User Profiles

1 Introduction

Users of the software to be designed are identified and their characteristics recorded.  A wide range of sources can be used to identify characteristics and the user profile document is the repository of this collected evidence.  It is reviewed to identify implication for the design project.  To make the information it contains more comprehensible to the design team user personae may be created based on the documented user profiles.

2 Method

A user profile should be completed for each user group that you identify. Do this by working through the list of possibly relevant characteristics listed in the User Characteristics Check-List (available in the folder containing this document). For any particular user group, it will only be relevant to record a small subset of the characteristics listed.

For each relevant characteristic that you identify, record it together with its details (e.g., number, range, type, etc.) and any implications for the design that occur to you. If evidence is available to support the detail recorded for a particular characteristic (e.g. from Government statistics, etc.) its source should also be recorded.

N.B. there may be significant characteristics of a particular user that are missing from my User Characteristics Check-List. (Please let me know about them.)

If the detail of a significant characteristic or group of characteristics vary widely in your user group population (e.g., age together with its associated issues) then consider splitting this user group into two or more sub-groups.

A.    General Characteristic

Significant characteristics that do not fit into the specific categories following.

A.1     Types of Use

A.1.1    Direct

Physically obtains output from the system and manipulates input devices.

A.1.2    Indirect

Uses the system via an intermediary (direct) user.

A.1.3    Remote

Receives artifacts generated by the system (printouts etc.).

A.1.4    Collateral

Receives unintended (and likely unwanted) output from the system, and may possibly initiate unintended inputs.

A.1.5    Prohibited

Persons (usually with malicious intent) who must be prevented from using the system.

A.1.6    Support

Third-parties who are responsible for installing and maintaining the system in operation.  In some cases they may also be the direct users.

A.1.7    Other

A.2     Number of Users

This is the total number of people in each type of use category who will be using the installed system.  This has significance in planning user participation in design and testing.

B.    Demographics

The general population features that characterise the user group.  The characteristics listed below are based those often used in marketing surveys.  Not all will be relevant for any particular user group.

B.1     Age

This becomes particularly significant towards the extremes, with very young users having issues with literacy, while older users will have an increasing proportion of sensory, motor and cognitive disabilities.  For educational software the users’ age is extremely significant.

Very significant in the presentation of web sites and other marketing oriented systems.

Use of websites and social media by under 18’s presents issues of child protection.  See

In the USA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 places particular restrictions on websites accessed by under 13’s.  See

B.2     Sex / Gender / Sexual Preference (male, female, gay, lesbian, transgender, transvestite, etc.)

The World Health Organization (WHO) makes the distinction between sex and gender as:

“‘Sex’ refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women.

‘Gender’ refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.” [WHO]

Male, female, gay, lesbian, transgender and transvestite are examples of labels that may be used to represent aspects of sex and gender.  However, individuals may not always define their own identity in neat administrative categories and in the case of transvestite and transgender individuals may represent themselves with more than one gender identity.  This may raise issues where software systems allow the possibility of only one identity to be recorded.

This characteristic may be very significant in the presentation of web sites and other marketing oriented systems

B.3     Ethnicity

A broadly accepted sociological definition of ethnicity is:

“[T]hose human groups that entertain a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both, or because of memories of colonization and migration; this belief must be important for group formation; furthermore it does not matter whether an objective blood relationship exists.” [Webber]

Assigning a particular ethnic identity to an individual is not always straightforward and may be contested.  These issues are discussed in a UK Economic and Social Data Service background paper where the comment is made that:

“Collecting data on ethnicity is a challenge because of the subjective, multi-faceted and changing nature of ethnic identification. In ethnic identity questions, we are unable to base ethnic identification upon objective, quantifiable information.” [ESDS]

‘Ethnic’ characteristics recorded in government surveys include: “country of birth, nationality, language spoken at home, parents’ country of birth, colour, national/geographical origin, racial group and religion.” [ESDS]  Meaningfully interpreting statistics collected under these headings is not straightforward.

