As a project manager, it's easy to gauge the success of a project on the happiness of the client alone. No matter how much I believe in a particular solution for the site's users, if my client isn't happy, it's hard to get beyond that. Likewise, my client is under pressure to make internal stakeholders happy, even when they know those decisions may not be right for users. At some point or another, anyone involved in a web project will lose sight of the anonymous user's interests as they face real life demands from the people they work with day in, day out.
Setting the Right Tone for the Project
Knowing how easily you can become sidetracked by internal pressures, one of the most important things you can do to orient yourself at the beginning of a project is develop personas. You have to do this as a team, and it has to happen before any other significant decisions are made about the site. By solely focusing on the users at the beginning of the project (their needs, their wants, their frustrations) you'll align everyone's perspectives and build consensus for subsequent decisions made about the site.
It's surprising to me how few marketing teams have defined audience profiles on hand before beginning a web project. They all have a pretty clear sense of what they do, but rarely do they have the same collective clarity on who they do it for. As a result, companies organize their site as a reflection of how they see themselves rather than how their clients see them. They use self-referential proprietary language, cryptic acronyms, or overly complicated product and service categorizations. While these things may accurately reflect the company structure and language, it makes it much more difficult for the user to translate what you do in simple terms.
Personas Don't Have to Add Time or Cost
The most common objections to persona development are budget and schedule. It's true, if you rely solely on a firm like Newfangled to guide you through the process, it will add cost and time. However, persona development is one of the few parts of the process companies can do independently prior to the project kickoff. How? Simple. Talk to your customers. If you can't do that, at least talk to your sales or customer support teams. Hearing the unflattering truth from a client can be scary, but investing thousands of dollars into a site that doesn't improve your bottom line is a lot scarier.
Using Personas to Build Consensus and Trust
When you develop personas, you're typically thinking about how it benefits the user, not how it can help you as the leader of a web team. However, the ability to refer to personas can be a lifesaver when mediating internal disputes, or responding to unqualifed requests from superiors. It grounds the discussion in objectivity and makes it clear that you're not just disagreeing, but speaking from a position of knowledge. This can go a long way toward building the trust and authority you'll need to guide the project successfully.