Use of Personas in usability testing for academic libraries

As academic libraries move toward a more user-oriented approach, they are implementing various ways to test usability and user experience (Tempelman-Kluit, N., & Pearce, A., 2014). One that caught my eye was the use of personas. Personas are prototypes of actual users, developed through multiple means of research including interviews and surveys. The use of personas was first mentioned in Alan Cooper’s book The Inmates Are Running The Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity. Beginning in the field of User-Centered Design, or UCD, personas were initially used by businesses in designing their websites to help sell more products. They identify users’ goals, expectations, and values and personify them in a way that allows usability testers to focus their design strategy.

In this blog post on Step Two Designs’ website, personas are defined and explained. As archetypical users, they are fictitious, but encompass the behaviors and desires of real users. Frequently given a name, personality, and even portrait, they represent a specific type of user around whom a website or service can be oriented. Primary personas are those to whom the website is tailored, while secondary personas represent other types of users whose needs and experience allow them to also be helped by the newly designed site. In an academic library, a primary persona could be a first year undergraduate student, who is unsure of how the library works and needs clear language and assistance with resource discovery. Secondary personas would include graduate students and faculty members who have a better understanding of the workings of the library and would mainly need help with delivery and higher end research.

The beginnings of a persona that could be used in the business world (Calabria, 2004):


The creation of personas involves conducting research and analyzing the results. As I mentioned before, research can be carried out through surveys, interviews, or even through day-to-day interaction with patrons. Qualitative data, like stories about a user’s past experiences and frustrations, are used to paint a more personalized picture for a persona. Quantifiable data pertaining to the user’s information needs and motivation are also crucial in amalgamating real traits to create a fictional representation. By noticing patterns in these two areas, usability experts can identify clusters, which become personas.

In 2005, the Gerstein Library at the University of Toronto implemented the use of personas to make sure that their website met the needs of their users. Heather Cunningham, along with other library and design staff members, created “Cindy Lee,” an inexperienced freshman just looking for some scholarly articles to write a paper, and “Dr. Matthew French,” a faculty member in the School of Medicine looking for evidence-based resources (Cuninngham, 2005). By gearing their testing and design toward “Cindy,” the primary persona, they were able to create a streamlined and clearly-worded website that would also be of use to “Dr.French.”

Gerstein Library’s primary persona (Cuninngham, 2005):


Though personas are used in conjunction with other forms of usability testing, they are still often thought of as being too objective and lacking “scientific rigor” (Tempelman-Kluit, N., & Pearce, A., 2014).  Recently, New York University Libraries undertook a scientific approach toward the creation of personas in an effort to find a more data-driven way of doing usability testing. They mined 169 transcripts from their Ask-A-Librarian chat reference service for information on user’s needs and motivation, then assigned numerical values to those pieces of data. By developing a coding scheme and tool, they were able to plot each interview on a graph, where the x axis represented information needs and the y axis their motivation. Doing so allowed them to identify clusters, much like Gerstein Library did, but with data that would be easier to prove and represent. These personas revealed the various types of users at NYU’s libraries. Though clusters were identifiable, there was still significant diversity even within each archetype. One shortcoming in their research was that they did not have a specific target for which to use this newly found information, but rather carried it out more in the spirit of research and experimentation. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, they use this information to do.

With the recent strides made by NYU in developing personas, an additional form of scientific usability testing has been introduced. The concept of personas may be able to gain a wider user base in the library field and an improved reputation.

Graphical information from NYU’s research (Tempelman-Kluit, N., & Pearce, A., 2014):

 graph 1

graph 2


Calabria, T. (2004, March) An introduction to personas and how to create them. Retrieved from

Cunningham, H. (2005). Designing a web site for one imaginary persona that reflects the needs of many. Computers In Libraries, 25(9), 15-19.

Tempelman-Kluit, N., & Pearce, A. (2014). Invoking the user from data to design. College & Research Libraries, 75(5), 615-640.