Ethnicity may be significant in the choice of images and symbols used in interface design and in the presentation of web sites and other marketing oriented systems.

B.4     Location (region / country / etc.)

May indicate a need for localization of the product.

B.5     Education (Primary / Secondary / Further Education / Graduate / Postgraduate / Other)

Usually categorized as the highest level attained.  May be significant in the development of associated documentation and the presentation of web sites and other marketing oriented systems.

B.6     Socioeconomic status

Usually based on occupational status with rules to cover the entire population.  The current official UK classification scheme is described at:

Very significant in combination with other characteristics in the presentation of web sites and other marketing oriented systems.

B.7     Religion

May have significance in the choice of images, symbols and style of language used in interface design.

B.8     Marital / Civil Partnership status

May be significant in the presentation of web sites and other marketing oriented systems. May raise issues of direct and indirect use (e.g., wife prints off holiday information from web site and uses it to get husband to agree).

B.9     Ownership (home / pet / car/ etc.)

May be very significant in (and often the raison d’être for) the presentation of web sites and other marketing oriented systems.

B.10  Mobility

Relocation within the country, commuting, etc.  May raise issues of use of mobile devices or home working.

B.11  Life cycles (fertility, education, majority, matrimony, parenthood, retirement, mortality, etc.)

May be very significant in (and often the raison d’être for) the presentation of web sites and other marketing oriented systems.

C.    Cultural

The social purposes, motivations and constraints that pertain to the user’s interaction with the system.

C.1     Organizational Ethos

The type of company or organization within which the user is operating.

C.1.1    Raison d’être (Commercial / Educational / Government / Public Service / Social / Entertainment / etc.)

C.1.2    Organizational Model (Hierarchical Management / Flat Management / Co-operative / Club / etc.)

C.1.3    Activity (Business to Business / Business to Customer / Peer to Peer / Business to Government / Government to Citizen / etc.)

C.2     Task Environment

For each identified and recorded task carried out by the user:

C.2.1    Task Identification

The name of the task, an identification number, etc

C.2.2    Volition (Voluntary / Compulsory / Prohibited)

If the task, and use of the designed system to accomplish it, is a requirement of employment, then there will be legal requirements to take into account. (European Directive on work with Visual Display Terminals, Disability Discrimination Act).

C.2.3    Motivation (Intrinsic / Extrinsic / Instrumental)

Is the motivation to use the system provided by the experience itself (intrinsic), e.g., a game, or by something external (extrinsic), e.g., money, job specification, law, or an intermediate means to achieve a larger objective (instrumental), e.g., buy a ticket for a play?

C.2.4    Ways of Working

C.2.4.1    Collaboration

C.   Individual
C.   Team
C.  Location (co-located / dispersed)
C.  Temporality (synchronous / asynchronous)

C.2.4.2    Concurrency

The mix of tasks in-hand at any time.

C.   Same task (single / multiple)
C.   Different task

C.2.4.3    Other systems used in this task

C.2.5    Frequency (Constantly / Hourly / Daily / Weekly / Annually / Uniquely)

How often the user will carry out this task. For a constant task, the user is likely to favour efficiency, while for a task carried out on one unique occasion is likely to favour ease of learning.

C.2.6    Goals

The desired outcome of undertaking the task; its motivation.

C.2.6.1    Corporate goals

The goal of the employing organisation that the user believes they are advancing through operation of this system; e.g.,   increasing sales, improving product quality, etc. Alternately if the user is not an employee (perhaps a customer) the goal of their sponsoring organisation they believe they are furthering; e.g., obtain goods at the best price, make efficient use of their time, etc. and so contribute to profitability.

C.2.6.2    Practical (Immediate) goals

The expected specific outcome of using the system; e.g., a placed order, a validated build specification, a calculated radiator size, etc.

C.2.6.3    End (Process) goals

The intended additional benefit obtained by using the system to attain a practical goal; e.g., efficiency, accuracy, speed, certainty, control, etc.

