How to create powerful personas
Making a persona is usually just a part of the “process”, an item on a UX checklist. An obligation. I believe this is because most of us are rubbish at making them. I was in a familiar situation about a year ago, creating basic (and pretty useless) personas because someone on my team said we needed some. After I filled in my persona templates, I never looked at them. By the time we got to do some testing with real users, we realised that a lot of the assumptions we’d made were false. We’d assumed that our users were curious when they were driven by structure and routine. They hated being told what to do, which made our incessant audio prompts seem like a terrible design choice. As designers, we’d fallen at the first hurdle.
What are personas meant to be?
Personas are a tool we as product designers can use to generalise our user base, giving us a quick reference when making certain design and product decisions. We make these personas by conducting research on our user base (more on this later), boiling down the results, and creating a final output to be shared with our team. The output is usually a handful of commonly grouped goals and motivations with nice little stock images slapped on them to make them easier to talk about.
Although personas have so much useful potential, they have a bit of a reputation for being useless. Of course, when we mindlessly follow through on templates left to us by others, we can only blame ourselves when the outputs feel hollow and useless. Until recently I hadn’t really questioned why we use personas in the first place. I’d failed to use the tools given to me responsibly, which gave me the false confidence that ultimately put burdensome designs in front of my users.
But what makes typical personas ‘bad’?
If you do an image search for “persona template” you’ll likely find the same thing I did. The same sterile template with useless identical attributes. They’re generic enough that someone could come up with the exact same solution for their own product’s persona. Sure the same person could be using two different products, but their goals and motivations for each of those products should be different.
When Alan Cooper — the inventor of design personas — talks about creating good personas, he states that they’re a design tool above anything else. They need to be useful in helping us solve our problems. That’s what they’re there for. I personally find these templates to be useless for the following reasons:
- They’re too generic. Typically a lot of what we put on a persona could apply to any product or service. Pain points end up being generic to the user rather than to the product. I’ve never met anyone who’s reached a loading screen and said “that was quick, I wish they could have made it take longer”, so why bring up slow loading times as a pain point? Surely that’s just common sense.
- They’re hard for designers to use. A persona is there to help you solve a problem. Or rather, to solve someone else’s problem. Personas should identify what that person’s problem is and what about them makes it that way. Anything on a persona that doesn’t address this is just decoration (I’m looking at you, personality sliders).
- They’re often a vanity asset. We spend a lot of time making our personas look nice, but then we don’t use them outside of the design room. We mostly use them to justify our design decisions without putting our work in front of real users. A persona is something designers should feel comfortable sharing, and something other people should feel confident in referring to.
There are so many templates for making these personas. Perfect cookie-cutter personas. Mindless personas. When we step back for a moment, we can realise that we have the power to do anything as long as we use our brains and our tools correctly. Stop making personas a tick on a process list; with a little creativity, you can make them a truly valuable asset to your team.
How we made our personas work
For a while, we had a set of generic personas hanging in our common area, but designers didn’t end up using them as part of their process. None of them were specific enough to address any product-related problem a designer was working on, and we found ourselves trying to shoehorn one of those personas to fit our problem space. The need for us to rethink how we use personas became clear.
Define what makes your persona useful to you
At Yoti we have several products, each aimed at a specific subset of people. Although our core app can be used by anyone, their needs change depending on what they’re using it for. Having a suite of different personas gives us visibility into how wide our user pool is, and makes us really think about who each of our products is really for.
When setting out to create such a large variety in personas, you first need to define what questions you’d like answering. This can differ depending on your product/needs, but we at least wanted to establish the following:
- Product and sector. These are both important for different reasons. Using a specific product in our ecosystem requires certain background knowledge; working in a relevant sector could provide this knowledge.
- Goals. These can be both personal goals (wanting to complete a certain task) and experience goals (wanting to do it in a certain way).
- Current journey. Understanding how our users are currently getting around the problem we’re trying to solve is crucial. What existing pain points can we remove? What does their current method involve that we should be mindful of?
- Motivations and pitfalls. Agnostic of personality and individual ability, what is something that is common between the majority of users?
- Influences. What/who around them is influencing their decisions? This could be other people, their own habits, or trending media they’ve been exposed to recently.
- Environment. The space in which your product sits. Is there anything in that space that could influence the way we design our own solution? How?
Research research research
Our first round of new personas stemmed off of the back of emails between us and our clients; we started to notice a pattern around the kinds of people coming to us and the difficulties they were having.
