Why User Research & Personas are Critical When Developing Business Apps

It is widely known that persona development, which seeks to zero-in on “customer” behavior and characteristics, has greatly enhanced marketing and merchandizing strategy in the consumer retail space. By creating a concise set of customer descriptions that embody the major differences in purchasing behavior in their stores, retailers have refocused their messaging and product offerings to better meet the needs of their highest value customers. It is less widely known that the same persona development techniques are being used by industry-leading companies to maximize the adoption of business applications in highly competitive markets.

In contrast to retail behavior patterns, business users spend many hours of their workday using a core set of transactional applications. Some of these are provided by their own company and others compete for attention in a competitive marketplace. The user interface of these applications either enhances or inhibits user productivity and loyalty – often directly impacting the revenues generated by these tools. Therefore it is just as important to understand users and develop personas for business applications.

To be effective, persona development must be firmly grounded in user research techniques such as contextual inquiry, user segmentation and profiling, and prioritized task mapping. Strictly speaking, a persona is a narrative description of a user who represents an important segment of the user population. These narrative descriptions, however, only hold value for project teams if they are the culmination and thoughtful synthesis of many sources of information about the user population. This process begins with user interviews. The interview process may start with working assumptions about how the user population can be segmented, but nothing replaces the insights that will be gained by interviewing users in their normal working environments while they are using the application. Insights gained from these interviews allows you to identify and validate meaningful segments in the user population and document the most important user profiles. User profiles are the foundation layer beneath well constructed personas. The two concepts may seem like they overlap, but a good way to understand the difference is to keep in mind that user profiles describe “types” of users while personas describe specific people. User profiles have attributes like: “80% Male”. In contrast, personas are given names like ‘Mike’ and have characteristics like: “34 year old investor who has recently quit his job to become a full time day trader.”

My next post will examine the progression from user profiles to personas, and how to use personas for success business application development. Stay tuned.

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