User personas are fictional characters that are designed to help you understand your real users better. Personas are based on your user research data, and are presented in a way that makes it easier for you and your team to look at the user’s perspective more holistically and empathetically.
In UX design, personas can be created from the patterns and trends you’ve identified in your user research. These user personas can then be used to help you create more effective user experience flows—and be shared with the team as a whole for more effective marketing, sales, and retention strategies.
A brief history of user personas
The user persona is one of the most significant design strategies to emerge from the user-centered design movement. Software designer and programmer Alan Cooper is widely credited with inventing user personas through his work as a software engineer in the 1980s. As time went on, he formalized the process of researching and generating user personas.
In a blog article from 2008, Cooper explains how he would take an hour’s break from his desk while the computer compiled (this was 1983) the latest version of the project management software he was developing at the time, called Plan*It. He would spend this time walking around Old Del Monte golf course:
As I walked, I would engage myself in a dialogue, play-acting a project manager, loosely based on Kathy [Cooper’s colleague], requesting functions and behavior from my program. I often found myself deep in those dialogues, speaking aloud, and gesturing with my arms. Some of the golfers were taken aback by my unexpected presence and unusual behavior, but that didn’t bother me because I found that this play-acting technique was remarkably effective for cutting through complex design questions of functionality and interaction, allowing me to clearly see what was necessary and unnecessary and, more importantly, to differentiate between what was used frequently and what was needed only infrequently.
Why Are User Personas Important?
Each persona should be representative of a group or genre within your users (more on that in a moment).
By creating and referring to user personas throughout your UX design process, you’re able to design for users as they actually are and as they actually behave.
Without personas, you run the risk of only designing for some of your users, or designing for users as you imagine them to be. Or, perhaps the oldest vice in design, you might simply end up designing the product that you would like to use yourself.
Who Uses Personas?
Everyone within an organization can benefit from using personas to guide both the strategy and implementation side of their work.
Within UX/UI design, user personas can be used to help think outside your own biases when solving design problems.
What Makes a Good Persona?
As we noted earlier, personas should be representative of a group of users, with a clear understanding of how certain defining characteristics play a role in how users view and interact with your product.
It is crucial that your personas are written in a way that allows you to visualize their point of view, to put yourself in their shoes when designing the product.
How Do I Create a User Persona?
1. Conduct your research
The obvious, but easily overlooked, fact of user-centered design is that it should be based on robust market research, both to establish the demographics you are designing for (it’s not possible to design for everyone—or at least, it’s not possible to design for everyone while producing only one “product”), and to ensure that the personas you create actually resemble your typical user groups.
User research can be conducted in a number of ways—including questionnaires, interviews, and observations. Generally it’s more fruitful to observe what people do than to believe what they tell you.
2. Analyze your data
Depending on the product, you might not need a lot of survey or interview responses to get a good picture of who your core user groups are, and what they will need from your product. Once you’ve got your data, try to identify similarities between different responses.
One way to create these groupings is to take a block of post-it notes, and transfer each theme or idea that emerged in your research onto a separate note. On a wall or large table, organize them into themed groups. This is the beginning of an affinity map, which will give you information you need to start constructing distinct user personas.
3. Create persona drafts
Here’s a persona framework to get you started:
- Fictional name: e.g. David the Director. This serves as shorthand, so that when you’re designing or discussing with a team, you can refer to a persona by name.
- Job title and profession: e.g. Managing Director, International Accountancy firm.
- Photograph from stock image: Being able to put a face to the name will help you to integrate user personas into your process more fully.
- Demographic information: This could include age, where they live, and what their home life is like. e.g. Age 52, married, 3 children, lives in a 5-bedroom house in the suburbs, drives an SUV.
- A day in the life: This will help you to understand the context in which the user will relate to and use your product—including how their time is spent (work, socializing, family), how much pressure is on their schedule, and what their daily wants and needs are.
- Goals: These can range from quite general goals (e.g. feeling confident using technology) to quite product-specific ones (e.g. booking a flight in under 1 minute).
- Fears: What keeps them awake at night? e.g. feeling slow and out of touch with technology, paying too much for flights and violating my company’s expenses policy.
It’s easy enough to make up a persona like this. But there’s no value in user personas if they aren’t based on real users and real user research.
With this initial round of research complete, it isn’t enough to just look at your design and think, “yeah, David the Director would use this app I guess”. Instead, you’ve got to get a feel for David’s worldview, and imagine using the app while pretending to be him. It’s then that you’ll start to be able to imagine their feedback:
- “Why do I have to sign in again?”
- “Why does this thing not remember the last route I flew?”
- “I had to search through my past bookings to find out which hotel I went to last time.”
- “These prices are higher than I know I can find by searching myself.”
What is an Example of a Persona?
Here’s an example—a brief write-up of “Ara the Accountant”, produced to inform the UX design of a new car rental app, might look something like this:
- Ara the Accountant
- Age: 34
- Location: New York
- Status: Married, no children
- Quote: “I need to be able to complete my car rental booking quickly. And to change it without extra charges or phone calls—I don’t have time for that. I often visit the same cities each month for business and I shouldn’t have to spend hours searching for the cheapest rate.”
- Day in the life: “I get up at 6am, go for a jog before breakfast, then shower and get dressed and I’m ready for the day. I work from my home office and I’m usually working from 8am to at least 6pm. I have a lot of clients and have to make sure that I’m on top of the work so that I have time to travel to important meetings instead of just dialing in. I try not to work into the evenings but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Once we’re done with work, my husband and I like to just curl up and watch our favorite TV shows.”
- End goals: To maximize her use of time, and definitely not spend it on things like booking travel To project a professional appearance and build long term relationships with big clients To increase her annual earnings without working more hours
- Fears: Being stressed and overworked Feeling like essential arrangements are not properly taken care of Being late for an important meeting with a client
How many personas should you create?
In general, you should aim for 3-4 personas for each project or product that you work on. This number generally means that you can identify not only the main characteristics of your user base, but you’ve also taken the time to analyze differentiating elements that would affect their experience.
When based on real data from your user research, personas can be a powerful tool that help you visualize how your users might view and interact with your designs.