Personas: Crafting Great User Experience

Designer use many tools to perfect their design process and to increase the quality of their work. One of these tools are personas. In this post, I want to share with you information about this approach to design and give you executable instructions to include personas into your workflow. You will learn about its history, benefits and also about some of its drawbacks and even criticism. In the end, it will be up to you to use them or not.


What are personas?

In the world where it seems everyone has different opinion and favorite tools, only personas appears as a consistent common method. Many designers would probably agree that this method or approach can help you create great User Experiences. Some of them might even mention it as a secret. Secret or not, personas are a great tool to be included in your toolbox and used on a daily basis. This sounds great, but what are personas you might ask. Let’s take a quick look at the history …

Personas was developed in the mid-’90s by Angus Jenkinson. Right after then, this method was adopted by people working in marketing company OgilvyOne. Jenkinson used personas to categorize customer segments beyond the traditional segmentation that was based on demographic, with the goal to get a higher level of knowledge about customer’s desires, needs and their daily life. Interestingly, Jenkinson was not the only one working on this idea.

Alan Cooper introduced similar concept called “User personas” in his book. Coopers starts by investigating the problem and describes personas as hypothetical archetypes of real users. These archetypes are defined by the goals they have, as their goals are defined itself by the personas. However, there was another guy using the same approach … It was Don Norman. Norman used personas in process called “User Centered Design”. Here, interviews, observation and other techniques are implemented to build up user personas.

Why should you use personas?

So, what are the main benefits of using personas in your design process? First of all, personas can create a sense of human “face” by creating empathy with various user characters. Personas will also help you put the information about the users in a proper context so they can be understood better and easier to remember. This all is enhanced furthermore by creating stories

Personas will also prevent you from falling into vague abstraction. They will force you to think in concrete terms and focus and specific problems. Through empathy, it will be easier for you to understand what behavior and reactions might users adopt being in that situation. Due to this, you will be able to come up with more probable pain points and another options of possible uses for that specific product or service. The last benefit is the ability to prioritize these options based on how well they meet the needs of “your” personas.

How to create personas?

The only way to create usable personas is to identify the right users and ask the right questions. Before you can address a specific user or group of users, you need to know who these users are. In order to determine what user should you observe and model, you need to explore four key characteristics. These characteristics or areas are geographic, demographic, psychographic and behavioral. To make it easier, let’s discuss all of them individually along with relevant factors.

The first segment is geographic. This area, with demographic, is the largest because it contains the highest amount of factors. Area of geographic addresses the continent, climate, country, population, country region, city, city area and density of population. In other words, you are interested in finding out the answer on the “Where” question. Asking these place related questions will help you discover and explore the environment your user(s) is living or is present frequently.

The second segment is already mentioned demographic. Here, the most important topics are user’s race, gender, nationality, age, religion (if any), education, occupation, family size and income. Researching these areas will help you understand what sociological factors play the main role in user’s and life and how his behavior was created during his upbringing. It can also show you some possible options of his future personality development and predict how your product can be used.

Next segment is psychographic. You are going to observe and research what lifestyle, personal values, attitudes, interests, opinions users have. You are also interested in activities they do and what social class do they belong to. This segment can be a bit more difficult to explore because some people might not be willing to share some of these more personal information. To avoid potential problems you should keep the research formal, friendly, non-judgmental and pay attention to any clues of discomfort.

The last segment is behavioral. This area covers occasions, sought benefits, usage, degree of loyalty, user status and the stage of buyer readiness. With these information and the data from previous three segments you should be able to create detailed personas of your users. During the research, remember to ask primarily open-ended questions (what, where, how, why, etc.). Avoid questions leading to simple “Yes” or “No” answers. Ask for demonstration. Lastly, try to ask participants for specific stories.

What mistakes to avoid?

Now you know what areas and topics should you focus on and what types of questions should you ask, but not so fast. As with any other process or method, personas too can turn out badly. So, what are some mistakes to avoid? We’ve already mentioned “Yes” or “No” questions. Another mistakes is asking a leading questions that can influence user’s answers. Next mistake is to think that persona is about what user likes and dislikes.

Personas focus on what a user does, what frustrates him and what gives him satisfaction. Mistakes leading to failure can also be being to broad. Remember, personas answer very specific questions (goals, needs, motivations, priorities, etc.).The last mistake is overdoing the process of persona research and creation. You should stay away from trying to explore every tiny detail. Keep the process simple and in reasonable time frame and length.

What are the drawbacks?

Unfortunately, nothing is perfect. The most often mentioned arguments against personas argue that because of personas fictional nature, they lack clear relationship with real data. From this view, they are not scientifically based and are not reliable. Another problem comes more from a company culture. These hypothetical users can be seen as unserious to some people. The last problem can be when you focus on the wrong user or let something dazzle you and prevent you from seeing the real data. Also, what are the real data?

When you go through the drawbacks, you will find out most of them are related to situation when the persona appears to be more fictional. The majority of issues was caused by myopia and focusing on wrong user(s). The takeaway is simple. Anytime you will want to create a personas for your work, make sure to make it as real and specific as you can. Make your personas like a mirror to a real users and do the research properly.

Final words

Personas can be a powerful tool or method for crafting great User Experience.However, you should not rely solely on them, bet on them everything you have. As with every part of design process, you should keep your eyes open, mind clear and pay attention to possible problems. With time and practice, it will be easier for you to avoid most of the pitfalls and obstacles personas might bring and the speed of your work will increase. So don’t worry. Go ahead and try this method by yourself.

Do you include personas in your design process? What is your opinion on using personas in design process?

Originally posted on Alex Devero Blog.