User-centred design means considering who you are talking to and what you would like them to know. One way to achieve user-centred design is to use ‘personas’ to bring your audience to life.

A persona is an invented character designed to embody important characteristics of a specific user group. Each persona has a name and a clear set of motivations for engaging with your content. Personas are most often used for the development of online content, but can be used for any content.

This technique can help writers see the world from a reader’s point of view and think about what the reader needs from the content. The persona can help you to review content and resolve questions or problems. For example, you can ask questions such as ‘What questions does Anna want answered?’, ‘What would David search for in this instance?’, ‘Does Prashan know the background or do we need to explain it?’

This section covers:

Creating a persona

Personas should be created as early as possible in the content development process, and kept in mind as you develop and refine your content. If you have a project team, involve everyone on the team in developing personas, so everyone can refer to them as the content and structure are developed.

You can create personas just by thinking about the possible characteristics of your audiences, but it is better to back up your personas with data. You can look at:

  • information from existing user resources, such as mailing lists and blog subscribers

  • statistics from sources such as Alexa and Google Analytics (site traffic, specific keywords)

  • qualitative assessments of sites such as forum discussions on relevant topics (seeing what topics were popular and sparked discussion)

  • gathering information about your audiences using surveys, social media and focus groups.

Personas should encompass any characteristics that would inform the reader’s relationship with the content. Some details are relevant in some contexts but not others (eg a persona for exercise-related content would have a certain level of fitness, but this would not be relevant for financial advice).

Just as for audience profiles, you should look for:

  • demographic information – what are your reader’s life circumstances (eg age, gender, income, geographic location, cultural environment, ethnicity, language background, literacy level, educational level)?

  • psychographic information – what are your reader’s aspirations and priorities (eg personal and career goals, values, interests, lifestyle choices)?

  • behavioural information – how might your reader prefer to engage with your content, including format, length, frequency, static versus interactive, time of day, location and preferred sources (eg experts, data, personal anecdotes)? What technological constraints must be considered? How will the reader be likely to find, use and share the information? What kind of audience is your reader: primary (receives the information directly) or secondary (receives the information through someone else)?

It is a good idea to create more than 1 persona to capture the variety of audiences for your content. Multiple personas allow you to design your content for readers with varying requirements, backgrounds and behaviours. It is more useful to have several simple personas with different needs than to have a single more complex persona covering several needs.

It is also a good idea to include people with special needs when you are creating your personas, to ensure that you meet their needs (see Audiences with special needs for more information):

For a juvenile cancer website, you could think about the content needs of:

  • a child with cancer

  • a parent

  • a grandparent

  • a carer

  • a nurse

  • a teacher

  • someone with English as a second language

  • someone who lives in a rural or remote area

  • someone wondering about cancer symptoms

  • someone wondering about cancer treatments

  • someone wondering about cancer outcomes.

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Using personas

Once you have developed your personas, use them throughout content development. The personas are your touchstone for any content questions.

While you are first drafting content, keep your personas in mind, and use them to guide and drive the direction and focus of content development. The easiest way to do this is to ask questions or set scenarios:

In writing a booklet about the health risks associated with exposure to asbestos in the home and how to safely handle asbestos materials, your personas might be:

  • Mary, a first-time home owner who has just bought an older house

  • Nalini, who is planning to build an extension to her family room

  • José, who is a plasterer involved in domestic renovation work.

By giving the personas specific roles, it is easier to see what questions they might ask and how best to explain things to them. In writing the text, ask yourself:

  • What would Mary want to know about the possible risks and how to protect her family?

  • What does Nalini need to know about approval and safe renovation processes?

  • How can I write this to convince José of the importance of health and safety measures?

It is also important to keep the personas alive throughout drafting, editing and refining of the content:

  • Keep talking about your personas to make sure you are meeting their needs. You can appoint people in the team to lead an ongoing discussion of the personas, or just talk about them in meetings and planning sessions.

  • Update and revise as you obtain new information about your target audience or if the audience changes. Just like real people, personas should change over time. You may need to develop new personas or discard redundant ones. You can schedule regular update sessions for this.

  • Make personas visible. Perhaps make them into cardboard cut-outs or posters. Ask attendees to come to planning sessions in the character of a particular persona and provide input from that point of view, or invite real members of your audience who fit the characteristics of the persona.

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Using personas with scenarios

Personas are most meaningful when used in conjunction with ‘scenarios’. Scenarios are invented situations that imagine how the persona would interact with your material. Your scenario should include:

  • a situation or event

  • a context (eg the physical setting, the people involved, the emotions that might be experienced)

  • the task or goal you want the person to achieve.

To draft new content using scenarios, think about who you are writing for and what they need to know in a particular situation:

Context: You are developing the Allergy information website for health professionals, which provides information on recommended treatments.

Persona: Kamal is a general practitioner working in a small country town. He has a busy practice with a wide range of patients.

Scenario: Kamal has an appointment with the parents of a young patient whose asthma is getting worse. 

New content considerations: 

  • What are the top 3 treatment options that Kamal can talk to the parents about?

  • What are the different considerations with these treatments (eg efficacy, cost, time)?

  • Is there anything that would make a treatment unsuitable (eg age, other health conditions)?

  • Does the rural setting make a difference to the advice (eg will travel be needed)?

  • What other supports can Kamal suggest to the parents?

Scenarios are also very useful to test drafted content, to see if it is working in the way that you imagined. 

To test existing or newly drafted content, set the scenario and follow it through by imagining what the persona would do at each stage of the process. Any difficulties you experience during the process tell you that the content may need to change, or you may need other solutions to help your users find what they need:

Context: You are developing the Carer support website, which provides information about services and support for unpaid carers.

Persona: Angela is an unpaid carer who looks after her mother, who has dementia. Angela is stressed and has little time to find information online, usually using her tablet to do so in spare moments in her kitchen. 

Scenario: Angela wants to find out about resources in her local area that she can call on if she needs someone to look after her mother in an emergency.

What Angela will find on the Carer support website: The draft website has 2 sources for this information: 

  • A ‘Who to call’ box has clear information, but Angela might not see it because it is at the bottom of the page, and many users do not look there.
    Action: Consider moving the box to the top of the page.

  • A separate page on respite care has a lot of useful information but is quite dense.
    Action: Consider rewriting to make sure key information is at the top, or develop a summary box to go in a side column.

Angela might also search for the information using the website’s search function. The relevant pages did not come up in a search for ‘emergency’ or ‘emergency care’. The pages only came up if she typed ‘respite’.
Action: Consider adding to the ‘best bets’ search function other terms that users might use (see Search tools for more information on best bets). User data on the preferred search terms would be useful here.

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