Everything you need to know about personas
A step by step guide on persona creation and value.
A lot has been written about personas. You can see the huge amount of different articles I went through to research my article. There is lots of nuance, lots of naysayers, and many different variations. But through my time creating personas for startups and large corporate products and business, there is a core set of work and process that remain always true. This is my take on it and I hope you find value and it helps you as a guide on the importance of personas and how to create them.
Personas are what you create by talking to your users and by understanding their wants and needs. You use personas to have a great understanding of who your customers are and how they’re going to interact with your product or service. And most importantly, what their pain points are.
Empathy is the most important thing to understand, and personas help us walk in our user’s shoes and feel what they feel. This empathy then helps us solve their problems and address their needs effectively.
Personas are really important in design because, without understanding who your users are and what they need, you can’t make informed decisions on your designs. Personas must never be made from your assumptions, as you will map your user’s needs to your features and experience so they need to based on real insights and observations. We all fall prey to confirmation bias.
You need to have rich context and understanding of their pain points and goals. I love the example written in ‘The Design Thinking playbook’ about persona twins. On paper, both these people are born in the UK in 1948, married twice, have children, successful, rich, take vacations in the alps, and like dogs. But they could not be more different. The two people are Prince Charles and Ozzy Osbourne. This is why you need to go deeper and not just understand your user’s demographic information.
You will see that there are lots of articles that say personas are not good and you should use spectrums to and from and that using personas is trying to give you an average user but there’s no such thing as an average user so therefore they are misleading.
This is true for some designers & organizations that are not using personas correctly if you’re using personas based heavily on assumptions and not constantly updating them and talking to users, then they can be misleading and toxic to your experience.
Your persona will always have a name and demographic information they could have some relative household information like marital status or do they have children things that are important for you to know in your particular business or product.
The key part of the persona is the needs and goals versus the frustrations or the likes and dislikes. This is talking to the pain points that this person has. It is also common to have a quote that is usually lifted directly from a real user interview.
No, I have created personas to represent health clubs before for my client. As the physical clubs were the users of the product it made sense to interview their managers and create a persona type profile of the club.
Often personas will belong to different groups, the group is a high-level overview of a set of users, but the persona is a detailed look at an individual in that group. It’s important to understand what groups make up your user base. These are also often called archetypes. Here you can see some groups we created for Les Mills on Demand.
There are also 2 different types of persona, marketing personas are created with focus groups and have much broader information. They help the marketing team understand how to talk about the offer to different segments. These are often used to understand user groups In the entire market vs ones that already use your product.
UX personas are very targeted and specific to a product, the goal and scope of these are very granular.
The information built into the personas will positively influence the interaction design and user experience.
You may have seen the term provisional personas, or proto personas and wonder what they are. They are basically personas made from assumptions only and often team expertise, so if you had no personas and were starting at a new job, you might be able to create some high-level proto personas as a starting point while you then go out and interview people to prove out the assumptions.
Provisional personas should never be the finished result and you will not be making informed design decisions with only them.
Persona creation can be broken into 4 key stages:
Personas aligned and created
Before you can talk to your users you need to set up an initial survey so you get key demographic information on a larger volume of users, this will then allow you to pick the best people to interview. Or perhaps you may already have this data.
If you have a new idea and are trying to understand your market then you need to reach out to potential customers and interview them. To do that you need clear use cases identified for each type of user. You can see an example of use cases below.
The most important part of persona creation is talking to users, you need to interview 15 users to get a good breakdown of your audience’s wants and needs. 15 is the magic number, if you want to do a few more then that is fine. You might for example do 15 from each market if your product is in multiple countries.
You will need to interview your users and dig deep into who they are, what environment they are in, and what problems they have in your product’s domain. You can read more about how to structure the interviews and best practices from my other article here.
It is really important that you speak to extreme customers, extreme customers often have a heightened experience, so talking to customers at either end of the mainstream customer scale will give you insights you would not get talking only to the mainstream ones.
An example would be for a fitness app, users that work out 2 times every day and are very fit, and then at the other end users who workout once a month only and have no fitness at all.
You will want to create empathy maps for each user interview, these tell us what our users are thinking, feeling, saying, and doing. For a full guide on how to create empathy maps check out — Empathy mapping. They should include pains, gains, and demographic information.
Be sure to record every session so you can look back over the answers for future reference, and make sure you capture an image of your user to put with your notes. I use Miro to digitally capture notes in theme boards, it’s a great tool that saves lots of time and gives you an immediate digital space for all your persona work. You can sign up for a FREE account here.
Now you have your customer interviews and empathy maps complete, it’s time to refine and then theme the information. The best way to do this is by creating needs statements, these are combined needs that are emerging from the user’s conversations.
A needs statement helps identify key goals and pain points associated with them, to give you some common themes that you will need to cover off in your personas. Once you have themed your user interview feedback via empathy maps you should start to see patterns emerge on the main needs and the reasons behind them. From that, you can create the following statements.
We met Sally (middle aged mumma) Who needs a clear plan to help with her workouts because she has little time and a busy schedule with her family and time is fleeting.
Once you have created 5–10 for each person you interviewed, you should get a good picture of what is important. You can then create a combined needs statement at a segment level.
