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Crafting Winning Personas

September 23, 2019

Personas are essential tools in adopting a user-centered approach to product design. Personas help a product team maintain a constant focus on their target users, ensuring that the designed product conforms to their needs and requirements. Personas are useful throughout the complete design lifecycle—from developing business requirements, product concepts, functional specifications, and Web content to interaction and visual design for the product user interface.

Alan Cooper pioneered the adoption of the Goal-Directed Design methodology, including the use of personas, as a practical approach to interaction design for high-technology products. Creating personas is a quick, efficient way of gauging the needs and requirements of a potentially diverse user base that would make use of a particular product, service, or system in different contexts and environments.

Design personas answer this most important question: “For whom should we design a product?” A persona is similar to an avatar and provides a tangible, physical identity for a segment of the target user community that shares common characteristics, including usage behaviors, attitudes, preferences, needs, aptitudes, skillsets, painpoints, and aspirations. A set of personas should provide realistic, reliable representations of your target user set and take into account their contextual environment. Figure 1 shows an example persona.

Figure 1—Persona representing a user looking for insurance coverage
Persona representing a user looking for insurance coverage

What Are the Benefits of Using Personas?

Personas help you accurately identify and define the target users of an existing product or service, including their needs, requirements, and expectations and the painpoints they’ve encountered when using that product. Based on qualitative and quantitative user research, personas provide more realistic, concrete images of typical users. Personas offer the following benefits:

  • Personas help you to determine the needs and aspirations of potential users of an application or product, ensuring that the product offers better usability and functionality.
  • Personas ensure that all the stakeholders who are involved in a project are on the same page, maintain their focus on user goals, and avoid distractions.
  • Personas are useful in avoiding conflicts between UX designers, product managers, developers, and management when identifying what features and functionalities are absolutely necessary at the current stage of development—for example, when creating a minimum viable product (MVP)—versus those that you should defer until later stages of the design and development process or those that would be of little or no use to users.
  • Personas help eliminate confusion about what users say versus what they do, thus bringing more clarity when you’re identifying user needs and the appropriate approach to follow on the basis of user behaviors.
  • Personas can be an effective tool for predictive analysis of user behavior and possible user reactions, thus reducing your dependency on usability testing.
  • Generating personas is a quick, easy, and effective way of capturing user insights and offers a good alternative to some more demanding, time-consuming user-research methods.

Pitfalls to Avoid When Creating Personas

Creating a superficial set of personas that has no basis in user research does little to help you understand your target users. As a result, your product would likely fail to meet users’ expectations, ultimately leading to reduced conversion rates, a lack of sustained competitive advantage, and other significant, negative business consequences.

Avoid the following pitfalls to ensure you can create effective personas that lead to optimal user experiences and business outcomes.

Pitfall #1: Creating Personas Based on Stakeholders’ Biases, Assumptions, and Opinions

Such personas are based on internal stakeholders’ mental biases, assumptions, and opinions about your customers’ characteristics and actions. The best way to avoid this pitfall is to derive your insights from qualitative research with the actual target users of the product. Doing a contextual inquiry or observing users using the product enables you to develop a deep understanding of not only what users are doing but, more importantly, why they’re doing what they are doing. Often, during interviews and focus groups, users unintentionally leave out a lot of pertinent information. In contrast, conducting contextual inquiries lets you quickly uncover hidden facts and problems users didn’t even realize they had. After doing a contextual inquiry, validate your findings through other UX-research techniques such as Web analytics, internal Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), focused group discussions, or surveys. This research-based approach gives your personas and insights the desired credibility to justify design decisions.

Pitfall #2: Creating Fictional Personas

Fictional personas assume personality traits, rely primarily on demographics, and tell stories that don’t reflect reality. To create useful personas, you must look beyond superficial facts and leverage key insights from qualitative user research. To really understand how to design a seamless product experience for your users, dive deeper. Include such details as user’s behaviors, needs, and aspirations relating to a product. Develop a deeper understanding of users’ goals and the tasks users are trying to accomplish.

Pitfall #3: Creating Personas That Don’t Include Relevant, Real-life Scenarios

Personas that fail to capture real-life scenarios or use cases that illustrate the product user experience you’re designing aren’t useful in determining a product’s feature set. Ensure that your personas are realistic and accurately represent your target users. Try to include all the relevant details about the particular use cases you’re covering. When you’re creating a product user experience, you may need to design for complex use cases. It is important that your personas represent the users who would actually encounter these scenarios in their real life.

Let’s look at an example. If you were designing an application for airline-ticket bookings, you would need to gain an understanding of what tasks particular types of users would perform. In addition to serving the needs of customers booking flights, you might need to consider the roles and responsibilities of internal employees such as the booking portal’s administrators who are responsible for configuring the site or the maintenance staff responsible for updates.

