Your guide to successful persona building

Mark is a 37 year old innovation specialist that has been working for the same airline company for 3 years now. He is happily married to Rachel, and they have two lovely kids, Emma of 7 and Luke of 9. Oh, and they have a dog too, Barkie McFlufferson. While Mark is someone who enjoys the outdoors a great deal (hiking, fishing), he feels most comfortable with his family on the sofa watching the latest episode of Homeland on Netflix, for which he shares his account with his neighbors, Sophie and Ian.

‘What can you tell me about Mark?’

Well first and foremost, Mark is completely fictional. Secondly, Mark can play a huge role in the way that we design, market and sell our products. You see, Mark is what we call a persona.

Let’s talk a little more about personas, shall we?

What is a persona? And why use one?

You might have a basic understanding of what personas are, you might have no idea what I’m talking about (better stick around), or you might be an expert in creating personas (don’t really know what you’re doing here, but please read on!). Well here goes…

The inventor of the personas, Alan Cooper, has the following definition of personas in his book: The Inmates Are Running The Asylum.

‘Personas are not real people, but they represent them throughout the design process. They are hypothetical archetypes of actual users. […] Personas are defined by their goals.’

Another definition by the lovely people of the Interaction Design Foundation states the following.

‘Personas are fictional characters, which you create based upon your research in order to represent the different user types that might use your service, product, site, or brand in a similar way. Creating personas will help you to understand your users’ needs, experiences, behaviours and goals.’

I personally always feel that I learn a lot more about a specific topic by understanding what it is NOT.

‘A persona is not a demographic profile, a market segment or a summation of survey data.’ — Getelastic

A persona is a fictional character that can be used to understand your target audience, but most importantly, to be able to make quick, but well informed, decisions in your design/marketing/sales processes. It is most commonly used as a first step in the design thinking process. But who says it can’t be used in marketing or sales? Knowing your ‘target’ will give you a solid foundation; for example, for developing any type of ‘customer’-facing strategy.

Even though your persona might be a fictional character it represents a bunch of real life people who share similar traits. By giving a name to a specific persona you make it much easier for people inside of the organization to understand the issues facing the persona, and how to appropriately deal with these issues. All of the traits that these personas possess don’t just appear out of thin air, but they are based on trends and patterns collected by doing research, but more on this later.

Let us talk about the why for a minute. Why should you put time and effort into creating a persona when you already feel like you know who your customer, or the end-user of your product is? The answer here is not that difficult, even though I definitely believe you’re a smart gal/fella, I’m pretty sure you’re not omniscient. And seeing as everyone is different, it’s impossible for you to make decisions for other people (read: user). The user is the most important factor in this equation, when designing a framework the user should always take the center stage. Most of the time designers will be designing for people that are not like them, they need to have a clear image of who exactly they are designing for. So by developing personas you avoid self-referential thinking, and help designers place themselves in the user’s shoes.

Secondly, it will give a general direction to your team, and ensures that they are all on the same page, it builds a common understanding across teams. It helps to make and defend the decisions that a team takes.

What should a persona look like?

There is an endless amount of persona templates out there (see references), each of these has different values, character traits. It doesn’t really matter which one you use as long as you feel like you completely understand who your persona is. This will of course also differ according to the goal of your persona creation. Here are some the most commonly used elements of a persona:

Fictional name

A name makes it easy for people in your team to refer to the person in question you’re talking about. Let’s call our persona Airline Mark.

Photograph

Let’s call this guy Mark

What’s a name without a face. Giving a face to your persona helps people to relate to the persona on a more personal level. You can use stock images, but it’s better to head out into the real world and snap a picture of someone that would actually use your product.

Job title and profession

Mark, as mentioned before, is an innovation specialist. He has been working at Delta Airlines for 3 years now, before this he worked at Cap Gemini. He was hired as a senior manager, and leads a team of five. He is hoping to be promoted in the near future.

Age

Pretty easy one, 37 years old. However, don’t underestimate the importance of age, it’s one of the most telling indicators of someone’s lifestyle and product choices.

Marital Status

Married to Rachel, with two kids Emma and Luke.

Other stuff to make your persona come to life

The way I describe it here might seem like it’s something trivial that’s not as important as the other factors, however it couldn’t be further from the truth. This is where you really start painting the picture. This is where you transform data into emotion. The above demographic factors gives you an idea of what Mark is like. Now write this down. What are his hobbies? What phone does he use? What’s his favourite television show? His favorite website? His favorite blog? Favorite brand? Whether or not he’s a coffee drinker? Maybe he enjoys making his own kombucha? You get the picture.

