Research Methods: User Personas

Nancy Hughes

A person walking in front of the wall with an abstract painting of a face

Photo by Lilian on Unsplash

What is a persona?

A persona is essentially a fictional person that represents what is known about a particular user or group of users. Personas are typically used in the early stages of a product or service’s development to ‘humanise’ the design focus. They are also used to initiate discussion with other designers, developers and stakeholders, based upon a common understanding and appreciation of a user’s characteristics, needs, behaviours, attitudes and motivations. In addition, they serve as a valuable reference point throughout the design process and for on-going evaluations.

While many involved in user-centred design may have a natural sense of empathy or ability to ‘put themselves in other people’s shoes,’ truly effective personas are grounded within / generated from actual user data and evidence. Ideally, this evidence is drawn directly from interviews or focus groups with target users, but these insights can be further supported by relevant literature and documentation. Without this rigor it is easy to 'make-up' personas and their characteristics based upon one's own experiences, preconceptions and prejudices.

How to create a persona

Armed with this information, there are many ways individual users can be classified, however the simplest approach is to identify those characteristics or aspects that may influence or impact the way in which users would interact with a product or services. For example, is a user’s income relevant? or their level of technology acceptance? With these considerations in mind, it is important to work systematically through the data, iteratively identifying, analysing, organising and describing key details, themes and patterns. This data is typically qualitative (verbal / textual), although metrics can be assigned where available and appropriate e.g. the % of users that have a ‘high level’ of technological competence.

As a guide, the majority of personas will include some basic demographics and descriptors, for example a user’s age; sex; occupation /role; where they live / work / study; and income / budget. They would also include a user’s goals and motivations; their skills, knowledge and experience and any particular likes and dislikes. A stock photograph is often included to represent the persona and a short narrative summarising ‘who they are’. Some may include keywords to highlight pertinent characteristics or a quote to better illustrate a view or opinion e.g. a future vision. 

Personas should always be based upon an ‘evidenced mix’ of data, and not a designer or developer’s imaginings and assumptions

However, they are based on an interpretation of the available information, and for this reason are sometimes considered intrinsically biased and lacking in rigour. While there is always a danger that personas can become stereotypical, if based on a careful analysis of actual users’ insights, they offer a highly effective tool for:

  • formalising empathy with a user(s)

  • instigating and aligning design and development discussions

  • serving as a working point of reference, particularly for ongoing evaluations

They are also often used in conjunction with ‘scenarios’, which use a story-based format to describe and detail users’ experiences and the situations and contexts in which they might engage with a product or service.

Key Advantages:

  • Ensures the development team / stakeholders are not designing for themselves!

  • Facilitates and focuses discussion within a development team / with other stakeholders

  • Offers an on-going reference point and basis for evaluation

  • Offers flexibility and ability to refine with increased understanding

  • Helps to consider users’ functional and non-functional requirements

  • Useful to represent characteristics of atypical (as well as ‘typical’) users

Key constraints:

  • Can be time consuming to produce

  • Risk of being stereotypical, over-generalised

  • Risk of bias / based on creator’s own assumptions

  • Can be difficult to translate into actual design decisions

  • Reliant on effective interpretation and application

Find out more:

Benyon (2019) Designing User Experience, Chapter 3

User Personas: Smart Speakers, Home Automation and People with Disabilities 


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