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An Overview of User Personas


“For 84% of customers, being treated like a person — and not a number — is very important to win their business.” Salesforce Research, State of The Connected Customer Report (2019)

If we’re being honest, then the true number is probably remarkably close to 100%. Quite literally, the more you know about your users, the more likely you are to deliver what they truly need and want in order to win and keep their business. Personas help product teams with exactly that: to understand, empathize with, and design for their target users, thereby putting faces to people who are otherwise phantom users and numbers.

Similarly, what’s the cardinal rule of user experience? To know thy user. This is why “Personas are the staple of UX Research,” according to one of the kings of usability, Jeff Sauro, and UX Research is the driving force behind superior UX Design. Although they seem to have undergone a minor waning in some circles, personas are growing in popularity as they continue to appear in more major publications than ever before. Why is this? The answer to that very good question is best addressed in a separate post. For this article, we’ll stick to presenting a brief overview of what personas are, how they get created and why they are so valuable.

What Are Personas?

“The purpose of personas is to create reliable and realistic representations of your key audience segments for reference. These representations should be based on qualitative and some quantitative user research and web analytics. Remember, your personas are only as good as the research behind them.” Usability.gov (2020)

Personas are one or two slide representations of target users, normally consisting of a prototypical name, photo and information along the following dimensions:

  • Goals
  • Key Needs & Expectations
  • Behaviors
  • Motivations
  • Pain Points
  • Demographics (if relevant)
  • Attitudes
  • Beliefs
  • Perspectives
  • Interests
  • Relevant Technology & Product/Service Usage

You’ll also hear them called “Provisional Personas” or “Proto-Personas” when they serve as precursors to real research-based versions and “Agnostic Personas” when they disregard certain demographics such as age, gender and/or income. Of course, the latter doesn’t make sense in some industries where demographics are key, such as healthcare, finance, law, insurance, education, food & beverage, media, advertising etc., but they do have their place. More types of personas will continue to spring up in the coming years, yet all serve the same general purpose of demystifying end users.

How Are They Created?

“As opposed to designing products, services, and solutions based upon the preferences of the design team, it has become standard practice within many human centred design disciplines to collate research and personify certain trends and patterns in the data as personas… you compose your personas based on real data collected from multiple individuals.”
Interaction-design.org (2020)

Traditionally, personas were the result of several stakeholders coming together to distill their knowledge through workshops and artifact iterations. They were based solely on subject matter expertise and anecdotal knowledge. More recently, as design thinking matures, they have become the culminations of a data-driven approach, thanks to information gathered from research, marketing, sales, analytics and UX personnel.

What Not to Do (Pitfalls)

The worst personas share several characteristics in common, such as being:

  • Rooted mostly in anecdotal evidence
  • Overwhelmingly influenced by stakeholder opinion instead of user data
  • Convey overly generalized information
  • Are too simple or complex
  • Fail to inform product teams in meaningful ways

What to Do (Best Practices)

In contrast, the best personas tend to exhibit these qualities:

  • Founded upon systematically conducted research
  • Primarily influenced by real user data instead of opinion
  • Communicate information at the right level of specificity
  • Are written at just the right level of simplicity
  • Succeed in informing product teams in meaningful ways

Why Are They So Valuable?

“User personas are the missing links you didn’t know you needed.” Forbes (2019)

First, simply carrying out a data-driven creation process will allow your team to rally around what matters most: making smart decisions about their end users. The process of interviewing, observing, surveying, and engaging with users reaps all kinds of rewards to product teams, from increased empathy to higher morale and faster consensus building around accurate product decisions.

Second, putting a face to your end users disambiguates them. When everyone on the team has different ideas about who they are building for, what needs they are solving, what features are most valuable, and so on, they will deliver competing and inaccurate solutions. They must be on the same page. Personas ground the team in a shared understanding of end users so they are better able to deliver outstanding experiences.

Third, they help solve critical design and product decisions because colleagues can point to personas to ask hard questions like:

“How will this (design decision) help or hurt (Persona name)?”

Conclusion

When used correctly, personas will take your team’s decision making ability to the proverbial next level. When used incorrectly, they can misinform, damage your company’s UX culture, and sap team morale. Hence, the success of personas tend to correlate highly with winning user-centered design decisions and teams. So if you’re going to build them, please do it thoughtfully and take the data-driven approach! Your company will thank you later.

By the way, if you want to learn more about this topic and are considering a career in UI and/or UX, then check out Springboard’s UI/UX Career Track, an online bootcamp that’s guaranteed to get you a job.

Written by Rylan Clark

Rylan Clark is Chief Operating Officer of The UXology Group, a leading UX Research firm. He’s also a Springboard mentor.


An Overview of User Personas was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.