Understanding the value of personas in UX design, and how to build your own.
Quite popular in UX Design, personas are an exercise in empathy in which we use storytelling to understand data. For every user group, a persona can be created to communicate those facts in the form of a person. By transforming abstract data into storytelling, personas equip design teams with empathy for their users.
Persons also prevent us from designing for ourselves; help us defend our design decisions by connecting what we do with who we are doing it for; and align teams on priorities and decision-making. Personas transform abstract, but meaningful data into relatable stories we can connect to. As Alan Cooper (the man who popularized the use of personas) says, “personas are profoundly simple but remarkably powerful.” Using personas is like having representatives of your user groups sit in for every meeting—and because of their “presence”, we are more considerate about how our design choices have consequences on them. In other words, we design more empathically.
Unlike user segments, personas don’t rely heavily on demographics or purchasing trends to define users. Instead, they identify patterns in people’s behavior—focusing on the purpose a product should serve based on user needs.
Let’s take a look at the Notion app as an example. Notion has identified three user segments for their product, each of which can be represented in a persona. By identifying the differences between these groups’ needs, Notion has created a customizable experience for each group. Someone who joins Notion to manage their personal life will be given different tutorials and default templates than a developer using Notion for work.
Personas empower companies like Notion to understand their audience deeply and cater to their experience. Here are examples of hypothetical personas that could relate to two of Notion’s user segments.
Creating a persona
Depending on your project needs, time, and budget, you can create two types of personas: hypothetical or validated personas. Hypothetical personas are based on assumptions and best guesses, using whatever data you can find. Validated personas are based on actual ethnographic and qualitative research.
The steps below outline how you can create a persona.
1. Gather Data
Conduct a little research and collect whatever information you can find on audience segmentation and user behavior. Consider pulling from resources like analytics, consumer reviews, reddit feeds, comments on social media, etc.
2. Build an Affinity Map
Layout all of your data (either in a spreadsheet or on post-it notes against a wall) and identify patterns. Look beyond demographics like age, gender, and income, and search for patterns in behavior. Cluster similar traits together and label them.
3. Conduct Ethnographic Research (validated personas only)
Assess your existing data, and ask yourself, “what do I still need to know?” Then, watch your users. Talk to them. Ask them questions. Return to your affinity map and add your new data points to it. Cluster and label groups again.
4. Create Personas
For each cluster you have identified and labeled, create a persona. Use the data to tell a relevant story and give your persona a fitting name and image. Each project’s persona will require different information. It all depends on what matters for the specific project, but here are a few factors to consider:
If there are any demographics meaningful to your work, include them. This could consist of gender, age, language, location, marital status, education level, etc.
What drives your persona psychologically or emotionally? Consider interests and hobbies, beliefs, values, habits, life motto or mantra, and quotes.
- Behavioral Data
Understanding your user’s engagement with your product. There are a few factors within behavioral data to consider:
- Behavior: What reasons does the user have for engaging with your product?
- Motivation: Why does this matter to the user?
- Tasks: What specific task is the user trying to complete?
- Attitudes: How does the user feel while attempting to complete the task? Consider creating feels/needs statements here to capture the user’s emotions.
Technology plays a big part in our comfort using certain products and features. If this factor impacts your user groups or product development, include it.
Where we use a product may impact our experience. It may also influence our behavior, motivation, goals, and attitudes. Consider the space and people who surround the user while they are engaging with your product.
5. Share personas with your team
Personas shouldn’t be treated like a task that gets completed then forgotten. Embed personas into your team’s decision-making process by sharing, displaying and acknowledging them in every meeting. Let their presence drive your creative problem solving!
Like many things in design, personas are living, breathing documents. As you move through the design process and make new discoveries about your users, revisit your personas and update them as needed—this is especially important with hypothetical personas that began assumptively.
The number of personas you have will vary between project and product, but the goal is to find the right balance between too many and not enough. As Kim Goodwin states in her book Designing for the Digital Age, “Nearly all of your personas should exist because they represent a distinct behavior pattern observed in your user research.” Like any one of your good friends, a person should feel authentic, unique, and memorable to you and your team.
References & Resources
Still not sure how to start? Try one of these templates to help get you going: