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HomeRants > Talk like a human being. > Probe your audiences--gently.> Create  personas to represent the groups.



Creating personas:

A persona is a made-up person you will write for.

Striving for a goal

Dress up your character

Escape the skills trap

Develop a cast of personas

Write for these personas

Create personas to represent the groups you are writing to

When you write as if you were someone else, fitting into their skin, you are adopting a persona.

But Alan Cooper, inventor of Visual Basic, suggests creating a persona for each important segment of your audience, too.

Creating a persona to represent a small group in your audience gives a personal face to the group's prominent characteristics, and gets you past the blandness of demographic generalizations.

  • In his book The Inmates are Running the Asylum, Cooper advocates using personas during the design of software.
  • As you try to make sense out of what you have learned about the people who consume your text, you may find his approach helpful in planning your writing, particularly if you already have a taste for fiction.


Who am I writing for, and, incidentally, who am I? (Full chapter from Hot Text, in PDF, 566K, or about 10 minutes at 56k)

A persona is a made-up person you will write to.

A real person may have several different goals in mind, but a persona is built around a single goal, one main objective, what actors used to call "a through line."

Every time you spot a different goal, you can create a new persona.

Striving for a goal

Remember the person aims to achieve a goal, not go out and perform some particular set of tasks. (Yes, eventually, they may have to do those tasks, to get to the goal. But the persona is focused on the goal, not the steps to get there).

Emphasizing one goal per persona helps you get your mind out of the gearbox.

Dress up your character

Once you have a persona's goal clearly defined, you dress the character up. Just as an actress relies on props, sets, and costumes to develop a role, you must come up with interesting specifics about the persona:

  • A name
  • An age
  • An employer
  • A daily routine
  • A car. Not just any car: a particular car, with a dent on the front right bumper.

You want to create a character you can believe. Borrow facts from the people you have actually met, but do not just copy wholesale from a real person.

Build the persona around the details that will influence what you write. If you succeed at developing a believable character, you will stop letting yourself assume that if a sentence makes sense to you, it will do. Now you have to make sense to the fictional character.

Example Persona: Emma Aragon

Escape the skills trap

With believable personas standing for key groups in your audience, you escape the conventional idea of skills, too.

You begin to see that individuals have expert skills in some areas, but novice abilities in other areas.

No one person is a complete idiot.

By focusing on goals, you can get away from the easy but simplistic distinction between power users and beginners, a distinction that was probably first created to excuse failures in interface design and programming. ("Well, any power user could manage this feature," or "Well, we know beginners can't figure this out, so we provide a wizard for those dummies.")

A persona helps you focus on the main activities this kind of person wants to carry out, pursuing her goal, encountering your text as part of the interface, and then as meaningful content. A persona embodies a niche audience in action, following an intention through your prose. Now you are in a virtual conversation with an individual, and your prose takes on a warmer tone.

Develop a cast of personas

You might create a few dozen personas, then recognize similarities, toss out redundancies, and end up with six or seven.

Give top priority to any persona who must be satisfied with your text, and who cannot be satisfied with text intended for someone else. In this way you end up with a set of "real" people you are writing to, like familiar e-mail correspondents, and you can create targeted text for each.

To create a product that must satisfy a broad audience of users, logic will tell you to make it as broad in its functionality as possible to accommodate the most people. Logic is wrong. (Cooper, 1999).

Write for these personas

You're going to create content for each persona.

You're not going to make one persona read something that's really intended for another, the way a magazine site often does.

"The broader a target you aim for, the more certainty you have of missing the bull's eye," says Cooper.

And, because you come to envision each persona as if he or she were a living person, you develop a unique relationship with the persona. And your tone reflects that, making your style more, well, personal. 

Example Persona: Emma Aragon

Who is this persona?  What goal is he pursuing with a Lego truck on his hat?




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