Personas — Do I need a UX Designer to build my personas?

Once we have a solid understanding of why we need personas, we need to know how to build them and who should build them. You might be wondering if you need to hire a professional UX Designer to build your personas. The answer is no, you do not need to be a professional UX designer, marketing manager or other user-focused professional to create an accurate user personas that are meaningful to your business. You can absolutely do this internally.

“woman leaning on wall looking beside mirror” by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

Playing the devil’s advocate

While you absolutely can build your user personas internally, here are a few situations in which you might want to consider letting the professionals handle things. If you are overwhelmed with your current workload and cannot set aside dedicated (either yours or a team member’s) time to do the leg work, you might not be in a position to set up your own personas. Another factor to consider is if you do not currently have any research on your users. If this is the case, you should heavily consider having a professional handle the personas building. If your organization is not currently talking to your users on a regular basis or if your team is having circuitous debates that are leading nowhere, you might want to bring in an outside party. If none of these circumstances describe your organization, congratulations, you are in a great position to create your own personas, getting you one giant leap closer to your users.

Where to begin

Begin by collecting and gathering data. The first question to consider is to thinking through what problem you are solving? Then think about what problem are you REALLY solving (hint it should solve an emotional pain)? Gather the current data that you have. What are your current beliefs about your users? What are the factors that matter the most to your users? Set up your personas in a way that divides at the points of distinction. Here are SOME factors to consider. The problem that you are solving will impact how you will want to divide your users.

  • Demographic info (e.g., age, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic level, etc.)
  • What is their career level? Education level?
  • How do they see themselves? How would they categorize their design style? (e.g., young, hip, cutting edge or traditional, reserved and refined)
  • What things do they like to do with their free time? What are their interests?
  • What communities, groups or tribes do they belong to?

by Hiro Sheridan goldilocks

Finding the “Just right” amount of data - The Goldilocks standard for research

Balance out your research. Some research will require a computer and some will require human interaction. Too much of any one side and you are likely to get bad information. Although using the www to find the most accurate information on who your users are, could be or want to be is helpful, it is only the first step. Talking to users is essential to really understand their motivations. It’s important to balance these two and continue to refine this technique so that you know you are getting the best possible user research.

What research to gather and where to find it

Finding just the right amount of data is a necessary part of the persona creating process. Wandering around aimlessly on the www for a general information about your users will not bring meaningful information. Finding out what your customers interests are, both those related your product/service and those unrelated will help you understand your user dramatically better. The goal of research is to focus in on one specific niche customer and build your personas around that one customer. As you develop that customer, you will likely come up with different iterations of that customer. Save those discrepancies to build separate use cases. If you know your target market really well, you may want to come up with many different uses cases and then blend them together after you have gotten all of your thoughts down. It depends on the type of writer that you are and your own personal process. The main takeaway here is that one persona is the goal. If you end up with more, that is okay, but try for five or less. Building or refining a product for more than five personas is unnecessarily overwhelming.

When researching, you can come up with searches in google and use google’s suggestions to help you target your searches. Try searching for problems. Solutions can work too, but often times customers will be searching to solve a specific problem that they have. Alaura Weaver, a freelance copywriter and all-around personas building savant, recommends using Alexa’s free competitive analysis tool. After doing a bit of google sleuthing and analyzing your competition, Alexa’s Audience Demographics & Geography section of the Competitive Analysis tool will guide you through the specifics of who your competitors’ buyers are. Now it’s up to you to iterate on that information and define the ideal user of your dreams using an opposite (or vastly different) customer definition. We can now begin to define who our customer is, what they like, what they care about, but we still have to TALK to them!

“One concept missing from persona creation is having 1 to 1 conversations with users. You need to start with conversations, then turn to surveys to gauge where your users fall within the spectrum of interview responses.” — Alaura Weaver

Getting users to talk to you

Nathan Kontny, formerly of Highrise and currently with Rockstar coders, has an interesting approach to getting customers to talk to him — argue with them. Yeah, it didn’t sound real logical to me either, but I followed Nathan’s work at HighRise using the Jobs to be Done interview format and I know that they were able to gain a lot of useful knowledge out of those discussions so I thought the article was worth a shot. The key here is not to fight with your users or be mean, but actually incite them to dig deeper to provide valuable insights. Here is the exchange:

Going back to those user interviews we were doing, we weren’t getting very good feedback. So what our interviewer did was add some dissent.
User: I don’t know. I just liked it.
Us: I don’t believe it. I don’t believe you even needed to even buy us. It sounds like you could have just used your previous solution and saved money and hassle.
My mouth dropped. Our interviewer was now in a debate with our customer. 
 —Nathan Kontny

Scott Burleson has a different technique, but one that is different in it’s approach, but similar in it’s goal — getting customers to dig deeper. It’s called the “else philosophy”. I’ve performed this process both as a user and as a designer and I found it to be very effective.

So when talking with your users, have specific, focused questions lined up. Then, be prepared to dig deeper on the most essential question (why your solution over someone else’s). Ask, “why else?” or maybe challenge them. Be patience. Wait for them to respond. Listen. Listen to what they say and what they might not be saying out loud, but would if you would only hang out there in the uncomfortable silence allowing the user to think, really think about why your product matters to them.

Where to end-ish

The iterative nature of personas means that you should be evaluating your conclusions for accuracy and updating your personas as needed but with some regularity. Your “final” personas are those that have been completed after the “Goldilocks” standard of user research has been met. The “end-ish” of personas, however, comes in HOW you use the personas to make decisions. Do you keep a picture of your user up on your wall. Do you ask her how you should handle this situation? Do you TEST your conclusions about your user even if you think you already know the answer? So frequently in life and software we think we know why someone behaves a certain way, but when we judge intent instead of asking or better yet, watching an action or behavior, we are likely to be WRONG — most of the time. That’s because everyone’s life experience is different and we make up different stories about who we are and what we believe about others so it is hard for someone to “guess” what someone else will do given a specific circumstance. Our users might make one decision one day and a different decision another day. That is why testing over time and space is needed to get the absolute best understanding of our users. If we use each persona, test over time and space, a picture will begin to form about who are user really is, what she needs, and how he will respond to different offerings. This is the goal — meaningful information about our users that impacts our business.

Happy persona-building!

Many thanks to Alaura Weaver for her content and contributions to this post. Alaura can be found building personas and brands at or check out her upcoming mastermind program for SaaS founders