The web design process at North Studio usually includes user personas–and that's for a good reason. User personas help us:

  • Define the target audience
  • Understand its behaviour
  • Predict the way it will use the website
  • Find out its gaps in knowledge

Defining the target audience is an essential step in web design. It happens way before any logos are drawn, colors are chosen or wireframes are built. Your targent audience is the starting point for all these elements–not the other way around. Defining the target audience basically answers the question: who is your user?

Another important function of user personas is determining what their actions are. User experience professionals can predict behaviour patterns based on user identity. Basically, knowing who your audience is means that you can guess, more or less accurately, what they do.

In more specific terms, user personas also help web designers and managers understand how they use the website: what paths they take to certain information, how they react to calls to action, etc. Here, we mean to understand persona behaviour applied to a specific thing: your website. Using basic design principles, usability research and a lot of practice making websites, we can have a pretty good idea of what channels a user will travel through your website.

But one thing that is discussed less (and should be discussed more) is understanding what your users know

Think about it–what is the internet for?

Before I answer, I really want you to think about it. Why do you use the internet most of the time?

Entertainment for sure, social media of course, but the most important function of the internet is information. The web is the greatest repository of knowledge humans have ever built. 

When building and considering your audience personas, it would be a mistake to skip thinking about what they know–about your industry, about your products, about your website, and about using the web as a whole.

This is what UX professionals call tool knowledge and domain knowledge.

Tool knowledge

When building your persona, it's important to consider how much your potential audience knows. When defining its tool knowledge, you should ask questions like

  • How often does this person access my website?
  • How much does it know about website navigation in general?
  • Does it expect a standard design or something more avant-garde?

In broad terms, understanding tool knowledge implies understanding web usability in general. Web usability determines if a website is intuitive and if tasks can easily be performed in its current design. Other questions it answers are:

  • Is all the necessary and expected information there?
  • Can people quickly get to the pages they need to visit?
  • Are the pages easy to scan quickly for specific information?
  • Is the design complemetary to the search for information, or does it get in the way?
  • Are the navigation tools sufficient and helpful?

In other words, does the website follow current web design conventions and best practices?

As people visit tons of websites every day, they expect them to work a certain way. Breaking those conventions can cost you your audience if you're not careful.

The best way to test tool knowledge is to conduct your own usability study. We'll cover basic usability study design in a future post, but know that usability studies are usually fast, low-cost and easy to do. The insights you can gain from them are definitely worth it.

In summary, a good user persona should take into account how that persona uses websites in general and your website in particular.

Domain knowledge

Domain knowledge is a bit harder to define, but it generally relates to the kind of information your user is looking for. It is intimately linked with content planning and management.

Let's take the simple example of a restaurant website. A tool knowledge assessment would answer questions like

  • Should we include our menu? (Yes is a pretty good answer to that question)
  • Is our location and contact information easy to find?
  • Are our users looking for any more information like special room reservations, catering, events, etc?

Tool knowledge basically covers what the website should include and what it looks like.

When assessing domain knowledge, we need to go a bit further. Wondering about a user's domain knowledge, in our restaurant example, would mean asking questions like

  • How many other restaurants of our types are there in the area? How do they compare to ours?
  • Where can users find reviews of our restaurants, and how much influence do they have?
  • What do my friends and family think of this restaurant? What about bloggers and food critics?

Even though most of this information isn't under the website owner's control, it's important to acknowledge the existence of the domain knowledge and, when appropriate, taking advantage of it.

One way to do so is through using social media channels–a topic that our sister company Stikky Media knows well. After discovering this part of your persona profile, you might want to add a reviews feed from UrbanSpoon or Yelp, for example. Information within domain knowledge aims to

  • Understand needs,
  • Refine solutions, and
  • Alleviate fears.

If you can do all of this within your website, excellent! Your content will answer to most of your users' needs. However, if you think your website might be lacking, you should consider developing content to fill that gap. 

What is this all for?

In the end, building a persona that includes an analysis of both tool and domain knowledge is the best to ensure that your website is designed correctly the first time. It can help you discover flaws and issues in your current website design and give you pointers to correct them.

A good user persona is part marketing, part user experience and part content management. It's a complex but necessary process to go through with every website design or redesign. And using tool and domain knowledge within your persona description can push your understanding of your target audience much further than a simple "who is my audience" persona.

To sum up, a good user persona should answer these questions:

  • Who is my user?
  • How does my user use my website?
  • What does my user expect to see on my website?
  • What does my user know already?
  • What does my user want to know about me, my products or my services?
  • How does my user obtain this information right now?

Good web designs are good–by design. User personas are a big part of it.

Do you have any questions concerning user personas, how we build them or how we use them? Have you used one successfully (or not) in the past?