Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Kathy's note: This is the sixth installment in a 12-part series by Theresa Putkey that discusses the intersection of content strategy and user-centred design. Read all posts by Theresa.

Creating user personas is a fantastic way to get stakeholders to focus during the design. You’re not just designing for people who like... well, everything... you’re designing for that particular someone who likes to do something particular. I always say, “Ask for what you want and you’ll get it. If you don’t ask, people won’t know what you want.” It’s the same with designing software: if a UX professional doesn’t know what the users want, then they don’t know what are they supposed to design.

For content strategists, personas inform the content needs on the site. You can use personas to tell you what things users are looking for, and you can ensure each content need is met on the applicable pages. You can also use the existing personas and fill them out more to meet your content strategy needs.

What is a persona?

A persona is a single, fictitious person who represents the needs and wants of many people. This representation has been created by information gathered in the user interviews. Personas are a great way to focus the design and to resolve design disputes. The team can focus on concrete people and, when questions arise, they can be asked and answered based on the persona’s needs.

Personals are Built from User Interviews

Personas are built based on user interviews. Whether with a new or existing product, you’ll need to identify different types of people who may use the website or software, then line up interviews with those types of people. If you’re just starting off on the design and interviews, your questions might tend to be more general. If you’re further into the design work, your questions might be more specific and get into more process.

Going Without User Interviews

I’ve worked on “user centred design” projects where user interviews were not allowed. It was the second in a series of projects, each building on the last. For the first project, we had personas, but they were specific to that specific project. For the second project, there was a complete turnover in the team (which also meant educating the new people about UX), and it was determined that the personas for the first project would suffice for the second and user interviews would not be done.

As a UX professional, it was tough to hear that the work I was recommending wasn’t valuable, but it also meant that the second project would lack focus. The user interviews wouldn’t be done and the personas wouldn’t be updated. How do we deal with this refusal?

Here’s a great interview for understanding personas, “Making Personas Work for Your Website: An Interview with Steve Mulder.”

I think personas not based on actual user research are absolutely better than no personas at all. A lot of customer and user knowledge already exists in many organizations, and by looking at the sales, marketing, product, customer support, and tech support perspectives, you can bring all these existing bits of knowledge together into personas without talking to any actual end user.

In this case, turn around the refusal of no user interviews by asking for second-hand information. Companies might feel more comfortable giving this information, since it may be readily available.

In a content strategy project, you may not be able to do more user interviews if the business analyst has already done stakeholder interviews and the UX professional has already done user interviews. In this case, interview the business analyst and UX professional, then look at the secondary sources yourself. Fill out the personas as needed.

How Does a Persona Help Us Focus?

In this interview, Mulder communicates the purpose of personas:

The main thing a persona allows designs teams to do is to think outside themselves and really get an understanding of who it is they are designing for. When design teams build a persona, they write a story about a character that represents a whole type of user that is fundamentally different from themselves. They put themselves in the shoes of their users and think about how the persona would interact with a web site or design.

Have you ever been in a meeting where someone in the room says, “I don’t like this aspect of the design. I mean, my mom doesn’t use this kind of thing, she uses this other thing, so I don’t think this aspect is important.” That’s a great way to take the design off-track. Personas help the team focus on the persona using the product. The conversation can be directed away from that person’s mom and onto the persona with some form of this sentence, “I understand your point, but I want to make sure we’re designing for the personas...”


About the Author

Theresa Putkey is an information architect consultant living in Vancouver, BC. With a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, Davis, she focuses on integrating user needs into website and software design projects. She's currently doing her online Masters of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University. You can find out more about Theresa at, or follow her on twitter @tputkey.

Read all posts by Theresa.