What is a user persona and how to use it

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User personas help UX designers transform users from a faceless crowd into an actual person they can relate to.

8 min read

An illustration of a user persona showing a human figure that’s made up of data, research and various findings

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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 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.

A user persona for a user name Amy, with her photo and short text describing her
An example of a user persona for a food ordering app.

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: