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User profiling - do you really know your users?

Published on 14/10/03 at 01:58pm

How well do you know your website users? Have you done any research to identify the key characteristics, interests and requirements of your key users? If you do, chances are that you did a user profiling exercise at the beginning of your site development, and if you don't know who they are, well... you didn't.

User profiling is the identification of the type of users that a website is designed for. It distinguishes those key user characteristics - age, education, interests, background knowledge  that impact the site design.

It is the logical first step required before analysing what the customers will use the site for and is often used in conjunction with the other planning processes of business goal refinement and competitor assessment.

What you are trying to achieve in user profiling is to design a site that meets the needs of its users, taking account of the numerous ways users will vary:

  • why they are using the site
  • demographics
  • socio-economic background
  • level of domain specific knowledge about, say, the therapy area addressed by the website
  • level of experience/interest in the Internet
  • means of accessing the site (laptop, desktop, PDA, dial-up, broadband)
  • location when accessing the site. At home or at work? Time of day and likely frame of mind?

Knowledge of these characteristics ensures that the design will take full account of key aspects such as appropriate tone, language, look and feel, use of appropriate technology and incorporation of appropriate features. But this process isn't just valuable when planning new sites. Detailed user knowledge also allows you to evaluate whether an existing site is in tune with its audience and communicates with them effectively. It can be used to ensure that the appropriate target audience is used during real user testing.

All this activity is usually pulled together during an interactive workshop between agency and client. Typically, the workshop is a one-day event, using two consultants - one to moderate the event, the other to contribute and document proceedings - and has three key steps:

  • identify key users
  • develop personas for those users by embodying their key characteristics
  • creating scenarios under which those personas use the website.

The output is a comprehensively documented understanding of users and their needs, which then becomes a bible of the sites development.

Step 1 is to identify key users. Examples of users of an HRT site, for example, could be GPs, gynaecologists, women patients aged between 40 and 60 years and medical writers. The workshop considers the likely users from these groups and answers the key questions about them: demographics, socio-economics, domain-specific knowledge, Internet experience, means of accessing the site and location.

Step 2 is to develop personas based on this data. A persona is a made-up person who represents a particular user profile. Personas turn amalgamated data into real people, and thus enable a focus on the end-user.

During the workshop, we develop three or four personas that reflect typical user types. For instance, they might include GPs in urban centres, gynaecologists in teaching hospitals, women aged between 40 and 60 years with a household income of £50,000 upwards, and medical journalists on midmarket newspapers, womens magazines and TV.

Step 3 is to develop scenarios. A scenario describes a sequence of events when a user is interacting with a system. It helps to define the user's requirements during the design process and ensures necessary features and needs are included in the design. The great thing about scenarios is that they can be understood by anyone regardless of their technical knowledge. They are usually created after contextual inquiry or survey and interview data with the target population. They are especially useful when you need to remove the focus from the technology in order to consider other design possibilities. Scenarios talk in terms of tasks rather than the technology used to support them. So a typical scenario for our HRT site might be:

  • GP Vivian Shaw in Cheltenham has a number of HRT patients who are concerned about press stories about HRT and breast cancer
  • she does a search on Google about breast cancer and one of the links is to your site
  • she comes to your website to check out what you have to say, and you want to know what features of the site will be most attractive to her.

Using this scenario, we are able to clearly see what use the user will make of this site, what matters to them, how they will navigate, and be able to estimate whether or not they will visit again - are there any hooks to bring them back? Is it crucial to keep it up to date? How?

Step 4 is a reality check: validation with a panel of real users who are willing and able to participate, validate the personas and scenarios, and which is to be amended as required. The overall output of this workshop is a detailed report that:

  • establishes the target users of the client site
  • provides a quantitative breakdown of their characteristics
  • provides scenarios and personas to be used as context for the sites subsequent development
  • makes recommendations for the adoption of key aspects within the design.

All without committing the sort of schoolboy errors that a less rigorous approach would almost always commit.

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