There are other ways in which you can collect this kind of evidence:
- Talk to your customer support team. They’re on the front line and probably understand your users better than anyone. We’re fortunate enough to access a weekly report of trending user issues which we can use to influence our design direction.
- Talk to your sales team. Again, it’s their job to understand the people you’re trying to get interested in your product, so they’ll be able to tell you everything your users are looking for.
- Interview your users directly. Ethnographic research is great for designers to see the kinds of people they’re designing for face-to-face.
- Look at your competitors. Chances are that if you’re aware of your direct competition, then so are your users. Study the existing marketplace, identify themes and common pain points, use this as evidence when making your personas.
- Check your own analytics. Data you’re collecting through your current products are a great source of information. What do you know people already like or dislike?
Hoard information and pick out the gems
You know those mad looking walls you see in detective dramas? Strings tethering black and white photos, newspaper clippings with frantic red markings highlighting the nuggets of information. The detective is following some convoluted path of logic to the true conclusion; that’s what UX designers do. Find the truth in evidence.
Collecting insights is like pinning those photos up on the wall and tracking down the truth. Whenever you’re gathering information, make a note of anything that seems relevant. It’s up to you to find the single truth amongst that mess and share it with your team through your persona.
Collate your truths into personas
Personally, I don’t think there’s a single way of doing this; it all depends on what you need your personas for. Throughout our trials with this, we’ve found that it works really well to collaboratively work on the first version of the personas together. We print out a template similar to the Beaker and Flint worksheets, stick it up on a wall, and invite people to a workshop. Typically there are one or two people note taking, with everyone else thinking and talking aloud. We all review this collected knowledge together. The designers take it all away and produce the first versions independently, then we review and iterate as a team until we’re happy.
Make them seen, make them heard
This step is probably the hardest, but also the most important. It’s very easy to just keep these personas to yourself and only look at them when you’re facing a tough decision. Don’t do this. You need to make it very clear to everyone who it is you’re all thinking about, and make sure that you’re all aligned on this. Print your personas out really big, get them up on your walls, and proudly state “this is who we’re designing for!”.
Make sure that whenever your team is struggling with a solution to double check with your personas. If you did your research right the first time around then you’ll probably have some ideas after just reminding yourself about your users. If not, it’s time to find out the answers with some good ol’ user research, and then update your personas to make sure you don’t make this same mistake again.
Cool.. so what now?
Congratulations! At this stage, you should have a shiny new suite of personas, all fresh-faced and ready to help you make some decisions! After all, a final persona is useful on its own, but its strength is in how it can shape your other decisions and outputs.
But how do you do this? Honestly however you see fit. Here are some ways we’ve used our personas since creating them, but I’m sure that this list will grow as much as our team does.
Ideally, your personas should be distinct enough to cover all major use cases. How you distill this is up to you (and there are already some nice articles out there that can help). For our e-signing platform we used a matrix to validate that our personas covered all of the product’s core functions for the different kinds of people using it. We can also use this matrix to identify key areas we might have missed.
User journey maps
Even at this high level, these personas can be used to show where each persona is likely to have influence. The columns represent sections and features, with each row representing a distinct persona. By knowing which areas are most important to which kinds of people, we can make the core journey more appropriate for them.
Sitemaps and permissions
We wanted to figure out how we could restrict certain user groups from accessing data-sensitive areas of a site. The personas we’d created helped us realise what parts they would need to access, which parts they could access, and what they were forbidden to access. This helped us to create a simple permission structure that all of our core personas could use without complaint to suit their needs.
How doing this changed our way of working
At Yoti we have several teams spanning across multiple industries. Before, we were using a group of personas that were generic enough that they weren’t useful for anyone in particular. Recently we’ve transitioned to using this process to create a subset of personas for each industry, which has highlighted how wide our platform stretches.
The results have been pretty fantastic:
- We have a shared understanding. Having everyone on the same page from the start gives clarity to who we are making decisions for and why we’re doing it in the first place.
- New insights lead to brilliant design decisions. I’ve been surprised with every persona we’ve created so far. There’s so much we don’t know as designers, and it’s important to hear those decisions from other people who want to help our users as much as we do.
- The process is empowering to our design team. Often designers are seen as prideful and uncompromising on their design choices. Showing people outside of our bubble that we’re not just thinking about the product’s looks makes us feel like we’re taken seriously.
A persona isn’t something you can create in isolation. For each product/service/whatever you’re creating you’ll be solving different problems your users are facing, which means investigating in entirely different ways. Your persona is a universal truth, something you can all refer to, and something that will answer most questions for you (pro tip: you’ll have to go back to your users for those other questions… and update your personas to reflect this).