The UXer’s guide to user personas
User personas form the backbone of user research, but where do we start? Here’s a roadmap on how to get them right.
The user persona was developed back in the 90s as a way to gain powerful insights into a product’s target audience and the user’s habits and preferences. It continues to be used today on design committees and in marketing departments across the world.
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This post will explore why the user persona plays such a central role in underpinning the user experience and how they can influence design to improve the user flow. It will also discuss the best way in which to go about successfully creating one.
What is a user persona?
A user persona is a representation of your app or website’s ideal userbase. It acts as a benchmark for UX design and development teams to work with in order to create the optimal user experience. It is a fictitious profile based on the type of people who would be the main users of your app.
The user persona normally consists of both a fictional name and a picture of the person; followed by a short bio, along with a description of their age, gender, occupation, hobbies, likes and dislikes which are non-fictional and based on real data.
How a user persona works
User personas turn “the user” into an actual person with thoughts, feelings and emotions. This person, in turn, represents a group of users who share similar characteristics and who all have more or less the same goals and pains – which could perhaps be considered the most important parts. In order to pin down what exactly these goals and pains are, you need to have a full picture of who the person is.
Consider the following situation: you’re designing a new cooking app and your main idea is to help people – anyone who could be interested – compile a list of healthy and easy-to-learn recipes for during the week. But then it hits you – people generally have varying amounts of time on their hands and money in their pockets, or motivation or skills when it comes to cooking – the app should therefore be tailored to its users.
Your natural inclination might be to create a function that does a quick survey when the user downloads and opens the app for the first time, asking them questions about their lifestyles, their hobbies, how much they exercise, what their budget is per week, etc. This kind of function might seem like a great idea at the start, but think about how much more time would be needed to design an app of that magnitude, not to mention how much time it would spend in development, in addition to the cost.
To further compound the issue: people might download it, make a mistake while filling in the survey and have to redo it, or get bored and frustrated, delete the app and look for something else that doesn’t eat into (excuse the pun) so much of their time. User onboarding must be quick, otherwise you risk losing users. The worst part is that they might even be your ideal users. That’s where the user persona comes in.
User personas are a cost-effective way of getting your app off the ground because they establish your userbase and define your ideal user early on in the design process. In fact, building a user persona is something you should ideally do before you even begin designing your app.
Differences between user personas, scenarios and storyboards
Before we go any further, however, it’s important to first distinguish user personas from scenarios and storyboards. The latter two processes, like a user persona, are used by marketing departments in an attempt to understand the needs of the user and improve their overall experience. These processes can often run in tandem with a user persona.
A scenario can be thought of as the situation a user finds themselves in and the goal they have in that situation. It might be that the user needs to book a cab within the next 15 minutes. The scenario will document all the steps the user has to complete in order to book a cab that is in their area.
Storyboards differ from scenarios in so much as they don’t simply document a list of steps to be taken, but rather display all the interactions in order, or as Roman Pichler puts it in his blog, in a way that mimics “a comic strip.”
Going deeper than the surface, we could say that a user persona is almost like a psychological assessment of your ideal user in so far as it’s not simply an analysis of what they say, but also of their character. A user persona is created with raw, empirical data gathered from researching potential users.
They are also not to be confused with marketing personas which are created with data gathered from existing users.
Why create a user persona?
“Personas are the single most powerful design tool that we use. They are the foundation for all subsequent goal-directed design. Personas allow us to see the scope and nature of the design problem… [They] are the bright light under which we do surgery,” Alan Cooper, Software designer and creator of Visual Basic.
Alan Dix from Interaction-design compares the user persona to the way a novelist profiles their characters; it’s not essential, but without character profiles, it’s going to be very difficult to maintain a consistent character throughout the story. The character will seem flat and will often go off plot.
The reader won’t be able to understand or identify with them and it will be difficult to develop the character throughout the story. Developing these types of profiles makes the world of sense for designers as it means they can put together an app that satisfies their ideal users, for which there could be many millions.
Know who you’re designing for
One important distinction that we should make right from the start is that a user persona is not simply a stereotype based on a group’s demographic, but an archetype based on unbiased empirical research. This means that it is not enough to just think of your user in terms of their geographical location, their age, gender, income, race or religion. If it is not based on real data but just perceptions of these attributes, then it can’t be considered a user persona.
When Todd Yellin from Netflix was discussing strategies for satisfying their viewership, he had this to say about demographics: “Geography, age and gender? We put that in the garbage heap”. And with good reason. Making presumptions about these types of qualities could have detrimental consequences and if you’re not careful, you’ll end up shaping the user to fit the product instead of the other way round!
Netflix is a great example of an organization getting its product right for the users. It avoids the basic, and maybe outdated business idea, the “lets aim to satisfy everyone” approach. It doesn’t contain every movie and series possible, instead it includes films, series – and even original series – based on research. They use Big Data as a means of analyzing their customer database, their patterns of behavior and viewing habits. This doesn’t mean that you need to know about Big Data in order to create a UX profile, but it does highlight the importance of basing your users’ interests on facts rather than presumptions.
