Personas and Content Development

April 28, 2017
Alt text: Group of people standing against a wall where their faces are cropped out of the shot

What are personas?

When creating content, we talk a lot about target audiences, the groups of people who you are trying to serve with your content. But when you’re actually writing content, it can be hard to pin down what a large group of people might need.

That’s why it’s helpful to develop personas.

“A persona is a fictional person who represents a major user group for your site.” - Usability.gov

When you create a persona, you give them characteristics of a real person — a name, an age, a location, a job, things they need to do. They become representative of other people like them — maybe in a similar age group, if your site targets youth, or others in the same profession, if your site provides technical information.

Personas can’t cover everything — one persona won’t cover every aspect of a target audience, and to cover every possible audience of a site you would need millions of personas.

But they can still be extremely useful for refining copy, style, formatting, and media. Writing for a specific fictional person is easier than writing for a general collection of people.

What is the persona based on?

Personas should be based on data — user testing, demographic information, and site analytics. We want them to be as accurate as possible, since they will be representing an entire group of people who might need your content.

Elements of Each Persona

Personas cover an audience’s demographics and technological experience, since those will influence how they use your content. Personas can be lean or very detailed. However, most include the following elements:

Name, Job Title, and Demographics

Each persona has a name, a job title and description, and demographic information to establish the way your fictional persona lives in the real world. What’s their name? Where do they live and work? How old are they? What’s their family like?

Goals & Tasks

Users rarely just want to “be informed” about a topic, they want to do something with the information you provide. Your persona should have goals and tasks they want to complete. Do they need to apply for something? Download something? Find a contact?

Computer Usage at Work and Home

Your user’s experience can depend on how familiar they are with different technology, which devices they’re likely to use, and where and when they are likely to use your content. Are they accessing your content at work or at home? On a laptop or a mobile device? Through a LAN network or on free WiFi?

S/he Says

This brief quote gives you an idea of a persona’s thought process as he or she tackles a task. The quote helps connect you with their pain points and online behaviors to best meet their needs.

Persona Example: Parents (Public) - Sarah

Name:

Sarah

Job title/major responsibilities:

  • Sales Associate
  • Greets customers browsing the store, answers questions, and recommends products. Completes sales. Re-stocks and maintains store cleanliness

Demographics:

  • 38 years old
  • Currently separated and working to get divorced
  • Mother of 3 school-aged children
  • Works 2 part-time jobs High school education
  • Lives near Chicago, Illinois

Goals and tasks:

  • Establish a child support order
  • Find a single full-time job with benefits
  • Identify potential financial/job assistance available to her

Computer Usage at Work:

  • Interacts with clients and customers
  • Uses point-of-sale terminals with very limited functionality outside of transactions, customer databases, and reporting
  • Occasionally uses company tablet to help people away from the sales desk

Computer Usage at Home:

  • Home computer is a laptop with a cable connection used for writing longer emails, searching for/applying to jobs, and online banking
  • Regularly searches for information discussed with friends/customers/coworkers but rarely digs into pages of results
  • Browses Facebook on her Android smartphone on breaks at work
  • Struggles with bad signal in the break room at the mall but still hates when pages take a long time to load
  • Rarely clicks on documents like PDFs on her mobile device

She says:

“Cheryl mentioned something about a website. Let me google it and see.”

Using personas to develop content

When you create or update content, continually refer to the personas relevant to that content.

Our content should help users complete their tasks, and be delivered in the way or ways the users need it. At key points, test, reread, and rewrite your content with specific reference to that persona. Ask yourself whether “Ben” would want to download a PDF or see the content on an HTML page. What words would “Claire” put into a search engine? Would “Sam” know the technical definitions you’re using?

Content Planning

Content isn’t always just words on a page — it can be downloads, images, videos. Consider what kind of media your personas might prefer when deciding how to present your ideas. Would a smartphone user be able to read a complex infographic? Would someone experienced in the field watch a basic tutorial video?

Keywords

When you’re writing your content, consider how your persona would look for this piece of information. Would they know the technical terminology, or be looking for a more commonly used term? These keywords should appear in the headers and the text so that search engines can find the pages

Choosing your Language

Your personas can guide your choices about language. What grade level have they completed? You would write differently for someone in High School than you would for someone with a Ph.D. Do they have a background in the topic? If so, you might be able to use technical language, but if not, you might have to avoid jargon or explain what it means.

Consider reading scores and plain language when you’re developing your content.

Ongoing Improvements

The web is not static. You should routinely review and refresh or remove pages and other content. Consider your personas as you evaluate for Redundant, Outdated, or Trivial (ROT) content. If busy “Lee,” an ACF grantee, can’t find the correct technical manual because there are years of outdated ones on the site, are we really serving his needs?

These questions can inform our decisions on what we create, what we archive, and what we keep to ensure we have reliable, high-quality content.

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