It might not be feasible to imagine and consider all possible scenarios when you’re creating personas. However, as you encounter and think through new use cases, you can add scenarios to your personas.

Pitfall #4: Creating Personas for Every Type of User

Personas are generalized archetypes that are composites of people who share common characteristics, behaviors, values, and tasks. Rather than creating personas for every possible user type or job profile, focus on creating a primary persona, secondary personas, and perhaps complementary personas. As the number of personas increases, it becomes increasingly difficult to familiarize yourself with all of them and use them in the design process. In most cases,  you should be able to represent all of your target users and their behaviors by creating three to five personas.

Pitfall #5: Not Sharing Personas Across Teams

Share your personas with all product-team members and across all functional teams. Personas represent real users and, thus, form a necessary part of the design and development process for any customer-facing groups that interact with your target audiences. Teams that stand to benefit tremendously from using your personas include Product Management, User Experience, Visual Design, Marketing, Sales, Content Strategy and Development, Business Strategy, Project Management, Operations, Information Technology, Customer Experience, Service, and Support. Ensure that every stakeholder across the organization who serves the same target users is sharing the same set of personas. Make your personas—and the user-research findings on which they’re based—available in a central repository to which everyone has access.

Pitfall #6: Not Updating Your Personas

Revise, refine, and update your personas on a regular basis. You’ll need to use them when you’re starting work on a new release and, throughout the product design and development lifecycle, whenever you need to make product or design decisions. Whenever you conduct user research or observe new user behaviors, update your personas based on your new learnings.

How to Craft Winning Personas

Relying on your assumptions, biases, and gut feelings when defining target user groups is a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, many teams base their personas on inapplicable or poorly sourced data. To be able to gauge actual users’ attitudes, behaviors, motivations, and desired outcomes, you must gather data from multiple sources. Collect and collate qualitative user feedback, then pair your insights from user research with Web analytics data to get a complete picture of users’ behaviors.

Create your personas during the initial phase of a project. They can help you uncover hidden gaps, highlight new opportunities, and make better informed decisions regarding a product’s functionality. For a given product-development project, it is best to limit the number of personas and focus on the most important needs and requirements of major segments of the target audience rather than trying to cover the highly specific needs of each and every user type.

To ensure the set of personas that you create accurately represents your target audience, follow these steps:

  1. Determine what user-research methods to employ. You can conduct your research online or offline. Possible methods include contextual inquiries, user interviews, surveys, and focus-group discussions. While surveys are a quick, efficient way of collecting a larger volume of data, you can observe users’ behavior and derive deeper insights from contextual inquiries or face-to-face interviews. Augment these qualitative research techniques with quantitative data from Web analytics, market-segmentation tools, and multiple-choice surveys.
  2. Conduct research to identify the product’s potential user groups. Determine the initial user set for your contextual inquiries or interviews. Ask questions that can help you learn about and understand your target user groups. Seek answers to such questions as: Who are the target users? What are their characteristics? How many different types of users would need to use the product? Why are they using their current product? What behaviors, assumptions, dependencies, and expectations define their view of that product? Analyze the data that you’ve obtained from your research to identify potential user groups for the product.
  3. Analyze your research and determine the relevant user groups. Identify the user characteristics that are relevant to your product and its user groups. Note the differences and similarities between the various user groups and try to understand why they exist. Determine the various situations in which particular users would use the product. Categorize the various types of users based on their similarities and differences, then define and name the specific user groups for which you should create personas.
  4. Create your preliminary personas. Create a persona for each important user group. Then determine whether there are any additional user groups you haven’t covered who have unique needs and requirements.
  5. Refine and validate your personas. Have you correctly identified each user group’s likes and dislikes, needs and aspirations, goals and tasks, and the context or environment in which they would use the product? Categorize your preliminary personas as primary, secondary, or complementary personas. Try to limit the number of personas—perhaps to a maximum of three or four—based on their identified characteristics and the scope of the product’s feature set.
  6. Enrich your personas with realistic personal data. Add a name and an image that is representative of each persona, as well as appropriate details such as descriptions of the persona’s background, motivations, and expectations. Include relevant personal information such as identity, gender, work practices, and daily habits that could influence the persona’s usage of the product. Figure 2 shows a persona that includes realistic, detailed data.
  7. Create usage scenarios. Document some possible scenarios in which each persona might make use of the product within particular working environments. Figures 3–5 depict several usage scenarios.
Figure 2—Persona for a user seeking health-insurance coverage
Persona for a user seeking health-insurance coverage
Figure 3—;Usage Scenario 1: Looking for an insurance plan
Usage Scenario 1: Looking for an insurance plan
Figure 4—Usage Scenario 2: Buying an insurance plan
Usage Scenario 2: Buying an insurance plan
Figure 5—Usage Scenario 3: Filing an insurance claim
Usage Scenario 3: Filing an insurance claim