What can facts tell us about the design? Having the right facts at hand can provide a designer with invaluable guidelines about what their ideal users actually want and will find useful. They can then build the app around the user rather than their opinion of what the user wants or should want, which can be quite subjective. It might require a bit more research before the project can initially get underway, but the benefits will be tenfold.
Answer the user’s pain
This is true across the board for apps and websites. Whether it’s a consumer app that’s downloadable on the App Store and Play Store, or enterprise software – designing with a user persona in mind is always going to increase its chance of success. The reason is that you’re giving them what they want. The same is true even just for simple updates – being on the same page as the user can prevent backlashes against updates, such as the unwanted change Instagram made in 2018 when vastly altered their users’ experience by replacing vertical scrolling with horizontal.
In addition to helping designers focus on the principal issues surrounding the user’s goals, a user persona can also help teams of varying disciplines stay on the same page, meaning clearer communication and understanding because everyone is working towards a common goal.
Returning to our recipe app idea, instead of trying to develop that detailed app which attempts to tailor each user’s experience, we can go about finding the users that will want to use our app in the first place. Depending on the amount of research you do and the completeness of your user persona, you may find that the need for that survey didn’t exist in the first place.
You might be able to create a user persona for this app who is a blend of the main groups of potential users: people who are on a limited weekly budget and schedule, and who also take an interest in fitness and wellness.
They will be interested in simple, healthy and cheap ingredients that can be prepared quickly but that can also be made into interesting dishes that they can bring to work in a Tupperware. You might discover that the app should feature plenty of recipes with quinoa, couscous, brown rice and whole wheat pasta that take no longer than 40 – 45 minutes from preparation to finish.
You will have saved the time required for integrating 2 hour recipes into your app as well as a plethora of other ingredients. Your app will be a less bulky to download and will be more concise and intuitive to the types of users that are interested in it. Creating a user persona therefore adds real substance to your value proposition. Not only does it help demonstrate that your app could likely be a success and achieve more shareholder buy-in in addition to getting approval from managers and CEOs, it also helps prevent the classic “design by committee” conundrum.
How many times have you been working intently on a project with your go-to prototyping tool and happy with the results – for someone to come back to you and say they want a different color, font or well, a different design? The answer is probably quite often. A user persona prevents this from happening because it limits conflicting ideas in design teams from the start, focusing everyone’s attention on the users’ needs.
And if you’re designing an app on your own, it helps keep you on track with your main goal – satisfying the user in the most creative way possible, with something that perhaps even exceeds their expectations by being so simple and intuitive while still meeting their needs perfectly.
Investing time and effort into creating a user persona, if done properly, can help you to work better when it comes to designing the perfect app geared towards the right users. This is because a user personas can help answer some crucial questions in order for your app, website or software to be successful – which Raven Veal over at careerfoundry.com defines as:
- Who is my ideal customer?
- What are the current behavior patterns of my users?
- What are the needs and goals of my users?
Asking these important questions is the first step to creating your user persona.
How to create a user persona
If you’re designing a user persona based on a product that already exists, let’s say an update, then your first port of call should be any existing data that you already have on your clients. You could obtain the relevant information from your CRM database or use previous transactions, purchase orders or simply any information you have on your clients concerning age, vocation, etc.
Or perhaps you’re looking to build a new app, like in our earlier example. In that case, feel free to start expanding on those three key questions to create a user persona mentioned above.
You’ll want to know more about their personal background, such as their age, where they live, marital status, level of education and hobbies. Next, you’ll want to find out the industry they work in, their profession and role within their company, in addition to whether or not your app, website or software will be for personal or on-the-job use.
These questions will enable you to gain further insights into their mentality: how they think (are they analytical, maybe creative?), their level of income and time constraints.
The big questions
Documenting their behavior patterns also offers invaluable information for the user persona. You can observe how they use your app or other products, how much time they dedicate to each task and how they make decisions. It also wouldn’t hurt to observe how they use the app, or how they go about the activities your future app will help with.
Laura Klein, in her book UX for Lean Startups, gives an example of product testers actually accompanying housewives on a grocery run before making a shopping app. She maintains that observing their behavior is key to understanding their emotions – that what the user really wants and what they think they want may differ.
After you’ve covered the background and behavior patterns of your users, you’ll need to find out two of the most essential things: what their goals and pains are.
- Goals: What do they want to achieve long term and short term, and why? How important are these goals in their lives? How are they currently trying to achieve them?
- Pains: What stands in the way of their goals and frustrates them? Have they ever tried to solve these pains before and, if so, how? If they managed to find a solution, did it work and would they do it again, or would they prefer a better solution?
