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A Closer Look At Personas: What They Are And How They Work | 1

In my experience as an interaction designer, I have come across many strategies and approaches to increase the quality and consistency of my work, but none more effective than the persona. Personas have been in use since the mid-’90s and since then have gained widespread awareness within the design community. We’ll discuss the process of creating personas from ethnographic research in Part 2221 of this series. [Links checked March/29/2017]

For every designer who uses personas, I have found even more who strongly oppose the technique. I once also viewed personas with disdain, seeing them as a silly distraction from the real work at hand — that is, until I witnessed them being used properly and to their full potential.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

Once I understood why personas were valuable and how they could be put into action, I started using them in my own work, and then something interesting happened: My process became more efficient and fun, while the fruits of my labor became more impactful and useful to others. Never before had I seen such a boost in clarity, productivity and success in my own work. Personas will supercharge your work, too, and help you take your designs to the next level.

I hope that those who are unfamiliar with personas will read this series of articles, divided into two parts, and give them a try and that those who are opposed to their use will reconsider their position. Where the use of personas has generated uncertainty and even controversy, I have leaned in with curiosity and a critical eye, questioning the tenants of my discipline to determine what works for me — and I’m all the better for it. Perhaps what I’ve learned will help others in their journey to hone their work as well.

What Is A Persona? Link

A persona is a way to model, summarize and communicate research about people who have been observed or researched in some way. A persona is depicted as a specific person but is not a real individual; rather, it is synthesized from observations of many people. Each persona represents a significant portion of people in the real world and enables the designer to focus on a manageable and memorable cast of characters, instead of focusing on thousands of individuals. Personas aid designers to create different designs for different kinds of people and to design for a specific somebody, rather than a generic everybody.

A persona document should clearly communicate and summarize research data.6
A persona document should clearly communicate and summarize research data. (Image: Elizabeth Bacon7) (View large version8)

What Does A Persona Look Like? Link

While a persona is usually presented as a one-pager document, it is more than just a deliverable — it is a way to communicate and summarize research trends and patterns to others. This fundamental understanding of users is what’s important, not the document itself.

The main elements presented here are key goals and a day-in-the-life, which are common to all well-made persona documents.9
The main elements presented here are the key goals and the “Day in the Life,” which are common to all well-made persona documents. Other elements, such as the “Quick Take on Fred” are included because of team and/or project requirements. Each project will dictate a certain approach to producing persona documents. (Image: Interaction Design10) (View large version11)

I emphasize this distinction because many people think of a persona and the document that captures essential elements of the persona as the same thing — they are not. It is all too easy for novice practitioners of goal-directed design to fixate on the “best way” to make a persona document and to lose sight of the bigger picture, which is to fully understand a user and then simply share the top-level information with others.

For designers looking for a jump start on creating persona documents, I highly recommend the persona poster template12 by Creative Companion. This poster organizes and formats all of the important information that a designer would need to create an amazing one-page deliverable.

Where Does The Concept Of Personas Come From? Link

Understanding the historical context and what personas meant to their progenitor will help us understand what personas can mean to us designers. Personas were informally developed by Alan Cooper13 in the early ’80s as a way to empathize with and internalize the mindset of people who would eventually use the software he was designing.

Alan Cooper interviewed several people among the intended audience of a project he was working on and got to know them so well that he pretended to be them as a way of brainstorming and evaluating ideas from their perspective. This method-acting technique allowed Cooper to put users front and center in the design process as he created software. As Cooper moved from creating software himself to consulting, he quickly discovered that, to be successful, he needed a way to help clients see the world from his perspective, which was informed directly by a sample set of intended users.

This need to inform and persuade clients led him to formalize personas into a concrete deliverable that communicates one’s user-centered knowledge to those who did not do the research themselves. The process of developing personas and the way in which they are used today have evolved since then, but the premise remains the same: Deeply understanding users is fundamental to creating exceptional software.

