The key to winning the battle for user attention

Only a few minutes. That’s all you have today to win the battle that everybody is fighting: grabbing the attention of users. With the industry offering such a huge number of alternatives for products and services, you need to stand out somehow. How can you create not just a normal, but a truly memorable, experience for each of your users?

We interviewed Kirsten Powers, UX Director at Nearpod—an award-winning educational platform based in Florida’s Dania Beach—to get her thoughts on the importance of designing with and for the users. Nearpod has recently publicly shared their first Teacher and Admin Personas, which were a hit amongst the edtech community, as each type of Nearpod user is represented as a superhero.


PSh: Why are Personas important when working towards achieving the goal of creating an outstanding user experience?

Kirsten: I have been in user interface and experience design for about 20 years. I've always found Personas to be an incredibly powerful tool when they are used correctly. Personas educate people who are either serving those users represented or designing systems for them, in a way that they would otherwise not have. People who work for companies don’t have direct access to people who actually use the service or the product that they’re responsible for creating. So, often, people that are using the product—the target users—are left to the side, especially in discussions about priorities, initiatives, and major objectives for the business. I found this everywhere in the past: in small organizations, startups in Silicon Valley, and on a cybersecurity company where I used to work in San Francisco. In all cases, I've been an advocate for the users. Part of my job responsibilities is designing for them in the first place. That's one of the reasons I love Personas: they help me get a deeper sense of knowledge about who it is that I'm designing for. I can use those tools to educate all the people around me that don't have that direct connection to the users and that usually has a great impact on not just the direction of the organization, but how they make priorities. This usually inspires empathy and, along with that, an extra level of energy. People become inspired to do the right thing rather than inspired to just meet an objective.


PSh: Creating personas for your company was a huge undertaking. Why was Nearpod interested in this project? Can you describe the process of developing characters for all these different user types? Did you rely on a priori thinking primarily, or did you call upon actual user research? 

Kirsten: It was my idea. I pitched it as one of the first things that I really wanted to do and, to do this, I followed a process. I've been trained to follow a process in my career where, when you kick off a rather large-scale project, one of the first things you need to do is identify who your target users are and use personas to represent them. As you go through the process of defining the scope and objectives of the project, putting the project plan together, and figuring out if you are going to do testing and validation along with the design, you can go back and make sure that we're always thinking about the user. 

They didn’t have any personas at Nearpod. So one of the first major projects that I did was to reach out to teachers who had never used Nearpod in parallel with some other user research that I was already conducting. From that, I was able to learn about all the different types of educators that are using, or could potentially use, the platform and steal some kind of initial straw man personas—proto-personas— out of that. 


PSh: Did you consult with anyone outside the UX/UI team during your brainstorming process? 

Kirsten: Initially, yes. We had a kickoff meeting where I had pulled together the initial strawman personas and I wanted to unveil them to a group of people in the organization that I thought would be interested and that represented different teams within the organization: a lot of people from Content, some from Development, some from Marketing. I invited them and I got a lot of feedback. It was really constructive and that helped me to move forward. It helped in a couple of ways: it let me know what I was missing as I've only been with the company for a few months, and of course, they had more ideas about the kind of data that would be really helpful internally to make up a persona.


PSh: Do you relate to any of these characters strongly yourself? Has the shoe ever been on the other foot for you, in a teaching role or just that of a lifelong learner?

Kirsten: I'm not a teacher by trade. I have never been in the field of education, so, frankly, listening to the educators that I talked to who have helped me create and represent these personas was really informative for me and I'm so happy that I had the opportunity to do it. Can I see myself as one of these personas? Maybe Zeus, and I only say that because I have a stepson and we had him in the pre-med Academy when he was in middle school. I saw all of the rigor that was involved—what the teachers were going through trying to teach that sort of curriculum—and how they were really trying to do good work not just in helping kids grow but giving them a better way forward in life. And I thought that that was really important.


PSh: Did you hit any stumbling blocks along the way to developing these personas? UX/UI and Sales are different teams that share their message in a very different way. How can this project and these personas help the Sales team? How can they help all other teams?

Kirsten: When I first started, I created these strawman personas and I socialized them a little bit and got some feedback. And then an interesting thing happened: there was a Sales kickoff meeting, a company-wide thing we all had to go to, and someone from Content had been a part of the stakeholder review of the initial strawman personas, and mentioned them to our new CMO, Rajeev. And the people who were preparing the collateral for the sales kickoff meeting started creating their own personas based on what I'd already done but much less detailed.. They were also more broad, as the personas that I had initially drafted were just for teachers, so they created a set of personas that represented not just teachers but all other kinds of educators: curriculum coordinators, principals, vice principals, CTOs in districts, etc. That helped me learn that there was far more to an educator than simply a 3rd or a 9th-grade teacher. That went over really well at the sales kickoff and the sales team was very receptive to them. I was able to talk about the value of personas a little bit at that meeting and got a lot of support from both Marketing and Content to move forward and craft the deeper level of detail for each one and that's what really gave me the ability to move forward and create what you see now, turning them into superheroes.


PSh: Understanding your user base and developing empathy for their needs is so important for every kind of business, yet few take the time to go down this road. Why do you think that is the case? What advice would you give to others who want to develop personas for their business? 

Kirsten: I know that personas get a bad rap sometimes, and I understand that because often, you'll sit in a conference room and dream of characters. And then those will be your personas, with absolutely no data to go back to and say: "This is who I talked to, and this is why this is represented in this persona." That's dangerous. All our personas—every single one of them—can be tied to a couple of people that we talked to, o they are derived from real educators. I think that's super important. It was super important for me, otherwise, I wouldn't have a clue how best to design for the educators. Companies are into it now, and I can talk about this now because I was there. In my former company, collateral was spread throughout their corporate ecosystems. They had posters of the personas. You went into their lunch room and the placemat that was on your tray was a persona. And that's what I'm envisioning that we can do internally here, which is why we started thinking about persona cards. Because we really want to use them to gamify project kickoffs, making them a little bit more fun, but also have something really tangible that we can pick from and say, "Yes, this is who we're designing for." Because personas, even if super well-developed, are so easy to forget. We're going to have those movie-sized persona posters printed out and posted on the walls throughout the floor so that, when people are walking around, they can stop and see them.


PSh: Thank you very much, this was a great interview.

Kirsten: Thank you so much. And it's not the end; in the future, we'd like to do student and parent personas too! 


So there you have it: one successful company’s process and development of user personas and how they quickly became an integral part of the design process for not just the UI/UX team, but all teams within the organization. 

With user satisfaction a paramount concern for any thriving business today, it’s clear that the key to winning the battle for user attention begins with meditating hard on exactly who you’re serving in the first place. 

And who knows? With all those shiny new posters and placards hanging around the office—not to mention gamified design sessions(!)—you might just have a lot of fun in the process!