For a More Effective Data Program, Do a Personas Exercise

October 31, 2017 8:43 am PST | Data as a Service

What’s it like for a resident in your city, state, or county to use your government’s services? For Gainesville, Florida, making citizen’s experiences with government services positive is at the root of all the city’s efforts. As an article in FastCoDesign put it, the city is on a mission to, “Make Gainesville the most citizen-centered city in the United States.”

“Government is designed for experts — you have to hire people to get through it,” points out Andrew Lyons, City Manager for Gainesville, in the FastCoDesign article. Gainesville was eager to flip that script and make it possible for anyone, from experts to newbies, to navigate the governmental terrain, specifically to open a business.

But how? A key ingredient in Gainesville’s efforts to put citizens first involved engaging in a personas exercise.


What Are Personas — And Why Do They Matter?

If you have a background in design, marketing, or content creation, you may be familiar with personas already. Personas are fictional representations of your users. As a government, for instance, you may have “Analyst Jose” who represents all your internal staffers, “Leadership Larry” who’s a stand-in for councilmembers and top governmental officials, and “Rosa Resident,” a stand-in for citizens. Personas can help you connect real-life data needs with the theoretical reasons you’re moving forward with an open data program.  


Personas help you connect real-life data needs with the theoretical reasons you’re moving forward with an open data program.


Using personas leads to a reliable, more realistic representation of your key audience segments. If you are making a move to putting data online, it’s important to consider which data you’ll share — and why. How will people use the data? What’s the purpose of publishing specific datasets, and which should go live first? Going through a personas exercise helps provide you with answers to these questions and steers your efforts to develop a data portal or providing government services.


The 4-Step Process of a Persona Exercise

In an effort to make government resources more accessible to citizens and help grow the economy, Gainesville went through a next-level persona exercise. The process involved using a storefront to encourage citizens to share ideas and concerns. If you’re familiar with your citizen and staff data needs, however, you can run a persona exercise in your office over the course of a few days. Here’s how:

Step 1: Who do you want to serve? Kick off this exercise by identifying personas. Who calls your government with questions? Which internal users could perform tasks more effectively with better access to data? How could data serve government leaders? Your current or planned portal may have many, many different types of users — in this step, you can brainstorm a big list of personas, but aim to keep the focus on major user groups.

Step 2: Develop the personas. If necessary, narrow down your list from step one. We recommend having at least two personas — an internal user and an external user — to make this exercise most effective. Now, describe your personas in more detail. Give them names, if you’d like!


persona faces
When Socrata goes through a personas exercise with customers, we give the personas faces to help make them seem even more real.


Identify the following information about them:

  • Facts & demographics: Is this persona a governmental official or staffer, a resident who owns a business or a home, or a college student? List out details on each persona’s hobbies, age, location, and other demographic-type details — knowing this information will help you understand the persona’s thoughts and actions.
  • Behaviors: Understanding behavior lets you build a site that caters to persona needs. In the long run, this reduces frustration for users, as well as calls and emails requesting help. If your persona wants to build an app, then you’ll need to provide raw data, which means focusing on metadata and API fields over visualizations. But, if your persona is a citizen curious about how tax dollars are spent, visualizations, graphs, and explanatory text are key to a successful site.
  • Needs & goals: Does your persona want a one-time answer or require long-term assistance? Identifying persona needs helps you develop a roadmap for what to include on your data portal and allows you to determine how frequently you’ll need to update data.

This detailed picture of personas informs which data you highlight on your portal and how it’s presented, as well as highlighting gaps in coverage and new opportunities.

Step 3: Determine the persona’s pain points. List out all of the problems and difficulties each persona may have relating to government services. Pain points may be things like “can’t find data,” “don’t understand data,” “data isn’t available,” etc.

In Gainesville, for instance, engaging with users helped the city realize that potential business owners needed help throughout the entire process of launching a business — and not just the steps that directly involve city departments. This lead to the creation of the Department of Doing, which will have both a web and brick-and-mortar location. City employees will help steer entrepreneurs throughout the whole business-opening operation.

You won’t be able to remove all pain points — at least, not in phase one — but listing them all out is helpful. Most likely, you’ll notice some overlap in pain points. Both Analyst Jose and Resident Rosa, for instance, may be seeking information on a program to reduce potholes throughout the city. Group similar pain points together.

Step 4: Now, prioritize pain points. The goal in this step is to assess the importance of solving a pain point against the effort required to fix it. Ideally, you’ll have several pain points that are a high priority (solving them will be a big win for your personas!) but require low effort (you have just the dataset you need). Of course, that won’t always be the case — some pain points will be easy to solve, but won’t incur many benefits. Others will be hugely beneficial to several personas, but require data that you can’t easily publish.

Consider this balance of effort versus outcomes as you build your roadmap. In the first phase of your data program, aim to solve several low-effort, high-reward concerns. More challenging pain points can be tackled in phase two, three, or four. In effect, you’ve created a future-looking roadmap for your data program.

Doing a persona exercise helps you move beyond publishing for the sake of publishing, or prioritizing dataset release based solely on availability. Through this exercise, you ensure that you’re publishing data with intent and purpose — the datasets on your portal will be more likely to solve problems and help your government engage with users. Lyons, Gainesville’s City Manager, sees the citizen-centered approach to projects spreading across the city. “There’s a way this [outcome-based approach] can be used in every single thing we are doing, from budgeting to strategic planning and what systems are needed,” says Lyons. “…it’s a pretty amazing time for Gainesville — and a fun time to be in government.”

Want help with a persona exercise? Contact Socrata. We’d love to chat about the potential the personas in your jurisdiction.

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