Get the answers
When it comes to soliciting new information from you existing or potential users, the best option is to organize face-to-face chats or, if that isn’t possible, arrange a video call with them. If that can’t be done then online surveys might be an idea, but bear in mind that actually seeing and speaking with the user offers you the closest representation of reality when creating your user persona.
Observing them offers the key to understanding their emotions and motivations – there are social cues that can convey deeper meaning than text, such as body language or tone of voice. These details are important as you want your personas, the archetypes of your actual users, to stand out as if they could be real people.
The next step is to go back to your original data and add the fresh data. You should sort the new information gathered from your research into different user groups that share similar patterns or attributes.
The idea here is to develop a user persona from each group, although the less personas you have, the easier it is to cater to each one. Sometimes you may find that two groups can be fused into one user persona if they share enough similar attributes, but in other cases this may not be possible. Each user persona will then represent your ideal user.
After you gather the raw data, you’ll need to create a visual representation of it to make it easier on the eyes. There are many ways to do this, but perhaps among the most helpful are spreadsheets or affinity diagrams. For example, you could display all the relevant CRM data to use for devising your user personas in a spreadsheet table format like this one:
You could then break the data down further by visually representing it with the use of line graphs or charts. Depending on what exactly it is you need to find out from your user base, or if you’re designing to create or improve an app, you might also use columns for pages most visited, time spend on that page, elements interacted with, etc.
Affinity diagrams that use sticky notes, like the one below, are a simple but effective way of taking everything you know about your user base and ordering it into different sections. If you put the information on different color sticky notes for each section, it helps add further clarity to the visual representation.
In terms of visuals, another aid to the design process is the Empathy Map. These can be created using the exact same data that you gathered when researching your personas and can be used in conjunction with the user persona. In fact, creating one before your user persona can actually make the process even easier, though they can also be a by-product of the persona. Empathy Maps revolve around the target user and are usually broken down into four sections: what they think, feel, say and do.
Put it all together
Using of the data gathered for each user persona, you’ll want to separate it under different headings, such as:
Other important elements that should make up your user persona include their influences – what affects his or her opinion (this can be a family member, a blog, certain trends or abstract ideas such as UX design).
User persona example
Of course, your user persona will need a fictional name and photo. The name should be one that is fairly common and the person in the photo should reflect the average age of users in that group; the clothes they wear should also reflect their occupation or personality. A short bio adds some context to the character by briefly summarizing their background, profession, hobbies, frustrations and goals.
Each persona should obviously be different, easily distinguishable and memorable. Designers and developers should be able to internalize the persona to the point where it’s easy to recall what they represent. See our great example of a user persona template below and for more, see our post on 15 must-see user persona templates.
Get the awesome free Justinmind user persona template.
When it comes to designing for more than one user persona, it might be useful to think of a Venn diagram where some features of an app overlap and are shared between personas and others are used only by distinct personas. The app might be designed to completely satisfy two personas, but have the features set out in a way that each persona would easily and intuitively be able to find the section that’s important to them.
When to update a user persona
A good deal of research can go into creating a user persona but it tends to pay dividends in the end. Nonetheless, that’s not to say that once created, it can continue to be used indefinitely – at some point you will have to either update or change your persona design.
There is no recommended time frame for how often you should do this as this varies depending on you or your company’s situation and market. If your business model has pivoted, then it’s more than likely to have happened to your user base as well. If there are changes in technology, this can change the needs and pains of your user base, as well as competitor products.
The key is to constantly be on top of these changes in order to know when it’s time to go back to the chalkboard on your user persona.
On a piece of paper or a whiteboard, draw a table of four quadrants and label them. What they said and did is obviously going to be the easiest section to fill out – you will simply just be recording how they acted and quoting them; what they thought and felt, however, will require a little more analysis.
To understand what they’re thinking about, you’ll need to gauge what they said based on what you imagine they might be thinking. Observing the social cues mentioned earlier, enables you to gain an insight into what they might be feeling.
Consider lean personas
Normally used in conjunction with lean UX design, the lean persona is a technique advocated by the Agile methodology that we, here in Justinmind, have also adopted. The lean persona can be thought of as a lighter, faster rendition of the typical user persona which aims to provide the basic, most fundamental information about a user base.
Drawing on the principles of the Pareto Effect, lean UX calls for a persona that requires 20% of work that produces 80% of total insights. It relies more on qualitative rather than quantitative data and can be used based on analytics data that you already have at your disposal, reducing the need to invest time and money into empirical research.
Lean personas work if you are limited by budget and time, but also if you’re in a market which requires constant iteration – they provide the perfect solution to the problem of updating user personas, because lean personas are cheap, quick and easier to create. This method can insure that you get your product off the ground faster, while using up less resources.
Without doubt, the user persona plays an important – if not fundamental – role in UX design. They not only enable you to learn exactly what your user needs are, but they’re also a great way to help interdisciplinary departments to stay on the same page. After all, unless you’re designing an app website for yourself, what’s the point in designing without consulting the users first?