The question of who we’re designing for is a key question in product design. It's impossible to create a successful product without knowing who will be using it. While there are many tools that product designers can use to get valuable insights about users and their behavior, creating a user persona is one of the most applicable methods, adding value to almost any web design project.
This full guide reviews the concept of a user persona in UX and how it benefits the design process and shares practical tips on creating one.
What is a user persona?
User personas are fictional characters that represent a group of users that might use your product in a similar way. Personas provide meaningful user archetypes which product teams use to assess their design decisions.
User personas aren't a new concept; they started to get traction in product design in the late 90s after Alan Cooper described this concept in his influential book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum.
Well-designed user personas can add the human touch to user research findings. When product teams use user personas, they start to think about a particular person they’re designing for.
The importance of user personas
User personas are extremely useful in improving the user experience of your products. They help uncover the different ways people interact with products, information that designers can then use to improve the UX for real use cases. Creating user personas can help product teams to:
Foster empathy towards users
Empathy is the cornerstone of product design. When a team doesn’t understand and relate to their users, the outcome of the design process will never be effective. Lack of empathy typically happens when a team designs for an abstract user — a user without specific properties that bring out their individuality, represented only by numbers in research findings.
Well-designed user personas can add the human touch to user research findings. When product teams use user personas, they start to think about a particular person they’re designing for. As a result, every product design decision is evaluated based on the needs of the persona. Even during product discussions, team members might say things like, "Will this feature benefit our user persona?"
Stay away from self-referential design
'You are not your user' is a crucial rule in product design. Creating a product for ourselves, not our users, is one of the most common and detrimental mistakes that product designers make. In psychology, this cognitive bias is known as the false consensus effect , causing people to view their choices and opinions as common and fitting.
Usually, a product's target audience is quite unlike designers — since different people have different needs and expectations. The users might have different skills (be less tech-savvy than product creators, for example) or lifestyles. Personas help designers step out of themselves and avoid self-referential design by basing product design decisions on the persona's needs, and not those of the designer.
Prioritize product feature requests
User personas help designers shape their strategies for the product. It's much easier to understand what features will bring the most value to users when you evaluate them based on the persona's needs. This approach allows product teams to prioritize feature requests. For example, when someone proposes an idea about introducing a new document scanner feature in an email mobile app, the team will evaluate this feature based on how well it addresses a persona's needs, or whether the scanner will make the app more valuable to its users.
At the same time, it's important to mention that the user persona can't be used as the only tool for prioritization. It should be used along with other tools for user research like user journey maps and user flows.
Best practices for creating user personas
Personas are typically created during the second phase of the design process, the Define phase. At that time, the team will have enough information about the target audience and can frame it in the form of a user persona.
While every project is different and has its own needs, these practical tips can help product teams to create solid personas:
1. Create user personas based on real data
A user persona shouldn’t be based on a whim or a guess; it's a well-researched summary of data-driven insights about your users. Personas that are based on assumptions alone usually bring more harm than good. First, they might guide a product team in the wrong direction during product design. Second, when the team starts to doubt that a persona is a realistic user, it’ll make it harder for them to build empathy towards that persona.
Every aspect of a user persona should be based on real data about users collected during user research. The more designers and stakeholders can see user personas as real people, the more likely they are to use them during the design process.
Here are some methods for collecting information about your users:
Conduct user interviews. The most accurate personas are based on insights collected during in-depth user interviews. User interviews will help you to understand the target audience’s needs, wants and motivations. Try to work user interviews into your design process from the very beginning.
Practice contextual inquiry. If you have an existing user base, you can arrange a series of contextual inquiry sessions to observe how real users interact with your product in their environment.
Set up a survey on your website. Running a survey can be an excellent way to collect basic facts about users and their level of satisfaction with your product. Choose 3-5 quick questions like “What is your main goal for using this product?” and “What, if anything, is preventing you from achieving it?” to see what problems users face while interacting with your product.
Use analytics. While analytics cannot be considered as a full replacement for user interviews and contextual inquiries, customer support logs and information from web analytics tools like Google Analytics can also be very valuable. A persona created based on analytics is known as a provisional persona, and it can be a good temporary solution until you have more information about your users.
2. Identify user behavioral patterns
Behavioral patterns are common ways in which users interact with your product. Identifying them will tell you how users will behave in a particular context. Quantitative and qualitative data from user research can serve as the foundation for behavior patterns. Product teams should use empathy maps, affinity diagrams and user journey analysis to group people that share similar behavior patterns into types of users, which can then be molded into user personas.