Personas are an essential part of goal-directed design.14
Personas are an essential part of goal-directed design. Each group of users researched is represented by a persona, which in turn is represented by a document. Several personas are not uncommon in a typical project. (Image: Gemma MacNaught15) (View large version16)

How Do Personas Fit In The Design Process? Link

Since its humble origin, Alan Cooper’s design methodology has evolved into a subset of user-centered design, which he has branded goal-directed design17. Goal-directed design combines new and old methodologies from ethnography, market research and strategic planning, among other fields, in a way to simultaneously address business needs, technological requirements (and limitations) and user goals. Personas are a core component of goal-directed design. I have found that understanding the fundamentals of this goal-directed approach to design first will help the designer understand and properly use personas.

In the summer of 2011, I was fortunate enough to become an intern at Cooper, which is where I learned (among other things) how to use personas. At Cooper, I found that, while personas are easy to understand conceptually, mastering their use with finesse and precision would take me many months. There, I witnessed everyone on the team (and even the clients) referring to personas by name in almost every discussion, critique and work session we had. Personas weren’t just created and then forgotten — they were living, breathing characters that permeated all that we did.

I learned that personas are an essential part of what constitutes the goal-directed process. I learned that personas, though important, are never used in isolation, but rather are implemented in conjunction with other processes, concepts and methods that support and augment their use.

Components of Goal-Directed Design That Support Personas Link

  • End goal(s)
    This is an objective that a persona wants or needs to fulfill by using software. The software would aid the persona to accomplish their end goal(s) by enabling them to accomplish their tasks via certain features.
  • Scenario(s)
    This is a narrative that describes how a persona would interact with software in a particular context to achieve their end goal(s). Scenarios are written from the persona’s perspective, at a high level, and articulate use cases that will likely happen in the future.
The three parts of Goal-Directed design are most effective when utilized together.18
The three parts of goal-directed design are most effective when used together. For instance, in order for a sprinter to reach their potential, they need a place to run and a finish line to cross. Without a scenario or end goal, the sprinter would have nothing to do or strive for. (View large version19)

Personas, end goals and scenarios relate to one another in the same way that the main character in a novel or movie goes on a journey to accomplish an objective. The classic “hero’s journey” narrative device and its accompanying constructs have been appropriated for the purpose of designing better software.

How Are Personas Created? Link

Personas can be created in a myriad of ways, but designers are recommended to follow this general formula:

  1. Interview and/or observe an adequate number of people.
  2. Find patterns in the interviewees’ responses and actions, and use those to group similar people together.
  3. Create archetypical models of those groups, based on the patterns found.
  4. Drawing from that understanding of users and the model of that understanding, create user-centered designs.
  5. Share those models with other team members and stakeholders.

Step-by-step instructions on how to create a persona is beyond the scope of this article, but we’ll cover this in the second article in this series.

What Are Personas Used For? Link

Personas can and should be used throughout the creative process, and they can be used by all members of the software development and design team and even by the entire company. Here are some of the uses they can be put to:

  • Build empathy
    When a designer creates a persona, they are crafting the lens through which they will see the world. With those glasses on, it is possible to gain a perspective similar to the user’s. From this vantage point, when a designer makes a decision, they do so having internalized the persona’s goals, needs and wants.
  • Develop focus
    Personas help us to define who the software is being created for and who not to focus on. Having a clear target is important. For projects with more than one user type, a list of personas will help you to prioritize which users are more important than others. Simply defining who your users are makes it more apparent that you can’t design for everyone, or at least not for everyone at once — or else you risk designing for no one. This will help you to avoid the “elastic user,” which is one body that morphs as the designer’s perspective changes.
  • Communicate and form consensus
    More often than not, designers work on multidisciplinary teams with people with vastly different expertise, knowledge, experience and perspectives. As a deliverable, the personas document helps to communicate research findings to people who were not able to be a part of the interviews with users. Establishing a medium for shared knowledge brings all members of a team on the same page. When all members share the same understanding of their users, then building consensus on important issues becomes that much easier as well.
  • Make and defend decisions
    Just as personas help to prioritize who to design for, they also help to determine what to design for them. When you see the world from your user’s perspective, then determining what is useful and what is an edge case becomes a lot easier. When a design choice is brought into question, defending it based on real data and research on users (as represented by a persona) is the best way to show others the logical and user-focused reasoning behind the decision.
  • Measure effectiveness
    Personas can be stand-in proxies for users when the budget or time does not allow for an iterative process. Various implementations of a design can be “tested” by pairing a persona with a scenario, similar to how we test designs with real users. If someone who is play-acting a persona cannot figure out how to use a feature or gets frustrated, then the users they represent will probably have a difficult time as well.

