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Creating Usable Personas

client work / usability / user experience / blog

UX practitioners use many tools to evaluate websites and apps. Utilizing a variety of tools is what UX research is all about! Give a UXer a webpage and voila! In no time they can evaluate a webpage with any number of their tools. When the evaluation is complete, the end product is a detailed list about what works well and what does not work well from the end user’s perspective.

Common UX evaluation tools include usability heuristics, eye tracking, think aloud protocols, personas, and focus groups. Normally, UX research is focused on the use of these tools to evaluate other products. What happens then when you don’t need to fix a broken website and you actually need to fix one of the tools you use? FMG’s adaptable UX Team was able to tackle such a challenge for the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

The NCI has used personas since 2009 to help stakeholders and site designers better understand their users. Their personas have acted as a reliable and realistic representation of key audience segments. Personas help UX designers and programmers see a common vision for the final stages of their projects. The NCI realized that their personas needed a revamp and FMG was called in to help.

To start, we had to change how we thought about personas. We had to envision them as a final product, not as a tool. And like all the products we test, we wanted the product to be usable and intuitive. The personas we needed to update had a consistent organization: they contained details about an individual persona that took up the majority of the page with a snapshot summary of information on the right.

NCI Persona

The consistent design made it easy for users (NCI teams) to quickly reference information. It was easy to learn the structure of the persona and quickly find information regardless of the user group because each followed this organization. The UX Team didn’t have to focus on the design, as it already worked well for NCI. The UX Team instead focused on the content.

The UX Team used prior research and analytics to assess which content needed to be updated. Each persona needed to be a realistic representation of NCI audience segments, so users’ habits, hobbies, and living situations needed to come from data from actual humans, not our conjectures or best guesses. Google Analytics provided us with insight into how users tend to access NCI content. Specifically, we were able to see where actual users accessed content from, how long they visited each page, their browser type (e.g., Firefox), and the type of devices they were using. Pew Research Center has guided our descriptions of the personas’ income, housing, and family sizes. For finer-grained details about specific music and entertainment preferences, we used other public data, such as Nielsen’s weekly top ten ratings. These data proved to be vital for the UX Team. For example, we ensured internet behavior matched Google Analytics and that characteristics like income, family size, and education aligned with the city actual users lived in.

NCI plays an important role in distributing educational information and research-related news for a wide range of cancers. With the data-driven personas that FMG updated, designers and programmers can continue to update and improve upon a range of their already successful websites.


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