3. Prioritize user personas
Many product teams create more than one persona during the design process. Different personas represent different audience segments, but not all of them are equally important. When trying to evaluate each design decision according to the needs and wants of all personas, the design process can become too complex. It's nearly impossible to satisfy the needs of everyone who uses your product. That's why it's essential to do two things:
Minimize the number of user personas. In most cases, it’s possible to work with up to two or three personas. Ensure that the personas you choose to create represent a large segment of your users (say, 90% of your user base).
Define the primary persona. The primary persona should represent the most valuable group of users. All product design decisions should be made with the primary persona in mind and then evaluated against the secondary personas.
4. Add personal details, but not too many
It's easy to assume that the more details you add to a persona, the more vivid it becomes. But while a bit of personality can bring a persona to life, too many details can become distracting. It's vital to remember that personas don’t describe real people — you need to make persona realistic, not real.
A persona should accurately characterize the user base, but it shouldn’t be a user. Otherwise, all design decisions will be based on the needs and wants of a specific user, which can lead to bias.
5. Tie personas to particular scenario(s) of interaction
Personas only when they become part of a scenario that puts them, and their interaction with the product, in context. Try to tell a story of how the persona uses your product. It should be a realistic situation that describes how a persona would interact with the product in a specific context to solve a particular problem.
Here are a few questions that will help you create scenarios:
What does a typical user want to do with this product? What is the goal that the user wants to achieve?
Where will the interaction take place? Will this environment have any limitations?
What are the expectations that the user has about interaction?
For example, if you design a food ordering app, your primary scenario would be ordering food to your home or office using a mobile phone. The answers to these questions might be:
The persona is hungry and wants to order a good meal.
The interaction takes place at the persona's home.
The persona expects to make and submit an order in a few minutes, and receive it in 30 minutes.
The story that will frame a scenario should be engaging — it should make designers actively involved in the lives of the personas. It might be hard to achieve this goal with text alone. That's why you can use a storyboard tool to help product teams visualize the scenario of interaction. It's also recommended to use scenarios to find the friction points that the persona faces while interacting with a product.
6. Involve team members and stakeholders in the persona design process
Approving the persona across the organization is one of the trickiest parts of the persona design process. Team members and stakeholders should understand the value the persona brings to the design process, and it usually happens when they participate in the process of persona design right from the very beginning. You need to invite them to play an active role in the persona design, and ensure that their opinions and feedback are being recognized and valued.
7. Share your findings
When you finalize the persona, you need to get product team members to use it. Spreading the word of personas among team members is critical in making it valuable for the design process. It's recommended to create a physical version of the document and share it with team members. One of the most effective ways to achieve this is to create a poster of your persona. Create a poster and hang it somewhere in the office space so everyone can see it.
8. Keep personas updated as you work
Creating a persona is not a one-and-done exercise. Like most design artifacts, personas should be developed iteratively. Plus, the needs and wants of your users change over time, and you should revise the descriptions of your persona regularly. When you notice that the persona no longer reflects a real user, it might be worth replacing it with a new one.
9. Don’t use personas as a replacement for user roles in your product
User roles define what permissions users have and what tasks they can perform in a product. For example, in the context of a website content management system, the roles might be Administrator, Moderator, or Author.
It's a common mistake to use personas and user roles interchangeability, but the two serve different purposes because personas reflect real user patterns, not their roles. In other words, in the context of a website content management system, the same user can have multiple roles (i.e. Administrator and Author).
What to include in a user persona
Usually, a persona is presented as a one or two-page document with a description that includes the following attributes:
Persona name and photo. Do not use real names or photos of people you know because they will bias the objectivity of your personas. Remember that the persona should be realistic, not real.
Demographics. Age, education, family status.
Interests. What gets your persona excited and what are they most into.
Future goals. The goals that the persona wants to achieve. It might include health goals (like cutting down on unhealthy eating habits) and professional goals (like being promoted to vice president in the next few years).
Frustrations. Pain points that the user has (for example, the user might have troubles using your product because they aren’t very tech-savvy).
Context-specific details. Information about the persona that has a direct impact on product design. For example, if you design an eCommerce website, you might want to include a persona's purchase behavior.
To make things easier, it’s best to create a template and refer back to it every time you create a new persona.
Design is not for designers, it's for users. Personas guide the ideation process and help product teams to gain a perspective similar to the user. Ultimately, they lead to genuinely user-centered design — where every design decision is evaluated based on the user's needs and wants.