Bringing Users to Life Just Takes a Persona or Two


Istill find that far too many intranets are being built on the basis of putting as much information (or rather, documents) as possible onto the intranet in the hope that users will be able to locate what they need through navigation and search. Site managers, perhaps because of their close allegiance to corporate marketing, generally have an appreciation of not only the diverse information requirements of different users, but also the way in which these users will seek the information. I think that one of the problems in the intranet area is that there are such a wide range of users that intranet managers give up trying to segment them, and just go for the easy option.

One methodology that I have been using recently to develop the information architecture of intranets has been that of personas. For many years, market researchers have concentrated on defining target groups of users, such as "Mothers under 25 with two or more children at school." Alan Cooper, an American software designer and the author of Visual Basic 1.0, realized that, as technology enabled software companies to provide more functionality for the same price, there was an increasing danger that the user experience as they coped with new releases would be so bad that they would prefer to stay with the current version, which would have a huge impact on the sales of software. In his book The Inmates are Running the Asylum, published in 1997, Cooper used some of the outcomes of the market research industry, which at that time was starting to adopt personas.

So what is a persona? It is a real virtual user. The person described in the persona does not actually exist but is created through research to typify some of the characteristics of a group of users. Biographical details are developed, even down to a photograph, so that the person concerned is so real that the intranet team starts to identify with them as an individual of the organization.

This is a very brief bio, but it is just for purposes of illustration: "John Nolan is a consulting engineer. Aged 35, he lives in Birmingham with his wife Maureen and his two children. He was educated at Cambridge and then worked in Australia before joining the company three years ago."

The next step is to define his primary goals. These might be along the lines of: "John wants to make sure that he keeps track of the projects he is involved with, is aware of new techniques in bridge building, and has ready access to travel information as he is always on call anywhere in the world."

This composite would be based on talking to a number of consulting engineers. They may have different specializations, but the issue is that they need to keep up to date in these specializations. From these goals, the intranet team can start to think about how "John" would want to navigate through the site. He would want to see a list of projects and have access to external research services. Scenarios and site walk-throughs can then be developed and built into the information architecture, and then tested with real consulting engineers before refining the personas and the intranet.

The response from skeptical managers is that there could be a very large number of different personas that need to be developed. This is not the case. By focusing in on a small number of key user groups/personas the 80/20 rule soon comes into play, with perhaps five or six persons representing the majority of intensive users.

One of the benefits of personas is that the intranet team starts to identify with them as individual users with defined needs, and then tries to get inside the mind of "John" as a consulting engineer. In this way the requirements that "John" has for information are balanced against his needs for findability and search. The abstract "users" become real, if virtual, people. An ancillary benefit is that the project to meet the needs of consulting engineers in a site re-launch turns into Project John. If you want to know more about personas (and you should) then read Alison Hunt's seminal article in Online at Other good papers on this methodology can be found at (May 2003 edition) and (March 2002 edition).

Before you are able to try this approach, you might need to market the benefits of personas within your organization because the use of personas is still novel, especially in the context of intranets. The published case studies are currently about the use of personas in Web sites, though the basic principles are the same. Consider having some draft personas developed to show the approach and benefits well before investing the time and effort that effective persona development will require, as senior managers (personas in their own right) may be just a little skeptical.