UX Research: modeling target users for your design project

Learning about Personas and how to create them

The first steps for every UX design methodology are focused on the research. The designers need to understand who are their target users, and how do they behave. For this purpose, we will learn about the concept of Persona, which is one of the key tools for the user research.

We will first cover the explanation of this concept, and why is it important for design and business.

After that, we will learn to construct Personas for our UX projects.


Before starting with Personas, let us have a brief look at the concept of user profiling. User profiling has been a well-known marketing tool for many years to create market segments.

The companies use previous data to identify the main features of their customers in order to segment the public [1]. User profiling is very common nowadays thanks to Big Data and Machine Learning algorithms [2] [3] that help the industry to identify clusters and groups of customers with different necessities, based on their actions and living conditions.

This is indeed helpful. Here is a simple example of different types of users for an ISP company:

  • Profile A: middle-aged, middle income, USA, city.
  • Profile B: middle-aged, middle income, USA, countryside.
  • Profile C: Young, little income, USA, city.
  • Profile D: Young, middle income, Europe, city.
  • Profile E: …

As you can appreciate, user profiles are defined by labels according to their status. In this case, the company identified some age ranges, income ranges, the origin of the user and the living environment. From collected data, we can categorize a new user into one of the Profiles. The company can create different strategies to aim to these users, and they can even forecast how will do the users behave.

However, for UX design we will not work only with user profiles. There is a powerful tool that we need to know in order to simplify our design process and improve our efficiency: Personas.


Alan Cooper worked on the idea of the user model to create the concept of Persona. This concept origins from two important points [4]:

  • Models are used to create useful abstractions of complex phenomena.
  • The best way to successfully accommodate a variety of users is to design for specific types of individuals with specific needs.
“If you design for everyone, you delight no one. That is the recipe for a mediocre product.” — Alan Cooper [4]

Personas are user models, that help us to understand our target users and focus on their needs. They are not real people, but fictionary users created after collecting different data about real users.

A (very) simplified example of persona. Personas should be redefined for designing different products.

In this way, it does not seem to be very different from the user profiles that we described previously. However, the concept is not the same: as a model, they are specific users, that provide us with specific information about their thinking and their own reasons for their actions. In words of Cooper [4], Personas are based upon behavior patterns we observe during the course of the Research phase. Personas reflect those patterns.

The idea is to create a fictional person for whom to design, and we usually make use of a name and even a real face. This creates empathy. Since these fictional users are created from condensing the information obtained from real users, we can use them individually to obtain global results.


This chapter will summarize the list of key points of using Personas on your design process:

  • Personas help the designers to focus on the needs of the customers since they should always answer questions like “what would Charlotte prefer in this case?”
  • Personas create consensus about the target users. Stakeholders and designers will work for the same objectives.
  • Personas simplify the understanding of the user behavior. They are easy to remember and the designer can empathize with them.
“Widening your target doesn’t improve your aim.” — Alan Cooper [4]
  • Personas produce efficiency in the design process. Design for the primary — accommodate the secondary. [5]
  • Personas help the designers to do the preliminary tests of the design choices, checking the expected reaction of the model.

Alan Cooper mentions that Personas help the designers to avoid three typical design issues [4]:

  • The elastic user.
  • Self-referential design.
  • Edge Cases.


And here is the gold. How do we create good Personas for our project?

The first thing you need to understand is that the creation of Personas must aim to be meaningful for the design process. Laura Klein says that Personas must be predictive tools and not only a user description.

“A problem: even the best personas tend to be descriptive, but not predictive.” — Laura Klein [6]

When you create a truly predictive Persona, you can use it to identify real potential users. Furthermore, you can use the model as a validation for your design choices, and use the patters of your Persona to drive the requisites of the product.


Your user research can be based on different techniques and methodologies, for example:

  • Ethnographic interviews
  • Focus Groups
  • Card sorting
  • Usability tests
  • A/B tests
  • Game surveys
  • True-Intent Studies
  • Cultural probes

The following process [4], developed by Robert Reimann, Kim Goodwin, and Lane Halley, consists of several steps oriented to the identification and synthesis of user patterns from the data that you collected from the user research and analytics:

  • Identify behavioral variables. For example user activities, attitudes, motivations or specific skills. The variables to be observed will depend on the research conducted.
  • Map interview subjects to behavioral variables. You can define a measurement of the behavior related to every user: for example, one user may have 45% of cooking skills in that Skill range, and 90% of Learning attitude.
  • Identify significant behavior patterns. Some users may share common variables and ranges mapped. You can define patterns from those repetitions.
  • Synthesize characteristics and relevant goals. Focus on the behavior patterns and describe the details that make those patterns something real for your Persona. The environment, the relationships, the story behind that pattern. Try not to be too fictional, you are not writing novels! Extract the context from your data. It is important to create social interactions for your persona, and adding some demographic information like location, job, age, and gender.
  • Check for redundancy and completeness. When you are creating more than one Persona, check that every pattern is properly represented and they are not overlapping (too much).
  • Expand description of attributes and behaviors. The narrative about your Persona should be no longer than one or two text pages. It should reflect the most important facts observed during the previous research, but your descriptions should be as detailed as your research was. At this point, add pictures! Not only one profile photo but some graphical references to the Persona lifestyle, their work environment or their social life. At this point, you should choose a name for the Persona.
  • Designate persona types. In the case that you created different Personas from the user research data, you should group them to prioritize the design target user. Types of Personas are Primary, Secondary, Supplemental, customer, Served and Negative.

These steps will result on the creation of one or several Personas that you will use as the reference users for your design project.

Innovation is always spinning forward. Just like a Drill.


[1] Cufoglu, A. (2014). User Profiling-A Short Review. [online] International Journal of Computer Applications. Available at: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/eecb/f9358916a8e7db20511c611eaceaac554417.pdf [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].

[2] Kanoje, S. (2014). User Profiling Trends, Techniques and Applications. [online] ResearchGate. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/269704924_User_Profiling_Trends_Techniques_and_Applications [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].

[3] Wang, G. (2016). Unsupervised Clickstream Clustering for User Behavior Analysis. [online] Cs.ucsb.edu. Available at: https://www.cs.ucsb.edu/~ravenben/publications/pdf/clickstream-chi16.pdf [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].

[4] Cooper, A., Reimann, R., Cronin, D. and Cooper, A. (2007). About face 3. Indianapolis, Ind.: Wiley Pub.

[5] Ilama, E. (2015). Creating Personas | UX Booth. [online] Uxbooth.com. Available at: https://www.uxbooth.com/articles/creating-personas/ [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].

[6] Klein, L. (2015). Predictive personas | Inside Design Blog. [online] Invisionapp.com. Available at: https://www.invisionapp.com/inside-design/predictive-personas/ [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].