Personas: Why We Need Them

Photo by Eric Froehling on Unsplash

Personas are a common part of UX design work. But what role do they play? Why do we need them?

Why We Need Them

Personas enable us to picture our users in a defined, specific way that helps us to understand what aesthetics they are looking for, what words they would like to see and what software they want to use.

More Questions

Once a common understanding of why personas are needed has been obtained, other frequently asked questions might arise: What information do you need to create a persona? How long will it take to build a persona? How much of our resources and effort should go into persona building? And finally should our personas change? If so, when?

These are all reasonable questions, but when we are in the thick of building our personas we might start to feel overwhelmed by these questions. First of all, the answer to all of them is “it depends,” however as that will never be a good enough answer, we have to look at what factors are driving the answers to these questions.

Let’s take the first one: What information do you need to create a persona?

This is a fabulous question. If you are a PM, I highly encourage you to ask this question. If you are a UX Designer, supply this question as the foundation for how you begin to build a persona. It may feel obvious; however, getting that question out there in the open and discussing the mechanisms to achieve the needed information will be extremely helpful. Also, having everyone on the same page in terms of what is a reasonable amount of information to collect to get to the needed persona will enable everyone to come from a place of common understanding. Here are three key pieces of information that your UX Designer will need in order to generate accurate and useful user personas:

  • (new product) Customer Discovery interviews / (existing product) User Interviews / Jobs-to-be-done interviews
  • Pain Points of the target audience (centered-around the solution that you are building/built) which can be clarified via customer research
  • Access to customer support (or those intimately familiar with pain points of customer)

Now, you can look at these pieces of information and with a clearer sense of what is needed, accurately reflect upon to what level your organization has these pieces of information. If you don’t have this information, it will be up to the UX Designer (or whatever UX team you have in place) to extract this information. Now, we can more accurately discuss the second question: How long should it take to build a persona?

Depending upon your answer to the first question, you can look at the time aspect and reasonably surmise how long it will take to extract the needed information. It will depend on how accessible your target audience/customer-base is and how easily you enable your UX Designer to gain access to them. The easier it is, the faster the process will be. In fact, if you had no information, but enabled (and even helped) your UX Designer to gain access to this information and this was the one focused area, even considering calendaring challenges, the timeline from end to end could be as short as 2–3 weeks. If you have all of the information, the timeline would be reduced to days. You still need to give your UX Designer a chance to familiarize herself with the nuances of this customer’s pain, but ingesting the information will bring about the needed insights.

Moving on to our next question: How much of our resources and effort should go into persona building?

Again, the answer is it depends, but can be significantly narrowed down when we think in terms of results. What is our goal with personas? If you are not a UX Designer and are unsure of why you need them, I encourage you to ask your UX Designer. Not in a “prove it to me” sort of way, but in a “how will this help us” sort of way. If you are the PM and you have a vision of how the personas will help the team, it’s important to share that vision with stakeholders as they are more likely to promote the process that pushes the right kind of personas development forward. Some goals of persona development might be:

  • To inform our product in a way that supports our unique use cases
  • To help the product (or development) team understand our users at a deeper level
  • To uncover additional or nuanced needs of our users in support of future feature development

And finally: Should our personas change? If so, when?

The answers is yes, of course! The key here is not to change them so often as to make them useless (I would argue monthly is too frequent — however, in the beginning of a new product, you may need to make some adjustments for the first few months in order to iterate on your best personas). Quarterly, semi-annually or when there is a major change in your customer-base are all good indicators that it is a good time to review those personas. I like to keep the personas up on the wall for frequent reference. It’s important to name your personas so that when you are working on features or stories, you can refer specifically to a type of user and humanize them so that when you are designing your product, you are really thinking about how the user will experience your product.

Next time, we’ll look at how to create a persona in detail.


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