Are Personas Effective? Link

If you still aren’t convinced that personas are useful, you are not alone. Many prominent and outspoken members of the design community, including Steve Portigal and Jason Fried, feel that personas are not to be used. They make compelling arguments, but they all rule out the use of personas entirely, which I feel is much too strong. (A nuanced analysis of their anti-persona perspectives is beyond the scope of this article but is definitely worth further reading. Links to writings about these perspectives can be found in the “Additional Resources20” section at the end of this article.)

Like any other tool in the designer’s belt, personas are extremely powerful in the right time and place, while other times are simply not warranted; the trick is knowing when to use which tool and then using it effectively.

Any tool can be used for good or evil, and personas are no different. If used improperly, as when personas are not based on research (with the exception of provisional personas, which are based on anecdotal, secondhand information or which are used as a precursor or supplement to firsthand research), or if made up of fluffy information that is not pertinent to the design problem at hand, or if based solely on market research (as opposed to ethnographic research), then personas will impart an inaccurate understanding of users and provide a false sense of security in the user-centered design process.

As far as I can tell, only two scientifically rigorous academic studies on the effectiveness of personas have been conducted: the first by Christopher N. Chapman in 2008, and the second by Frank Long in 2009. Though small, both concluded that using personas as part of the design process aided in producing higher-quality and more successful designs.

These studies join a growing body of peer-reviewed work that supports the use of personas, including studies by Kim Goodwin, Jeff Patton, David Hussman and even Donald Norman. The anecdotal evidence from these and many other writers has shown how personas can have a profoundly positive impact on the design process.

An excerpt from Frank Long's study of Persona Effectiveness
An excerpt from Frank Long’s study of the effectiveness of personas. Designs created by students who used personas and scenarios (pink and blue) scored higher than the designs of those who used neither (gray) in a type of usability test called a heuristic analysis. (View large version21)

How And Why Do Personas Work? Link

Personas are effective because they leverage and stimulate several innate human abilities:

  • Narrative practice
    This is the ability to create, share and hear stories.
  • Long-term memory
    This is the ability to acquire and maintain memories of the past (wisdom) from our own life experiences, which can be brought to bear on problems that other people face.
  • Concrete thinking
    This is the tendency for people to better relate to and remember tangible examples, rather than abstractions.
  • Theory of mind (folk psychology)
    This is the ability to predict another person’s behavior by understanding their mental state.
  • Empathy
    This is the ability to understand, relate to and even share the feelings of other specific people.
  • Experience-taking
    This is the ability to have the “emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses” of a fictional character when reading or watching a story.

Personas, goals and scenarios tap into our humanity because they anthropomorphize research findings. When hundreds or even thousands of users are represented by a persona, imagining what they would do is a lot easier than pouring over cold, hard, abstract data. By using personas, goals and personas together in what Cooper calls a “harmonious whole,” one is able to work in a more mindful way, keeping the user at the heart of everything one does.

If a designer truly understands and internalizes the user and their needs and how they could potentially fulfill those needs, then seeing potential solutions in the mind’s eye becomes much easier; rich and vivid ideas from the user’s perspective seem to percolate to the top of mind more rapidly and frequently. These ideas are more likely to turn into a successful design than by using other methods because the designer has adopted the user’s filter or frame as their own.

