Imaginary people help test real Web sites

In an era of doing more with less, some of the best Web site usability testers can be people who don't even exist.

Several federal Web designers and consultants said that they have created elaborate, fictitious personas of typical site users to help them make their online services more effective.

For example, the Web staff at the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service based their audience personas on in-depth interviews and research, said Gina Pearson, a Web manager for the agency.

The staff even developed an illustrated poster for each persona and placed the posters around the building, Pearson said.

The Web designers spoke yesterday at a workshop in Arlington, Va., sponsored by the Universal Access Working Group of the CIO Council's Architecture and Infrastructure Committee.

The workshop focused on the concept of user-centered design, which consultant Ginny Redish of Bethesda, Md., defined as a process for focusing on users' needs and expectations throughout the planning, development and design of a Web site or application.

Other speakers stressed the need for iterative testing of applications with live users.

David Brown, an IRS electronic-publishing specialist, said he has tested prototypes of an intranet tool for tax assistors at IRS call centers in three states. Tax assistors answer phoned-in tax questions.

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