Agency Perspectives on Personas (Use, Development and Challenges)

Personas are tools your agency can use to learn about your end users and drive decisions. Personas are so useful because they serve as a communication tool for your team. You can keep these personas in mind to guide any work that your agency performs.

Let’s delve a bit deeper into personas and review two examples from the federal community. Below, we have personas from the Department of Human and Health Services (HHS) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

600-x-350-USDA-Example-1
600-x-458-USDA-Example-2

*Q & A with Emily Marsh, Ph.D., MLS, Librarian (USDA)*

How did you determine the information you wanted to include in your personas?

“I think personas sit in the middle of a busy intersection where several different traditions meet. They are marketing tools to help us discover the nature and needs of our audience. They are design tools that help us create things that people will like to use. Finally, they are reflections of ourselves: how we see our users and imagine them engaged with our products and services in the context of their lives.”

“A persona will only work well if it rests upon a good foundation of data that touch upon all these issues. The personas I created for the library incorporate patterns of user needs and information-seeking behavior that have been documented in research studies of agricultural scientists and practitioners as well as consumers. They also include my own experience, and that of my colleagues, hearing and answering users’ questions at the reference desk—both here at NAL and in other libraries. They are also aspirational: they include descriptions of the kinds of users and tasks that our work aims to support.”

How did your agencies utilize the information provided by the personas?

“The personas have not been used “as is” by any specific project in the library. Instead, they have been used as an example of a structured way of thinking about our customers and their needs in the realm of digital products and services—a sort of informal change agent. I have been asked to create a set of personas for a new initiative of the library, however, and that is very exciting.”

Department of Human and Health Services

600-x-445-HHS-Personas-Example-1
HHS example of Personas

Q & A with Kathryn Messner, Usability.gov Program Manager (HHS)

How did you determine the information that you wanted to include in your personas?

“The team pulled together market research looking at search data as well as analyzing metrics data. We wanted to know:

  • their primary goal
  • how they accessed the site—meaning both the type of device used and the traffic source
  • how technically savvy they are
  • what frustrations and challenges they have
  • their reasons for visiting the site, and
  • ranked desired features.

What are some challenges you faced in the creation of your personas?

“A challenge the team faced is the desire to validate the personas with real users of HHS.gov. They were pulled together based on a lot of data and we’ve since done usability testing of the site and other types of validation along the way but have not had the opportunity to conduct user interviews or focus groups so far.”

How did your agencies utilize the information provided by the personas?

“Our team has actually used these personas throughout the entire redesign as a way to keep who we are designing this site for in mind. As someone on my team pointed out, it’s a really good way to ground the project and keep opinions out of it. At the end of the day, if the decisions don’t align with the needs of these audiences, we need to take a look at what we’re doing.”

As you can see above, a persona provides your agency with a tool that allows you to make decisions with the end user in mind. Personas are widely applicable to any federal agency. The only requirement is that you have an end user. As employees of the federal government, we all have end users. Be sure to utilize personas as a tool to provide a more customer-centric experience!

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