This potent combination of personas, goals and scenarios help the designer to avoid thinking in the abstract and to focus on how software could be used in an idealized yet more concrete and humanistic future.

Do I Really Need To Use Personas? Link

To determine whether personas would be appropriate, a designer must first step back and determine who they are designing for. Determining the audience for a design is deceptively simple, yet many people never think to take the time to explicitly figure this out.

The fundamental premise of user-centered design is that as knowledge of the user increases, so too does the likelihood of creating an effective design for them. If a designer designs for themselves, then they wouldn’t need to use personas because they are the user — they would simply create what they need or want.

Designers do design for themselves from time to time, but professionally most design for others. If they are doing it for others, then they could be designing for only two possible kinds of people: those who are like them and those who are not like them. If they are designing for people like them, then they could probably get away without personas, although personas might help. Usually, though, designers design for people unlike themselves, in which case getting to know as much as possible about the users by using personas is recommended.

Treat different people differently. Anything else is a compromise.

– Seth Godin

Personas help to prevent self-referential thinking, whereby a designer designs as if they are making the software only for themselves, when in fact the audience is quite unlike them. This is how most designers actually work: according to what they like or think is the right way to do things. Even a seasoned designer can go only so far on intuition. This is one of the biggest mistakes one can make when designing software (or anything else, for that matter).

Conclusion Link

As human beings, designers are all biased and can only see the world through their own eyes — however, they can keep that in mind when designing from now on. Designers must strive to the best of their ability to keep their biases and, dare I say, egos in check.

Designers don’t always know what is best — but sometimes users do and that is what personas are for: to stand up and represent real users, since real users can’t be there when the design process takes place. In your next project, there will come a time when you must decide what is in your user’s best interest. Just like in the movies, picture a devil and angel on your shoulders, where the devil tries to coax you to design something that pleases only your own sensibilities, and the angel is the persona who cries out in defence of their own needs. Who will you listen to?

Granted, not even the most disciplined user-centered and goal-directed designer can be completely unbiased. As professionals, we all use our best judgment to make decisions (based on knowledge of the field, knowledge of competitive markets and work experience), but some people’s perspective is more self-centered than others. Personas help to keep a designer honest and to become mindful of when they are truly designing for others and when they are just designing for themselves. If you are going to design for someone unlike yourself, then do your users a solid and use a persona.

We’ll discuss the process of creating personas from ethnographic research in Part 2221 of this series.

Additional Resources

Presentations and Posters Link

Books Link

Goal-Directed Design Link

Defining Personas Link

How and Why Personas Work Link

Effectiveness of Personas Link

(cc, il, al)

Footnotes Link

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  20. 20 #additional
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  36. 36–-part-1/
  37. 37–-part-2/
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Shlomo "Mo" Goltz is an Interaction Designer and User Researcher at Hearsay Social. There he crafts experiences that enables those in the financial sector to develop, maintain, and enrich relationships with customers via social media. Shlomo combines qualitative and quantitative research-based methodologies to inform his design process, with a focus on creating enterprise software that feels as delightful to use as consumer products.

  1. 1

    Joe Wojciechowski

    August 6, 2014 2:34 pm

    Building empathy is a very important aspect of personas in UX design. If designers do not care about the users, how are they expected to create products that make their lives easier?

  2. 2

    Can’t wait for part 2! The real meat, imo, is in how to create useful archetype models around those personas so that they have a qualitative underpinning that can give you a type profile of that persona’s aspirations/motivations. Personally, I look to folklore, myth and culture as common, cross-cultural reference points through systems like Jungian archetypes, which exist in all our local narratives due to our shared use of storytelling as a vehicle of learning/knowledge transfer since the beginning of time.

  3. 4

    Pirkka Rannikko

    August 6, 2014 6:23 pm

    Great post and thanks for writing it! I believe personas could be used much more in the industry that they currently are.

