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What the Simpsons can teach you about personas

By Mary Mahling | September 17, 2015
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It is almost 25 years old (yikes), but you can learn a lot about user research from one Simpsons episode. In the episode, Homer learns that he has a half-brother, Herb, who runs a car company. Herb decides that Homer is his “average guy” target user and asks him to design a car. The car, called “The Homer,” featured tailfins, soundproof bubbles for noisy children, and three horns that all played “La Cucaracha.” It also retailed for $82,000, in 1991. Herb’s car company rapidly goes out of business.

Although that’s a fictitious example, similar scenarios play out at all kinds of companies: someone insists that they already know who their target user is, and therefore they don’t need to do any user research when designing new things. A stakeholder may tell you that their target market is “everyone,” or that they are their own target market. They may even say that Steve Jobs designed products for himself so it’s OK to do the same thing.

Skipping user research proves to be costly later, as considerable time and money gets spent on products and features that don’t resonate with your audience. Making assumptions about what your users will understand – everything from to menu options to what text appears in larger type – often results in creating products that users do not understand. If your users cannot understand how to use what you build, you’ve lost not only them, but also their peers.

A relatively small investment in time and effort trying to better understand your target users at the beginning can pay huge dividends once the design process starts. One effective method of user understanding is to develop personas.

What is a persona?

Think of personas as mixtapes based on interview data. Personas usually include a name, a photo, basic demographic information, and a description of how you’re solving their problems. The key to understanding personas though, is that personas are not real people; they are compilations of a group of your target users. Just as one person, not even Steve Jobs, doesn’t make a trend, the information in each persona is usually gleaned from interviews with 8-12 people.

Much of the effort involved with building personas is the ability to get the right interviews with the right people. In order to get the interviews you need, you will need to do some prep work.

The Interview Process

Seek: Do initial research using your best first guess on who your target users are. Don’t skip this step as this research also proves valuable multiple times during the persona development process.

As you begin, keep in mind that your target users are not your current users. You will need to invest a lot of time reaching people who probably haven’t heard of your company, or if they have, they don’t use your products. That said, you want to identify key characteristics you want to target, such as where they live and how they make a living.

Find: Recruit target users and decide how you want to contact them: in-person, Skype, etc. There are many methods to find people to interview, including:

  • Polling potential interviewees with an email survey
  • Social media
  • User groups, if you have them

Online polling can be particularly helpful especially if you don’t have any basic demographic information on your users such as age, education, and gender. When you select people for interviews, you will want to talk to as diverse of a group of people as you can – having some basic demographics can help you focus your efforts.

Plan: Decide how long you want to the interviews to be and develop an interview script based on your interview time preference. Your interview time allotment will also determine how to compensate your interviewees. Because you’re reaching out to people who are not your current users, you will need to compensate them in some way for their time. Your demographic information will help here: you don’t want to offer a gift card from a store they would never visit!

Your interview script should include questions that focus on their current behavior as well as things they would want to do, but currently can’t. One question you want to avoid is “what do you want.” While you are trying to figure out what the user wants, they are not going to be thinking as big and as far into the future as you will be. Like the famous Henry Ford quote, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses’,” concentrate on what they are doing right now and consider how to make their experience better.

Taking the time on the above steps will make your interview process as focused and smooth as possible. You want to make sure that both you and your interview subjects get the most from the time you will spend chatting. You will likely still get someone who will ask for three horns that play “La Cucaracha” because he can never find the horn when someone cuts him off, but you will be looking for patterns, which I’ll cover in the next post.

Read the other posts in this series below:

Read Part Two Here

Read Part Three Here

Read Part Four Here

 

Want to learn more about how to create the write user interface for your business intelligence and analytics applications? Check out our UI for BI webinar on-demand.

 

About the Author

Mary Mahling is a User Experience Designer for Logi Analytics, where she is responsible for user research and designing new products. She previously was on the User Experience team that was behind the award-winning responsive website for Medicare.gov. She has a Bachelors in Humanities from Harvard University Extension.

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