I've had an epiphany recently and I'd like to share it with you. It's simple really. If you're designing a web site for them then you had better know as much as you can about who they really are. I know what you're thinking, 'are you telling me you've never given much thought to who the users and visitors of those web sites actually are?'. Well, not exactly. Listening to clients and gathering information is key to beginning any design project of course, but it's sometimes easy to fall in to the trap of making very broad assumptions about the visitors to the web site you're designing or redesigning. And (whisper it) clients tend do this too - sometimes because they think they know, and sometimes because they don't always see the necessity of digging too deep, or have the time to do it.
The unknown 'them' The problem with that is that designing a web site for a broad, unknown amorphous blob we can loosely call 'them', and cramming it with features that you think they will need isn't actually that smart. Put simply, if you want to address the needs of your customers you need to understand what those needs are and I think the best way to do that is with personas. By creating these archetypes and imagining realistic scenarios for them means you have to consider their behaviours and motivations throughout the process.
Customers and users are humans too When some people create Personas they actually put a photograph and a name on that character. This really means they focus on this person as a living, breathing human being. This takes your customers beyond simple demographics and helps you paint a vivid picture of a real person - the more detail you can go into the more flesh you put on that person. Once you've created those personas and scenarios you can use these to keep everyone working on the project focused on the user needs. Because ultimately it's their needs that matter most.
Do the research, mine the data My advice to any client now - not just the bigger ones - is is that you just have to spend the time to do the research into your users, how much research will depend on the client of course. There's plenty of articles (and some are listed below) about how to go about creating personas, but at the centre of it all is data and research. You can use web analytics and other customer data (often just asking those customers some questions) you've collected to get an idea of different patterns of behaviour.Better understanding, better redesign
So if we want to put the user and their goals at the centre of your design then Personas allow us to gain a greater understanding of those users. As Aaron Walter puts it 'With personas in hand, we have a solid starting point for a redesign.'Some good further reading on Personas: Understanding your users with Personas This is a great piece with a handy cartoon by Brad Colbow http://thinkvitamin.com/design/how-to-understand-your-users-with-personas/ Redesigning with Personality by Aaron Walter http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2012/03/27/redesigning-with-personality/ Using Personas & Scenarios in web design http://www.webdesignfromscratch.com/goal-oriented-design/about-personas/ 6 Core Benefits of Well-Defined Marketing Personas http://blog.hubspot.com/blog/tabid/6307/bid/29583/6-Core-Benefits-of-Well-Defined-Marketing-Personas.aspx Developing Personas Quick Guide http://spectate.com/2012/03/personas-101-a-quick-guide-to-developing-marketing-personas/