    By the way the history is presented a bit differently here:

  4. 5

    Wow, great post! I like how you explained that we have to focus on someone –
    “or else you risk designing for no one”. @wesome!

  5. 6

    Just a little typo “How And Why Do Persons Work?” Add that “a” in there in personas.
    Otherwise great article! :)

  6. 7

    I think that a lot of criticism against personas is related to these controversial assumptions that are laid into the foundation of Persona theory:

    1. “The actual user is still a valuable resource, and we devote considerable attention to him or her, but we never let the user directly affect the solution.
    … We make up pretend users and design for them. We call these pretend users personas.” – Alan Cooper

    Will design for ‘make up pretend users’ produce better results than design for the real users? Are there any proofs?

    2. “As a design tool, it is more important that a persona is precise than accurate. That is, it is more important to define persona in great and specific detail than the persona to be the precisely correct one. This truth is surprising because it is the antithesis of the goal of interaction design, in which accuracy is always more important than precision.” – Alan Cooper

    Many people still believe that Precision without accuracy makes little sense.

    Personas with their 20+ years history have a little more than only an anecdotal evidence of their effectiveness.

    The studies of Chapman and Milham are referred in this article as ‘…concluded that using personas as part of the design process aided in producing higher quality designs that were more successful.’

    The actual study subtitled as ‘Methodological and Practical Arguments against a Popular Method’ came to the completely opposite conclusion: ‘Until more is known about the relationship of personas to verifiable user data and behavior, the method should not claim to be a source of data for development teams.’

    • 8

      I agree that “Personas with their 20+ years history have a little more than only an anecdotal evidence of their effectiveness.” Its a shame not many studies have been done. The studies that have been conducted are not large in scope or depth, and aren’t too conclusive either. I hope that more studies are done in the future.

      As for precision without accuracy, that is another issue entirely. Mr. Alan cooper has been quoted as saying “With personas, specificity is more important than accuracy.” From talking with him, what I think what he means can be described by three related concepts.

      1. Specificity as a place to start:
As a baseline, most designers and teams that don’t use personas talk about “the user” – which in essence is a generic term that can mean anything. The definition of who the user is becomes elastic – changing depending on who is defining who the user is. Since this is where many people are at today, getting more specific has many benefits (Described well in the book: About Face 3). Specificity help team members have a shared picture of who 
“the user” actually is. With a shared, static definition of a user, there is now a clear target to aim for. Even if not totally accurate, the definition of users should be at least an informed, educated best guess, and is an improvement over not having a persona to use. Persona definitions can become more specific over time, but starting somewhere by designing for someone (a persona) is better than designing for no one (“the user).

      2. When you can’t determine accuracy (provisional personas):
      Often, time and money don’t allow for the ethnographic research needed to define accurate personas. In this case, creating a persona based on what the team knows (or thinks they know), is a good place to start. This kind of persona is known as a provisional persona, and is a great placeholder until real personas are created. A best guess is better than no guess as to who users are.

      3. Extrapolation:
      Even if a persona is based on research and is accurate – the resulting persona documents can only say so much about a specific user today and can’t account for every need that will arise. To answer questions about a persona that were not completely covered by research, the team can either conduct more research, or use what they already know to make educated guesses about how they might behave – extrapolate. This is where the power of scenarios comes into play – as placing a persona (current research) in a scenario (imagined, probable future state), allows the team to leverage what they do know to define the unknown. Extrapolation is inherent in much of what designers do, and strengthening that muscle will make personas much more powerful.

      In the end, teams should strive for specificity and accuracy. However, when accuracy cannot be achieved, specificity still provides many benefits. I would advise teams to create provisional personas ASAP when starting a project, while creating research-backed personas if / when possible too. Defining a user is better then “the user”.

      Accuracy should never be ignored, but when accuracy cannot be determined right away, teams can still leverage personas to aid their work.

      • 9

        Thank you, Mo for the detailed answer and many insights.

        These 3 concepts help building better understanding.

        Some of the issues with personas are related to the second concept: ‘When you can’t determine accuracy (provisional personas)’.

