15 December 2017

P.e.r.s.o.n.a.—Creating user profiles your team cares about

By Isabelle Swiderski

How well do you know your audience?

No matter your main area of expertise you’ve undoubtedly, at some point in your role, had to answer the question of who your audience is. You might have worked with demographic and psychographic details, observed consumer behaviour, managed online or phone surveys, or waded through web analytics — all to develop a better understanding of your audiences. And, like most of us, you may feel you don’t know your audiences as well as you should.

They can be elusive, can’t they, these people we try to reach? What do they eat? What keeps them up at night? How might they behave in this situation? And, honestly, do we really care? Obviously, if you’re providing a product or service that aims to improve lives, you must care. How can you — and, frankly, why should you? — have an impact on a life you don’t begin to understand?

One tool to address this issue is a user persona. Personas are based on qualitative (customer interviews, field observation, and ethnographic research) and quantitative data (analytics or other sources); on real people whose values, needs and motivations are amalgamated to create a semi–fictional person. Each persona represents a segment of your audience. Whilst this, again, will vary, 4 to 5 personas are usually enough to cover main audiences. More granularity might end up confusing your team by providing conflicting objectives or muddling priorities.

Only as good as your research

There are several methods to arrive to finished personas and these might vary according to the time and resources you have at your disposal. Whenever possible, I’d certainly recommend ensuring an ethnographic expert or design researcher is on your team to help gather the foundational data required through interviews or field work. If working with an expert is not possible however, don’t let it deter you from engaging with your audience anyway. It may be rapid ethnography but rapid is still better than none at all.

Why personas?

Making people real by giving them a name, a profession, a pet or a spouse, some kind of routine or deep–rooted belief, gives them dimension. It makes them beings we can care about helping or remind us of people we might know. It distances us — and our biases — from the evaluation process and centers it on them, giving us the freedom to be the experts we are as designers and guiding us to more objective decisions.

In concrete terms, personas help:

  • ensure you’re solving a real problem

If none of your users said they needed what you’re offering you have your answer;

  • align your team’s understanding of who you are helping and why it’s worthwhile. When a team is deep in feature-land it’s easy to forget how the adventure started and why the work matters;
  • make decisions based on something constant / save time & money

At key moments in a product’s development, there will be disagreement about priorities. Having concrete objectives to map activities to helps to separate opinion from fact, saving time and money on unnecessary efforts.

Who doesn’t love an acronym?


One particular useful tool I came across defines the characteristics of a useful persona by making the word an acronym. (The source of this trick eludes me at the moment but I will update when I find it. Feel free to comment below if you know where this came from.)

P is for Primary Research
Is your persona based on primary research from real users/customers?

E is for Empathy
Does the persona elicit empathy from your team with a meaningful story and voice?

R is for Realistic
Does the persona feel relatable and real to your team?

S is for Singular
Is each persona differentiated enough from the others so it feels like an individual?

O is for Objectives>
Does each persona have its own distinct objective(s)?

N is for Number
Can your team remember each of the personas’ names, with one of them being ranked as primary?

A is for Applicable
Does the persona enable your team to make better design decisions about your product or service?

Key points:

  • personas are only as good as your (real) data
  • they should help guide design decisions
  • they should be displayed as a constant reminder of your why
  • they will evolve as the context does and should be revisited regularly

Other Resources

Giff, Thomas. Talking to Humans—Success Starts with Understanding Your Customers
Goodman, Elizabeth. Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research