C.2.6.4    Experience goals

What expectation does the user have of the experience of using the system?  For example, shopping is for many an enjoyable process that is sometimes more important just obtaining a particular product, otherwise all shops would be like Argos stores!  Examples might involve; excitement, sophistication, enjoyment, engagement, confidence, membership of a ‘club’, etc.

C.2.6.5    False goals

Any goals mentioned by users or stakeholders that are irrelevant or misplaced; e.g., needing to look modern, cutting down on network traffic, etc.  These should be recorded together with a rationale for disregarding them.  However, that the user or stakeholder believes that these are relevant may need to be addressed in the design.

D.    Cognitive

The thinking or brain activity of the user.

D.1     Language

D.1.1    Native Tongue / Second Language

If second language then vocabulary and idiom may need to be managed.

D.1.2    Specific Language

E.g., Korean as first language, US English as second.

Should translation of the software be allowed for?  This has implications at least for the layout of text in the interface.  A rule of thumb is to allow 20% more space in text fields to allow for translation from English to other languages.

D.1.3    Literacy (Illiterate / Low Literacy / Literate)

For use by the general public, the reading age of a 9 year old is often assumed.

D.2     Affect

D.2.1    Motivation (Intrinsic / Extrinsic)

Part of a contract of employment?  Do their pay or promotion prospects depend on how they operate this system?  In the case of safety critical systems, their survival?

D.2.2    Interests

What hobbies, sports or other interests do the users have? (Might suggest a metaphor for use in the design, but caution is required before pursuing this!)

D.2.3    Attitudes towards: Content / Learning / Technology

Does the user welcome the new system, or dread it? Do they enjoy learning new things or resist it?  Do they like computer technology or hate it?

D.2.4    Self-esteem

How does the user feel about their status, and how might this system affect it?  E.g., it may be perceived as deskilling.

D.2.5    Anxiety

Is the system to be used in a high-risk environment (e.g., military, medical, financial, entertainment) under tight time constraints?   May anxiety affect performance?

D.2.6    Locus of Control

Who is in charge, the user or the computer (or someone/thing else)?  Generally the user should be in charge of the system, but not necessarily in training, simulation and real-time environments.

D.2.7    Beliefs

With regard to the task they are engaged in or the content of the computer system.  This is often captured in a ‘mental model’.

D.2.8    Personality

D.2.8.1    Big Five Dimensions (Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Openness to experience)

Goldberg, L. R. (1990). An alternative “description of personality”: The big-five factor structure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 1216-1229, is one example personality theory.  The personality type may be determined using psycho-metric tests.

D.   Extraversion – outgoing and stimulation-oriented vs. quiet and stimulation-avoiding
D.   Neuroticism – emotionally reactive, prone to negative emotions vs. calm, imperturbable, optimistic
D.   Agreeableness – affable, friendly, conciliatory vs. aggressive, dominant, disagreeable
D.   Conscientiousness – dutiful, planful, and orderly vs. laidback, spontaneous, and unreliable
D.   Openness to experience – open to new ideas and change vs. traditional and oriented toward routine

D.2.9    Visual literacy

Competence at interpreting images and graphics.  E.g., the use of graphs and histograms in software used by specialists on the one hand and the general public on the other requires very different approaches.

D.3     Knowledge

D.3.1    Task Domain Knowledge

Knowledge of the task that the system is intended to support.  E.g., for a sales order processing system, knowledge of how the sales and accounts departments actually process orders in that company.

D.3.1.1    Level (Novice / Intermediate / Expert)

D.3.1.2    Transfer or Specific

Has this knowledge been acquired from another system/context: transfer, or is it specific to the system under design?  If transfer, and there are differences in the new system, this may need acknowledging in the design.

D.3.2    Computer Domain Knowledge

This ranges from understanding how to use a keyboard and mouse to details of internal processing and network protocols.

D.3.2.1    Level (Novice / Intermediate / Expert)

D.3.2.2    Transfer or Specific

Has this knowledge been acquired from experience of a different computer (e.g., Mac vs. PC, etc.): transfer, or is it specific to the target system?