Some examples of what could define Mark as a person

Above we painted a personal picture of Mark, I hope you already have an image in your mind about who Mark is. We’re going to make it a bit more product specific now. Say, we got hired to improve the app for an online retailer, how could Mark possibly feel about using this app?

Goals

These goals can be quite general, like: being able to work more efficiently. But other times you want to make them quite product-specific. For example, being able to scan your passport from your phone so you don’t have to fill in all of the personal information by hand when booking a flight.

Values/Fears

What does Mark value in a product? is this ease of use? or maybe beautiful design? Maybe your persona is very price conscious and wants the cheapest possible product. Knowing what your persona values in your product will help you define their fears.

Pain Points

What are the challenges that Mark faces in life? Once again this can be quite general, like the fact that he has trouble juggling the work-life balance. Or it could be more product specific, he hates having to type in his password every time he has to log into the company’s knowledge database.

I dare say that once you have all of these points down you probably know Mark better than most people in your life, or at least know what his preferences are regarding the specific product you’re designing, or the marketing strategy you’re developing.

But take note that different situations call for different interpretations of these personas. Not all might require, or desire, demographic data. After showing the first draft of this blog to one of the designers in our team he argued the following:

In my work I prefer personas not defined in demographics, but in attitude towards the product category I’m working for, to make good UX decisions. From ambassadors, to average users to the grumpy laggards combined with product category experience of each; how to funnel them up towards conversion.

How to create a persona

You might be someone who has exquisite people skills, and can read people like a mentalist. However, you still need to base your persona on some sort of data. I’ve read a bunch of other blogs on the subject, and many of them state that you should put a lot of time and effort into researching your personas. I disagree. I do see the value in conducting some research into your potential target group, but I believe there is so much more value in an iterative process. Just let your personas grow and develop alongside your product. As you learn more about your product, you will learn more about your personas.

Some research is in order though. Ranking from easiest and least time-consuming, to hardest and most time consuming.

  1. Analytics: The analytics of your website or app can offer you a wealth of information for free. Ranging from demographics, to usage time, to the behavior flow of your users. Use your analytics as a starting point each time you’re creating a new persona. If you’re developing a new product try to look for products that are similar and see if you can find any information on that product.
  2. Social listening: Listen to your customers, listen to your competitors, listen to your competitors’ customers. Social media makes it so easy to check what your stakeholders are interested in, and how they interact with other brands. It would be a wasted opportunity not to check all social media channels to understand your personas.
  3. Team involvement: Get everyone in your team involved, the Wisdom of the Crowd is always greater than that of the individual. Gather them in a group with a whiteboard and a couple of sticky notes, and ask them to put down their ideas of the ideal persona. Discuss and iterate. Even better… get your client involved, they will have a different viewpoint on the perfect persona, all different viewpoints are appreciated.
  4. User research (qualitative & quantitative): I’m sure that user research can have a positive impact on your knowledge about your target group. However, this is so time consuming, and is going to cost you such an absurd amount of money that I don’t think it’s the way to go. Furthermore, user research relies heavily on how and where the research is conducted, which is almost never in a natural situation. There often is a big discrepancy between what people say, and what people do. Sure, user research will give you some further insight, but at what cost though?

Here’s how we do it: We gather all of the required data beforehand. Then we sit down with the client and a part of our team, let’s say a maximum of 8 people in total. We form couples who will be working on the personas together. Get each of the couples to create two personas based on the elements as discussed before. They will discuss in pairs without any outside influences, get them to discover their own persona. I would advise not too spend too much time on this, in my opinion the best ideas are formed through split-second decisions, so spend no more than an 30 minutes on this. These can always be fine-tuned in a later stage.

A total of 8 personas will emerge, each with distinct goals, values, fears, and painpoints. Now 8 is probably too many, so try to narrow it down to 2, 3, or 4. Let everyone in the workshop vote on the persona that they think will best represent the ideal customer of your product. But try to choose personas that are quite distinct, if there are 4 personas that are male, 37, and have a good job, try to choose another one that is different from this persona.

Once you have created your personas, don’t just be satisfied with a whiteboard filled with sticky notes and the personas’ attributes. Make them even more personal by getting someone in your group to talk about the persona for a couple of minutes, paint a picture. Walk the rest of your team through a day in the life of ‘Mark’. If you don’t Mark will remain a couple of data points, and nobody will get a ‘personal’ connection to Mark.

Finally, create a one pager with a summary of each of your personas, and put them up on your wall, somewhere everyone can see it. Make them part of your team. Below you can find some templates. But I prefer making them myself, just to add that extra personal touch.

Below you can find some other templates on how to create a persona, as you can see they all differ quite a bit. There is not one correct way of creating personas.