The Elements of a Persona

The following elements are integral components of a winning persona:

  • User Group—This typically designates the role of a particular type of user—for instance, Laboratory Manager.
  • User Name—This should be a fictional name.
  • Job Details—Indicate the persona’s primary role and responsibilities.
  • Demographic Data—You might include the persona’s age, academic and professional qualifications, ethnicity, and family status.
  • Goal—What is the customer trying to achieve by using your product?
  • Tasks/Actions—What tasks would this persona perform using your product, how, and in what order? How long would it take to complete these tasks?
  • Aspirations & Values—What is of primary importance to this persona? What values drive this persona’s purchasing decisions? Would emotions, logic, or impulse shopping influence these purchasing decisions? Would this persona perceive the product as utilitarian or aspirational? Does product quality or cost influence this persona more?
  • Needs & Requirements—What answers does this persona seek? What information is necessary to accomplish the persona’s tasks and when is it needed? What are the persona’s must-haves, desirables, and value-adds?
  • Painpoints—What would cause this persona to opt out of using the product, switch to a rival product, or abandon a process midway? Why?
  • Expectations—How does this persona expect the product to work? What are the expectations this persona has in regard to product pricing? To what degree would this persona be tolerant of time consumption or delays? What is the persona’s mental model for this experience?
  • Customer Journey Stage & Customer Type—Might this persona represent potential customers who are just starting their product research? Customers who are ready to make a purchase? Satisfied repeat purchasers or returning customers? Prospective switchers or loyal customers who are planning to upgrade?
  • Emotions—What is the persona’s current emotional state? Happy, angry, anxious, disappointed, excited, or indifferent?
  • Back Story & Quotation—Provide a short narrative and a real user quotation that sums up the key characteristics of a user need or problem.
  • Image—Include an image that represents the particular target user group.

Figure 6 depicts some of the data you might include in a persona.

Figure 6—Persona data
Persona data

Image source: Vincent Xia’s “What Are & How to Create Personas: Step-by-Step Guidelines of Everything,” Muzli on Medium

The available data that you might consider including in your personas depends on the depth and type of user research you’ve undertaken.

You can arrange the information that a persona comprises in any logical format that aids readability and ease of comprehension. For example, as Figure 7 shows, some possible persona formats include the following:

  • The Narrative—This format is best for stakeholders who are not concerned about detailed user needs and requirements.
  • The Tabular Format—This is possibly the best format for UX designers, who require an easy way of comparing their designs to user needs.
  • The Quick-and-Dirty List—This view is best for cases in which the personas lack depth because the team conducted only limited user research.
Figure 7—Persona formats
Persona formats

Image source: “Personas” on Usability.gov.

Characteristics of Good Personas

Good personas share several characteristics, as follows:

  • They reflect insights and conclusions that derive from qualitative user research and analysis.
  • They describe the characteristics of real people, including their background, realistic goals, and values.
  • They express the needs and expectations of key groups of target users and the ways in which they would likely make use of a product.
  • They are realistic and, thus, helpful in identifying a product’s feature set and functionality.
  • They help product teams to better understand a product’s target users.

Conclusion

The ability to craft winning personas requires mastering the science and art of understanding the people behind the persona. You should always bear in mind that personas are only as good as the research and data that support them. The insights you derive in drafting personas should have their basis in the winning combination of extensive qualitative and quantitative research and data that you’ve obtained from diverse sources—not the personal opinions, mental biases, and false assumptions of your product team. 

References

Benco, Katrina. “5 Signs You’re Creating Personas That Won’t Be Effective.” TandemSeven, undated. Retrieved June 18, 2019.

Guo, Frank Y., Sanjay Shamdasani, and Bruce Randall. “Creating Effective Personas for Product Design: Insights from a Case Study.” In Internationalization, Design, and Global Development, IDGD 2011. Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 2011. Retrieved June 18, 2019.

Stibbe, Matthew. “How to Create Useful and Believable Marketing Personas.” Articulate, undated. Retrieved June 18, 2019.

Usability.gov. “Personas.” Usability.gov, undated. Retrieved June 18, 2019.

UserTesting. “The 5 Best Guides for Creating a Customer Persona.” UserTesting Blog, April 1, 2019. Retrieved June 18, 2019.

Xia, Vincent. “What Are & How to Create Personas: Step-by-Step Guidelines of Everything.” Muzli on Medium, November 2, 2017. Retrieved June 18, 2019.

UX Design Lead, Engineering R&D Services (ERS) Division of HCL Technologies Ltd.

Gautam Buddha Nagar, Uttar Pradesh, India

Kumar SkandSkand has a diverse academic and professional background, working as an engineer, industrial designer, and UX designer. He has more than seven years of experience across the IT services, design, and management domains. Skand has the ability to think and analyze critically from multiple frames of reference.  Read More

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