Another later step to understand how to solve your user’s problems will be to create user stories, user stories are created to keep the user in mind when designing your product. You can see more detail on them and needs statements here.
User stories are not needed for personas but will go on to inform features and your product road map.
OK, so you have 15 empathy maps, a bunch of need statements, and other themes organized in Miro or similar. Now it’s time to take that collective data and shape that into personas.
From the themes you should be able to create groups, group similar people together. Then create an archetypical model of each group that is your persona. Each group of similar participants would then serve as the source of a persona.
Once you have created your groups you can give them a name and then also identify the collective goals of that high-level group. If you have data you can also analyze what % of your users these groups make up. You can see an example below of persona groups.
There is no set formula I can give you that allows you to segment the data, it takes some common sense and an understanding of your product’s users.
If you have demographic data on the breakdown of users’ age, sex, location, and other key factors use it alongside your interview data to inform your personas.
I have created some persona worksheets that identify how I use personas and the key areas you need to populate.
You then take those most common insights and put them into a persona worksheet.
Profile photo — Find some royalty-free profile shots, try to match them close to what some of your real users looked like.
Role — This could be their job or anything else that is relevant.
Name — Create a name that sounds right for the look of the person
Background — This space is a few sentences about the person.
Quote — using a quote that is from one of your real user interviews brings your persona to life. Try and pick one that is relevant to your product.
Demographic information — These can be catered to your product but should always at least include:
You will have specific information that relates to the context of your product.
Archetype — this is the grouping of your persona — which group do they belong to. Give the group a name.
Group pic example
Needs — What are these personas needs, you can use the needs statements to populate this section.
Goals — What are the goals they are trying to achieve concerning your product. Goals (not Tasks) — Goals are the reasons users perform tasks. Tasks change as technology changes but the underlying goals remain stable.
Avoid fake goals, you need to identify the root goal yet. Some examples of “fake” goals are: save memory, save keystrokes, speed up data entry, be easy to learn, use cool technology or features. They may want to speed up data entry because they want to get out of the office on time and get home to their family.
Frustrations/pain points — What are the problems and frustrations they are currently facing? Usually, these are related to what you are trying to solve with your product. If you already have a solution this might inform you of pain points that still exist in the process.
Journey — What is the user doing today to achieve their goals? This is helping you understand the current customer journey and how your product can disrupt or improve it.
Try to capture: Current pain points, things that work and things that don’t, steps that feel unnecessary or could be automated.
Serve by — This is where you can put how your product can solve the pain points, what can be done to help this persona reach their goals and stop pain points.
Technology/devices — Often when you are dealing with a digital product it is good to record the user’s competency with technology and perhaps what primary devices they use. This may affect your use cases later on and help factor in design decisions.
Brand awareness — How well do they know your brand and what exposure do they have with your product currently. This helps you know if they are experts or just starting with you.
Other — You can create specific sections that make sense to your product, for example for a fitness product you might have an equipment section and capture what equipment they own or use.
Motivation — include Motivation vs Ability along with motivating factors, inhibiting factors, and possible triggers. Adding this extra detail into your personas lets you dig deeper into motivation and the reason why a persona may or may not take action.
I have borrowed the addition of motivation as written by Ben Ralph here, he quotes:
Motivation and ability are the two key levers a designer has to get users to do what they want them to do. If something is easy for a user to do, it will require less motivation to make it happen.(Source Ben Ralph)
An example might be someone sitting at home on the couch scrolling through Instagram when they see an advert for the ultimate fitness app that will help them lose weight and gain strength. It offers a special to jump into a 6-week kick starter program — START NOW!
You can see how inhibiting factors can correlate to possible triggers in the diagram below.
After considering these factors try and put your product on the motivation scale in accordance with that persona.
Another technique you can use is sliding scales, this helps you plot out your users and give more detail across a range. The sliding scale needs to be relevant to your product and what you need to know. For example, if you were doing personas for a fitness app you might have fitness level, amount they workout, and equipment available. Using scales lets you plot all your user interview feedback onto one graph and see how the personas correlate to each other, this, in turn, makes it easier to create personas with a scale for each person.
That all depends on how many unique user groups exist across your user base. Usually, I find most products have 3–5 user groups and then 1 persona to represent each group. If 1 group is a large % of your users then you may have 2 personas from that same group.
Now you have done the hard work based on research and are ready to use your personas. You need to share them with everyone that works on the product, everyone should know them intimately and understand how they think, feel, and behave. They should be used to help inform all design and experience decisions. I like to print them out and put them on a board that can be easily moved into meetings so we don’t forget them.
You should also keep digital copies that are easily sharable, I use the Miro boards and confluence to share them.
You must actively use your personas, otherwise, all the work is for nothing. The team must use personas through their design discovery process all the time. We need to keep the user front and center and ask if it makes sense to them.
You need to use your personas in scenarios to understand how they use your service. A good way to do that is through user flows and an end to end customer journey. You can see an example of a user flow here matched to one of our personas.
We need to keep personas relevant, updated and constantly use them in the design process.
Constantly asking what would John do, or does this work for Sue?
You now know how to talk to your users, empathize with them and create a set of clear personas that represent your user base and are essential to driving design decisions and planning.
Let me know how your persona creation goes and if you should want any further help then please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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