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by Eric Sharp on August 3, 2011

Topics: Planning & Strategy


“What’s one of the most important steps to planning a website?”

This question returns various answers from website professionals, but my answer is always swift and assertive: Creating website-specific user personas.

Aside from documenting website goals, I’ll say this activity is THE most important step because of its profound impact on future decision making in design and development.

User personas help turn a moving target into a stationary one, and, therefore, sharpens your company’s viewpoint on who exactly is visiting your website and how to engage them.

By putting in the research to know your user first, every subsequent decision gets backed by incentive to solve user’s needs.

Your website is not for you

More times than not, your website is for not you.

Everything from calls to action (learn about the Four C’s of a Call to Action) to the visual design must be inspired by the motivation and behaviors of these users.

If your website is going to sell more, generate qualified leads or expand your brand’s reach, it simply can’t be treated as your organization’s canvas for self-expression and experimentation.

What are website-specific user personas?

Steve Mulder, author of “The User is Always Right”, defines a user persona as a:

…realistic character sketch representing one segment of a Web site’s targeted audience. Each persona is an archetype serving as a surrogate for an entire group of real people.

Steve Mulder

In a nutshell, these are the people you want to please with your website.

Personas will outline details such as:

  • Demographics (e.g. Age, Gender, Location)
  • First Name and realistic photo (to help them become more real)
  • Primary/Secondary segmentation (helps with feature prioritization)
  • User Needs (why are they coming to the site?)
  • Business Needs (what is your organization trying to get them to do?)
Most websites will have 3 to 5 personas

Personas, like you see above, can easily be designed in Word/Pages or a graphics program such as Illustrator, Photoshop or Pagemaker. They are used throughout the web design process from initial strategy to launch, and even post-launch for reference while adding new features.

Why create website-specific user personas?

As Mr. Mulder emphatically states, teams assume that their users think and act like they do.


You might like this quick video:

Intelligent Bytes – Episode #1 (How a Buyer Persona Impacts a Website’s Copy)

In just 5 minutes you’ll learn what a buyer persona is, why they’re important, and how a website used one to write powerful copy.

A website planned, designed and marketed on this assumption is misguided and on the path to underachieving. Users have different goals than you. Users don’t care as you do. Users aren’t all alike.

Personas help:

  • Everyone make better decisions
  • Create one shared vision
  • Make user research come to life

Personas take work, but try not to be concerned with the additional time to create them. Try to think of this activity as an investment.

The time you dedicate to personas is fully recovered in subsequent steps because of increased efficiency.

Decisions are made faster. Conversations are more fluid and revolve around “What do our users want?” rather than “What do we want?”

Everybody involved has the proper viewpoint, which prevents uninformed decisions like leaving out FAQs (because the CEO didn’t think they were helpful) or choosing a particular color (because the Marketing Director’s daughter loves pink).

For the record, mine is green.

Don’t Build your House (website) on Sand (without personas)

If you’re about to embark on building or re-building your website, ensure persona research and documentation happens before designs are created, or code is written.

The identification of your actual users will trail blaze clarity and focus within your organization and help everyone involved make better decisions.

Author Info

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Hey there, thanks for reading! My name is Eric Sharp and I’m the Founder of ProtoFuse. Learn more about me, follow me on Twitter or find me on Google+. Oh, and I’ll call you family if you’re a Chicago Bears fan. Daaa Bearsss.