Build Your Own Data-backed Personas

Matthew Magain

The idea of using personas to shape design decisions for a web site is nothing new.

We’d always been aware of personas as a design tool, but we’d never used them at SitePoint. However, we’ve been doing some thinking lately about the future of sitepoint.com and we decided to give it a go.

Read Introducing the SitePoint Personas to see the result of this exercise.

What are Personas?

If you’ve never used personas, the idea is quite simple¬ – personas represent visitors to your site; that is, they’re fictitious visitors. Each persona has a name, photo, and bio that includes details such as where they live, work, or study, what is important to them, and what motivates them. The team involved in building the site gets to know these so-called individuals like their best friends. Then, when a design decision needs to be made, the team can ask, “What would Julie do?” or “How would this affect Frank?”

Personas achieve a couple of goals in the design process:

  1. They provide everyone on the team with a common baseline upon which to discuss how visitors to the site might be impacted.
  2. They give the design team empathy with the site audience. By referring to personas as real people, the intention is that the team will identify with each visitor and provide a design solution that satisfies as many users as possible.

That’s the theory anyway, and it all sounds quite good to us. But to be honest, we’re unsure how well it will work. Which is why we’re interested in hearing what you think.

You can view the eight personas that I created for sitepoint.com and read about the process I followed below. We’d love to hear your feedback on whether you think we’ve captured the majority of our users and their motivations, and where they might be improved. You can also take our fun Which SitePoint Persona Are You? quiz. Were you represented? Have we captured the essence of the SitePoint community, or is there a particular type of user that we’ve neglected entirely? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Creating the SitePoint Personas

The process I used for creating these personas combined two approaches, and I’m indebted to the two authors behind them for providing such a great starting point. There are many differing opinions on the best approach to creating personas for your site, but the one I’ve taken here is what made the most sense to me.

The SitePoint personas were created based on the following two articles:

The basic steps I followed are described below. Hopefully you’ll find them useful in creating your own personas.

  1. Decide on the number of personas that you’ll create. The number you settle on might change throughout the process as you examine your analytics data more closely, but you probably already have an idea of how many types of visitors can be identified. Some experts suggest that four or five is plenty. I decided to create eight, but sitepoint.com is quite unique in that it acts as an umbrella site for a number of subsites, for where there is sometimes little overlap. One might argue that eight personas is too many, but I believe the diversity of the tasks performed by visitors to sitepoint.com made creating this many personas necessary.
  2. Analyze the distribution of various visitor traits captured in your site’s anonymous analytics data over a 30-day period – which city and country people live in, what browser and operating systems are most used, which parts of the site are most frequented, which external sites give the most referrals, which phrases form the most common queries that lead search engine visitors to us, and what the breakdown of new and returning visitors is like. I distributed the top results in each of these categories across eight rows in a spreadsheet, and when combined, this data formed my eight personas.
  3. Distribute common traits that appear in your analytics data – for example, 50% of our visitors are in the US, so four of my eight personas are Americans. However, there were some traits that I wanted to include for business reasons. For example, our books give advice on how to build a web site that accommodates users with special accessibility needs, so to ensure we “walk the walk” it made sense to represent users with a disability, even if they were in a minority. Likewise, we wanted to acknowledge that there are some members of our community who exhibit undesirable behavior, such as pirating PDFs and picking fights in the forums. While these form only a minority of our audience, I thought it important that they be represented, so that we’re aware of these users when discussing decisions about the site that affects them.
  4. Once these foundations are in place, add any additional data that you might have from other sources. For example, we’ve run a couple of surveys in the past year or two, including last year’s reader survey and a more recent random Visitor Satisfaction survey. With the results of these surveys, I deduced which of the individuals that were emerging may have been likely to subscribe to one of our email newsletters, subscribe to any of our RSS feeds, be a member of our forums, follow us on Twitter, or own any of our books.
  5. Overlaying these two disparate data sets is likely to be an arbitrary process, but that’s okay. I found that by folding in this extra data, my personas really started to take shape. With this foundation, I could then infer certain tasks that my new team of representative users might be doing when they visit our site, such as looking for a tutorial, signing up to a newsletter, or asking a question in the forums. These tasks formed my users’ goals.
  6. This next step was important to us, because our site contains an ecommerce aspect (if you’re not selling products on your site, you may want to skip it). Distribute the four buying behaviors, as described in Howard Kaplan’s article–Competitive, Humanistic, Methodical, and Spontaneous – across your personas. While I don’t necessarily buy into the whole “Persuasion Architecture” concept (it’s a trademarked term) used by Kaplan and the FutureNow team in their consulting practice, I certainly believe that different people make buying decisions differently, and the descriptions of these four purchasing types resonated with me. Of course, I had no way of knowing what the distribution of each of these personality types would be across our visitors, so I just created an even number of each across my eight new friends.
  7. Finally, round out each of your personas with interesting pieces of information to give them a proper backstory and a real personality. Each persona should be given a descriptive title; for example, I chose titles such as “the Googling geek” or “the enthusiastic blogger.” This was the part of the exercise that was most like creative writing, and involved a bit of shuffling of buying behavior types in order to match the personalities that had emerged. Give your personas a face – remember to use images for which you own the copyright if anyone else other than yourself is going to be looking at them – and give them believable names that fit their backstory. I gave our personas names selected from the Random Name Generator, purchased some images from iStockPhoto, and my personas were complete.
Introducing the SitePoint Personas

The end result is that we have eight personas who we’re going to keep front-of-mind when making any design changes in future. Those personas are:

  • the front-end coder
  • the workaholic business owner
  • the forum junkie
  • the rebellious teenager
  • the newbie hobbyist
  • the enthusiastic blogger
  • the Googling geek
  • the visually-impaired student

You can read the personas in full in the article Introducing The SitePoint Personas.

So, how did we do? Read the descriptions of each persona and let us know in the comments. Or take our quiz to find out whether we’ve captured you accurately or not (hint: it will take less than a minute, and you could win a $100 Amazon voucher!

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