In software development, as is true in many other fields, it’s tremendously useful to clarify target users at an early stage. It’s often said that if you develop for everyone, you end up developing for no one.
For this reason it is the preliminary responsibility of any good usability team to flesh out the target audience before conducting any user testing. Crafting personas is one established way to refine user focus.
“[Personas] are archetypal users whose goals and characteristics represent the needs of a larger group of users. They function as stand-ins for real users to guide decisions about design and functionality.” (http://www.measuringu.com/blog/personas-ux.php)
Personas go much deeper than saying, for instance, that we want to develop X program for tech savvy people. They are specific hypothetical users who represent a demographic. Personas generally include the following:
Name (helpful as a reference for the design/development teams)
Photo (a good visual cue)
Demographics (age, gender, ethnicity, location, education, marital status)
Occupation details (job title and responsibilities)
Personal background (a day in the life of this person)
Technology comfort level (this includes a description of their needs)
Motivations (what sort of interaction are they looking for?)
Goals (what tasks are they trying to complete?)
Personas are not randomly created fictional characters, but those carefully selected through some combination of quantitative and qualitative research. An example of the former would be analysis of site traffic from a hundred users. An example of the latter would be a user interview conducted with 5-10 participants.
With well researched personas in place, development will run much smoother. Designers will have a better sense of goals for the look and feel of the program. Developers will build better interfaces. Many questions get answered earlier and more efficiently when we have personas to help motivate and focus development work.
Check out this example persona.