D.3.3    Learning Style

Will they want/need/accept classroom training, tutorials in the software, exploratory learning, etc.

D.4     Disability

Within your user population there may be individuals who live with the following cognitive disabilities; the system you are designing may even be intended specifically for them.  However, bear in mind that as with other disabilities, people may experience them temporarily.  Examples here may be divers or pilots experiencing the effect of anoxia, in which case their ability to operate system interfaces while impaired are a matter of life and death.  The consumption of alcohol and drugs; prescription and recreational will also cause (hopefully but not always) temporary cognitive impairment.  An example of where this may be relevant might be bus and rail automatic ticket machines that have a disproportionate number of cognitively disabled users late in the evenings.  Their ability to operate the interface easily may prevent the ticket machine being damaged.  Another example is the design of safety equipment that has to be operated under high levels of fear and stress where cognitive abilities may also be impaired.

D.4.1    Dyslexia

“Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty which is neurobiological in origin and persists across the lifespan.

It is characterised by difficulties with phonological processing, rapid naming, working memory, processing speed and the automatic development of skills that are unexpected in relation to an individual’s other cognitive abilities.

These processing difficulties can undermine the acquisition of literacy and numeracy skills, as well as musical notation, and have an effect on verbal communication, organisation and adaptation to change.

Their impact can be mitigated by correct teaching, strategy development and the use of information technology.”  [The British Dyslexia Association]

D.4.2    Dyscalculia

“A severe difficulty in understanding and using symbols or functions needed for success in mathematics.”  [Learning Disability Online]

D.4.3    Memory disability (Dementia)

For an indication of the issues see; [NHS Direct, Health Encyclopaedia]

D.4.4    Learning disability

For a discussion of the issues see; [The British Institute of Learning Disability]

E.    Sensory capability

In taking account of disability in the general population, issues of visual and to a lesser extent hearing disability will need to be addressed in most interface designs.  In more exotic applications e.g., virtual reality, telekinetic systems (such as those used by surgeons in keyhole surgery) and simulated reality (such as full-motion flight simulators), other senses may need to be taken into account.

The list of senses given here is for completeness, and may be considered fully only in very exotic systems.  However for more mundane systems, the sense of vision and to a lesser extent hearing should be considered.

E.1     Vision

E.1.1    Acuity (Impaired / Normal Range / Criterion)

Visual acuity may be impaired by environmental factors; bright or dim light, the user wearing protective goggles, etc.

E.1.2    Colour (Impaired / Normal Range / Criterion)

Approximately 10% of the population (mostly male) have some problems with colour vision (mostly red/green confusion).  This may be induced in normal colour perception by display technology malfunctioning.

E.2     Audition (Hearing) (Impaired / Normal Range / Criterion)

Typically hearing loss is associated with advancing age.  It may also occur through disease and accident.  Also hearing may be impared temporarily through the use of protective equipment or exposure to loud noise.

E.3     Haptics (Touch) (Available / Unavailable)

Skilled performance of many tasks often requires a developed sense of touch; e.g., doctors palpating, farmers judging the ripeness of fruit, etc.  Haptic interface devices are commercially available.  The sense of touch may be unavailable to the user if the environment of use requires wearing protective gloves, etc.  This removes an important source of feedback.

E.4     Olfaction (Smell)

You can actually buy computer peripherals that generate smell!  It would be a pretty exotic application that made use of this, but it is possible – if the user can smell.  Health of the user and environmental constraints may prevent this.

E.5     Gustation (Taste)

Unlike smell, I am not aware of a commercial peripheral that utilizes the sense of taste, but why not?

E.6     Equilibrioception (Balance)

The vestibular sense allowing the perception of balance or acceleration.  This may be used in full motion simulators, arcade games etc.

E.7     Propriaception (or Kinesthesia)

The sense of the relative position of parts of the body, whether the body is moving and with how much effort.  Important in telekinetic systems, i.e., a remote physical system manipulated by an operator.

