Audience Modeling

Ever since Polish biologist Jastrzębowski coined the term “ergonomics” in 1857, we have been trying to decipher the tricky relationship between machine and human. Regardless of whether you’re designing front-end interface functionality or crafting an information architecture that serves as the clothes hanger for your content, user-centered design is undeniably a major player in achieving results. It’s certainly a crucial consideration in every taxonomy project. Project stakeholders often envision the ideal taxonomy as being “all things to all people”. It’s a wonderful idea in theory, but the resulting structure would be a chaotic mishmash that in practice fails to meet most user needs. Part of the solution is in the art—and science—of understanding and categorizing your audience.

Personas
Creating usable systems requires user research in order to understand audience goals, needs, and capabilities. This process results in a host of raw data, but the data is only valuable in its effective application to system design. Quantitative data can be measured, charted, and graphed, but that only tells one part of your audience’s story. Popularized as an interaction design method by Alan Cooper, personas are a decision-making and communication tool that can organize the numbers in your data, but also describe patterns of why actual users behave in their particular ways. This qualitative information is the meat of reliable personas.

Research methods differ based on project resources, but my strongest personas derive from a variety of sources. I was recently on a compressed project for an established community of practice where much of the up-front work had been done. Their website featured active discussion boards, member profiles, and user-generated content. Marketing had conducted numerous user surveys and focus groups, and the Content Strategy group unearthed recordings of usability tests. I complemented these with a brief round of interviews with SMEs and Web Analysts. In that situation I was able to do some quick and dirty guerrilla research and jump right into data synthesis, minimizing the research phase. Poking around often reveals a host of readily available information that can be utilized for personas. Looking for low-investment opportunities will help you work around project constraints while still delivering user-centric results.

Once research is complete, there are certain data points that are generally hit when creating personas. The most common to look for include demographics, technographics, and psychographics, especially goals:

  • What tangible result do users want to accomplish with the system?
  • Why do they want to get to that end result?
  • How do they want to experience the process in reaching that goal?

It’s standard practice to include a name, photo, and pithy quote that sums up the persona’s main position in relation to the system you are designing. Since a single persona represents an entire user group, it also helps to abstract up a level and title that particular segment. For example, in my previous project with the community of practice, “The Information Spectator” persona as the primary audience had very different needs and participatory patterns on the website than the secondary persona, “The Knowledge Facilitator”.

Personas for Taxonomy Development
Personas created for the purpose of classifying and organizing content come with unique considerations.

  1. How does your audience look for information? What kind of behaviors do they exhibit? What triggers information seeking? What sources do they turn to, in what order, and why? For example, if your primary audience never uses the Advanced Search capability on your site but shows enthusiasm for sites where they can refine search criteria, this should be captured in the persona.
  2. How does your audience process information and make decisions? How far will they go before they turn to a competitor’s site or give up altogether? How do they deal with information overload? Including these details in the persona will help you brainstorm how to present navigation, minimize burden, and filter with care.
  3. How does your audience perform personal information management (PIM)? How do users organize and label personal information? Are they tagging on their own in order to keep track of content? If you can get a peek into their file structure or bookmarking system, this will reveal organizing principles and terminology that will need to be considered for the taxonomy.

Personas are a means to an end, but taxonomies are enduring systems that require regular maintenance. User research always captures findings that can be put to use in future contexts. For example, if your primary audience phones known colleagues before tapping into your intranet’s search engine, this will reveal system opportunities that will need to be incorporated in the taxonomy, such as support for an expert locator and user profiles.

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