the chances of project success and end user satisfaction.

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