E.8     Thermoception (Heat and cold)

This may be more of a sensation to be avoided that made use of.  Does the user’s working environment make them susceptible to problematic temperatures?  Bear in mind that lap-tops can get uncomfortably hot etc.

E.9     Nociception (Pain)

The sense of physiological pain.  Not (one would hope) a sense used by interaction devices.  However there are some medical conditions in which the sufferer is insensitive to pain, allowing them to engage in activity that causes physical damage to tissue and joints.  Analgesia may be temporarily induced (e.g., during dental treatment).  Compensation for these conditions may be required of the designed system.  Additionally in telekinetic systems, feedback that the system is being overstressed or damaged in some way may need to be given as a sort of analogue of pain.

F.    Effector capability

The physical capabilities of the particular user group that allow them to initiate inputs to the system.

F.1      Anthropometry

Particularly if designing a physical interface (knobs, leavers, switches, etc.) or the positioning of immovable display devices, then anthropometry; the systematic measurement of human bodies must be taken into account.  Is this user population within the usual range or exceptional in some way (e.g., professional basketball players).

Children, having smaller hands will hold mobile devices differently from adults, so active areas must be kept away from the screen edge or they will be accidentally activated.

F.1.1    Motor capabilities

Ergonomics data on reach and force may be relevant.

F.2      Hand Preference

Between 8-15% of the population are left-handed.  An area where this is particularly important is in touch screen displays where if designed solely for right hand use, information may be obscured by the left hand.

F.3      Disability

F.3.1    Lack of hand, finger, arm etc. (Permanent / Temporary)

Bear in mind that this may be temporarily induced by the context of the task; e.g., a hand may be holding something.

F.3.2    Dyskinesia (Permanent / Temporary)

Difficulty or inefficiency in performing voluntary movements.  Medical conditions such as Parkinson’s disease are characterised by this.  However it may be temporarily induced by context of use; e.g., operating a PDA while a passenger in a car on a bumpy road.

3 Sources of information

Possible sources of information on user characteristics include:

  • common sense (don’t underestimate it!)
  • government statistics
  • job descriptions
  • legislation
  • market research
  • professional associations literature
  • research literature
  • stakeholder interviews
  • survey of job advertisements for the role
  • training materials
  • user observation and interviews

4 Points to note

5 Validation of recorded user profiles

6 Appropriate use of this method

The list of characteristics above is not exhaustive; there may be any number of additional characteristics that are relevant in designing for a specific user population.  They are also not universal; most will not be relevant for a specific population.

Use the list as a check-list, running through it and asking if each characteristic is possibly relevant.  If it is, then note it for further investigation.  Characteristics that appear relevant should be investigated by researching for data.  Also stakeholders and the members of the actual user population may be interviewed to fully understand the relevance and implications.

When a design implication is recognised, immediately note it.  No commitment is being made at this point as it can be discarded if subsequent investigation shows it as irrelevant.

7 References

Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing (CEISMC), Georgia Tech’s College of Sciences. ‘User Characteristics Checklist’, (viewed October 2007).

Economic and Social Data Service (ESDS), (viewed October 2012)

Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge, ‘Design and Innovation management – Guiding Principles of Good Design’, (viewed October 2007).

Learning Disability Online: (viewed October 2007).

NHS Direct, Health Encyclopaedia: (viewed October 2007).

Redmond-Pyle, D. & Moore, A., 1995, ‘Graphical User Interface Design and Evaluation: A Practical Process’, Prentice-Hall.

The British Dyslexia Association: (viewed October 2007).

The British Institute of Learning Disability: (viewed October 2007).

Weber, Max, 1922,  Economy and Society, eds. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, trans. Ephraim Fischof, 1978 vol. 2 Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 389

World Heath Organization (WHO): (viewed October 2012).

A Microsoft® Word template for the Profile Document is available in the folder containing this document.

2 thoughts on “User Profiles

  1. Pingback: IDM 21 – User Profiles and Personae (Lecture 2) | calsmorgan

  2. Pingback: User Characteristics Checklist – IX + UI = UX

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