During my first two years working at Kiva we designed and built features based primarily on how our staff used (or wanted to use) the website. Because Kiva’s staff is passionate and knowledgeable on the subjects of poverty alleviation and financial inclusion, this colored many of the choices we made when designing the user experiences. At a basic level this lead us to design overly complex interfaces or even overestimate the desire for a feature based on our internal preferences.

As a balance to the strong internal opinions at Kiva I introduced various user research methods to include the voice of Kiva’s lenders into the product development process. Personas, also know as “user archetypes,” became an effective method to shift the perspective of the team developing Kiva’s website from internal preferences to one focused on the needs and desires of the people who use the website.

Personas are fictional representations of people who use a product or service. These simple models are based on the real behaviors, motivations and demographics of people but don’t represent any one person.

Five user personas and photos along with photos, motivations and behavior

Over the four years we’ve been using personas we’ve found their greatest value was derived during their creation. The team that participates in the interviews, surveys and data analysis used to create the personas gained a deep insight into the people using the product. The knowledge and empathy we gained has been leveraged continually since we introduced personas in everything from interface design choices to larger decisions about our product roadmap – the projects Kiva undertakes.

Additionally by documenting and promoting personas throughout the organization we found additional value:

  • As a reference for internal staff and external partners who need to understand the people using Kiva.
  • As recruiting targets for additional user research.
  • As a target audience during the inception phase of a project to ensure we aren’t building something for ourselves.

All in all I’ve found personas to be a valuable tool in a designers’ toolbox. If you’re interested in learning more I’d recommend these articles and training from Cooper, whose founder Alan Cooper literally wrote the book on personas.