What Are Personas?
Personas are fictitious users you create based on your user research. Personas summarize your user research findings and provide a practical approach to understanding the requirements of your target audience and keeping user perspectives in mind when designing products and creating documentation for them.
However, bear in mind that, although demographics and task analysis play an important part in persona creation, personas are more than just a collection of user profiles and groups. You should make them as real as you can. They should embody all the human attributes you’d expect to find in your users. For example, they could be moody, very task oriented, work in a specific type of environment, or even hate the idea of referring to documentation unless they are absolutely compelled to do so. To understand the implications their projected reality might have, consider the following persona:
Manas is a technical author with 12 years of experience. In addition to being a busy writer, he spends many hours daily replying to email messages and mentoring his colleagues—answering questions about using the tools his team employs in producing documentation, different types of documentation, and life at work. Manas connects to the Internet through a wireless connection that never fails and spends hours researching answers to questions about writing. Oddly enough, he actually reads computer manuals and online Help for fun, and he has quite a few books on writing and communication competing for space with his Terry Pratchett novels on the bookshelf in his office.
Note this persona’s level of detail versus that you would find in a user profile. The amount of experience Manas has in his field is specific, the persona clearly describes his work environment, and his quirks are apparent. In short, you have a fake, but uncannily real user in whose shoes you can walk when designing your product or writing its documentation.
We both work on documentation, so for now, we’ll focus on using personas in creating the documentation for a product.
What would the implications be if you were writing documentation with Manas in mind? To meet his needs, you might deliver documentation in the form of email messages that ask leading questions and direct him to answers, catering to his mentoring nature by encouraging him to share them. You could reach out to Manas by creating sponsored ads on Google, so when he uses his Web browser to do research on a topic relating to the use of your product, he would find links to relevant documentation on your Web site. Such dynamically generated links provide an effective and efficient path to your documentation. Plus, the presence of your documentation on your Web site implies that Manas has instant access to your most recent, minimalist documentation whenever he’s exploring and wants to find alternative channels of learning.
Where Do Personas Fit in the Documentation Development Lifecycle?
A typical documentation development lifecycle (DDLC) has six stages.
- Requirements analysis
- Documentation planning
As the documentation development lifecycle progresses, writers develop greater attachment to their perspectives on what the documentation should be. Their ideas begin to crystallize sometime between their developing a documentation plan and starting writing. They show more openness to making heavy changes to a documentation deliverable during the writing stage than afterward—say, at the review stage. Ironically, the planning and writing stages usually occur when writers know the least about users. This is why creating personas during requirements analysis and documentation planning is optimal.
The benefits of developing personas at the beginning of the documentation development lifecycle are numerous. This approach
- ensures that writers focus on users and are empathetic to users’ goals
- encourages consensus among various stakeholders
- equips all stakeholders to make better decisions
- leads to an efficient documentation process