6 mins | 04 May, 2022

User Personas and their role in the design process

User Personas have been a staple of the UX Designers' toolkit for a long time. In recent years, as the field has expanded and more time put into developing exercises that might improve the outcomes in website & product design, some in the game have moved away from using personas (favouring different means of discovering user needs). I believe that any failings of a persona to add value though are not the fault of the exercise itself, but the information used within it.

In addition, as clientside becomes more aware of the UX Design process and interested in playing an active role, now is the ideal time for User Personas to add value. They are one of the most important artefacts a designer can use to foster support and interest from the broadest range of people. You can consider them a stepping stone into the design process.

What is a User Persona?

A User Persona is a fictional representation of a type of person that might use a product or service. Typically as part of the design process, you will identify different user types. Occasionally you might have just one (your ideal customer), but often there are several. So if your product is intended to serve the needs of people viewing a sports team website, you might have the following user types:

  • Casual enthusiast (looking for match day/ticket information)
  • Superfan (looking for detailed news, stats and history)
  • Corporate (looking for sponsorship and entertaining opportunities)

Your actual user types would be decided upon through a number of means, including research, data analysis and interviews.

A persona, then takes a user type and adds details that support their intentions and allows the reader to build up a picture of who they are. This is not a broad brush sweep of all the people that might fit into that category, but more a specific individual that fits the user archetype.

A persona may include top-level details like:

  • Name
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Ethnicity
  • Interests/hobbies
  • Where/how they consume news

Then might dive deeper into:

  • Their goals and needs as a user
  • Their primary drivers
  • The actions they may be looking to accomplish
  • Any blockers that might hold them back

It's important to note - this is not an exercise in thinking about what you’d like your ideal user to be. This is about using real data that explains real user issues and goals (you should never make things up for a user persona).

Example user persona for a Golf Club Manager
Example User Persona

How do user personas help the design process?

User personas can be used in lots of ways across different departments in an organisation. There are 3 key reasons to use them though that provide value.

Firstly, the original reason personas were developed is to give us a point of reference for who we’re designing for. If you don’t understand your users when designing a website, the work you do is really just guesswork (albeit based on experience and expertise) but how can you be sure you are meeting the users actual needs? If your personas are accurate, you can make informed decisions about what users are trying to do, what features you need to include and the priority of information they are looking for, which in turn helps you plan content architecture.

Secondly, it gives project stakeholders something tangible to consider. When working with an organisation that has a middle management structure, it can sometimes be difficult to sell the value of UX Design, especially when dealing with non-creative people. Sometimes, they just don't get it… Most managers though (across nearly all departments) do understand that their customers are important (they’re literally the reason they have a job). Being able to visualise those customers and talk about them in a human way, plus detail reasons why that customer may or may not spend money with the organisation tends to open up conversations (even with the most hardened critics of the design process). Of all the UX artefacts I’ve ever created, I still find personas to be the most accessible by the broadest spectrum of people in business.

Lastly, it gives us something to test against. A user persona is really only useful if you use it to define outcomes. And a defined outcome can only provide value if you later come back to it and review your goals. When a project is completed, in order to review its success you need to look at whether you have improved things for the user. Your user persona is therefore a great artefact for this. At the end of the project, you can look to your persona and ask questions like:

  • Have we helped this user type achieve their goals?
  • Have we alleviated their concerns?

How to create a user persona

A user persona is only as good as the data that went into its creation. There are different approaches and ideas on how to gather the best data, here’s the general approach we take when creating personas for web design projects:

  1. Discuss with stakeholders
  2. Obtain data
  3. Look for commonalities
  4. Refine and curate

Discuss with stakeholders

The ideal place to start is with the project stakeholders. They will hopefully have a good idea of their current users (although they may not or sometimes think they do but are actually completely misinformed). Beware of the Manager that claims they understand their users completely. They probably don’t and these are often the people who will be most resistant to user research, claiming “we don’t need to waste money on that”.

Misconceptions about users (or customers) within businesses are a real issue, but one that can be tackled through solid user research. Despite the potential for misinformation, understanding who a company thinks its users are, is a great place to start scoping out the different user types you may end up dealing with.

Obtain real user data

Next, you should look at the data. There are lots of ways you might go about getting hold of user data. Here are some of the methods we use in our UX research projects.

  • User Interviews: We’ve found, that you can get more from a 1-hour conversation with a single customer than from sending out 100 questionnaires. If there is support for it and you can speak directly with real customers I would highly recommend conducting face-to-face interviews where you can ask directly about the pros and cons of using a product or service. Ideally, you should be interviewing as many users as realistically possible that represent a broad range of users.
  • User Questionnaires: If you can’t access users directly, sending out questionnaires is a good second option. There is a real art to designing a user questionnaire that will foster useful responses though. Most people you send it to won't respond. You have to make it worth their while and not overburden them with too much required effort. This is a quantitative approach. If you can get enough responses, the data can be useful to look for common answers.
  • Data Analysis: If there is data available, often you can use it to paint a picture of user habits. We typically start with Google Analytics for traffic and usage reporting. Other forms of data might include specific online tracking tools (like Hotjar), Sales data, Enquiry forms, Loyalty schemes and community registrations.
  • AI/trending and segmentation tools: There are a growing number of tools available now that allow you to scrape vast amounts of user data and probe for commonalities. We’ve started using Audiense which essentially crawls Twitter and links in other apps that include user habits so you can understand how users think and act. This is great for learning about associated or adjacent interests (for instance finding out that a specific user type can be found hanging out in a certain place).
  • Desk Research: Lastly, we still advocate very much for good old fashioned desk research. That’s sitting at your desk, opening up a search engine and seeing what's out there already. We live in an age where data is created and analysed at rates never before imaginable. It doesn't matter what the project is, there is nearly always some kind of report or summary of data available that can be used to provide insight or spark an avenue to investigate further.

Look for commonalities

Once you have all the data you are likely to get, you need to review and start to look for common trends. Often there are some clear differences (which will have already started forming during the data collection phase) but sometimes you need to dig deep into the data.

This is not an exact science and there are no set templates to work through this. It will depend on the project and the data you are working with. As you start to sift through the information though, you will be able to pull out common issues, look for trends and patterns and group together commonalities in the behaviours.

The idea is to get to a point where you can confidently say, these are our specific user types and these are the things that set them apart from the others. Once you are at that point, you can create your user persona and be able to present this to any project stakeholder.

User Persona example
User Persona example

Why personas don't work

Personas are great when they work well. They help align strategy, provide focus and give direction for problem-solving through design. So, why do some people seem to struggle with them? The Nielsen Norman Group have provided a good summary of the common pitfalls that lead to personas failing, which essentially comes down to misunderstanding or communication.

Here’s a roundup of their insights, which I felt were particularly on point from personal experience:

  • The personas that are created don't get used: Someone or some group of people spend time putting detailed personas together, only to have them pushed to one side and forgotten about. These are at best vanity personas, created because the UX team like the exercise but then aren’t referred back to at any point again.
  • There's no buy-in from project stakeholders: If the leadership team don’t believe in the process, it will be hard to convince them of any value later on. It's essential to get them involved early and show them where information is coming from and the insights it might deliver.
  • Personas are created by one team, then imposed on another: If personas are created independently, they sometimes don’t land well with other teams. It's important to show them the development process or ideally involve them in it.
  • Stakeholders don’t understand what a persona is or why they might use them: A polished persona might look impressive, but without context as to its purpose, can easily be sidelined by people who don’t understand the reason they are being shown it. Ideally, you would prime anyone who might see one well in advance so they are anticipating its arrival and are ready to delve into the details.
  • There are flaws in the data: If you’ve used poor quality data or your persona is not targetting the right things, it can lead to incorrect insights being established. Worst case, a poorly put together persona can lead to design work being done that solves the wrong problem.

For a more in-depth look at why personas fail, read The Nielsen Norman Group’s article yourself.

Are User Personas the holy grail in UX Design?

You can do UX Design without creating personas, but if you have good quality user information I don't see why you would want to. Personas are a really important piece of a larger set of exercises that lead toward great product design. They have to be created in a logical, considered and comprehensive manner though. Using poor quality personas will lead to poor quality design work. Conversely, spending time creating good quality personas will lead to better design decisions being made.

Whilst user personas are not going to design better websites or digital products by themselves, they are still one of the best ways of drawing key project stakeholders together and should in my opinion remain an essential part of the UX toolkit.

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