        Jared Spool referred to a study he made in 2007: 95% of personas created are provisional ones, and only 5% are research based.

        In case of provisional personas precision might be harmful.

        Creating precise personas with many details and low/ undefined accuracy results in a sort of “Uncanny valley effect”: “This area of repulsive response aroused by …. (a human representation) between a “barely human” and “fully human” entity is called the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that an almost human-looking … (representation of a human) will seem overly “strange” to some human beings, will produce a feeling of uncanniness, and will thus fail to evoke the empathic response…”

        There is an internal cognitive conflict between a reading detailed persona description and knowing that it only based on assumptions and imagination.

        Kim Goodwin suggests having strong distinction between “Proper” and “Provisional” Personas. Eg. do not use photographs, use abstract placeholders or sketches instead. Do not use full names. Do not use detailed descriptions, use persona narratives instead.

        In this format provisional personas are little different and probably as effective as other forms of “user modeling”/ “user definition”, such as roles, user descriptions, behavioral models, marketing segments, name them more… Provisional personas designed with low details still help bringing focus to design team and does not cause repulsive response.

    • 10

      Personas should never replace learning from and seeking feedback from real users. Personas should supplement and augment work with real people, and be utilized when access to people isn’t possible.

    • 11

      You make some very valid points.

      My only point on this would be to say that when personas are generated, we are not necessarily choosing them ‘off the tops of our heads’. In my case, at least, as part of the research I do on a client I look at who their existing users are and I interview the client to understand their current users.

      I then build two sets of personas and compare them. The current and the ideal. The personas are built (where possible) with points from actual users and build avatars that represent segments based on available data.

      In some cases (especially with new projects, or projects with a limited user base, or knowledge) it makes it harder. In those cases creative writing may be in required. I think the process is still very valuable and it helps the client understand their position now and where they want to be looking.

  7. 12

    Joel Emberson

    August 7, 2014 3:53 pm

    Very helpful! Great article. Can’t wait for part 2

  8. 13

    Tracy Cabrita

    August 10, 2014 7:52 am

    Fantastic article, thank you!

  9. 14

    Wow! What an interesting and comprehensive post on personas! As an inbound marketer I rely on personas for my content creation, curation and publication – it’s nice to read from the design aspect too.

  10. 15

    Bill Bonnefil

    August 22, 2014 1:26 am

    Well done! Way to break it down. Very detailed.
    I think that in this era of crowd…everything, there is a tendency to look to the user too early for suggestions and answers, when they are looking to us, the designers, to at least set them on the initial path. Personas are that convergence of keeping the user in mind, but fulfilling the role of being the expert (at least for the initial pass at the design of the product)

  11. 16

    Great article and good to see the debate is alive and well.

    The thing that often surprises me is how personas are such a polarising tool. Whenever the use of personas and their effectiveness is discussed people rush to one side of the debate or the other – often citing personal experience of a project (success or failure) as a reason. What is often missing is a sense of perspective and an understanding of how personas fit (or not) into the bigger project picture.

    Personas as a tool are effective in specific projects – however, there are also cases where they don’t really add value. As with any design project, you focus on the goal and chose the methodology and tools that will help you get there. Sometimes people lose sight of the design goal and the persona creation process becomes an end in itself. Creating the most detailed, most accurate, most socialized persona does not in itself get you any closer to solving the design problem. The effort involved needs to be weighed up against the benefits.

    My research (cited in the article) was really to understand objectively what those benefits were.

    I did find objective evidence that the approach does offer some tangible benefits.
    – They are a very effective way of communicating in-depth user research to teams that will never have time to read the report.
    – They are also a good way to communicate design goals to teams outside of the project – management etc.
    – Personas facilitate problem solving across design teams – where more than one individual is working on the solution – it creates a consistent and objective frame of reference.
    – They can accelerate the conceptualisation phase of the project – placing a sharper user focus on the problem.

    Ultimately, among the teams I conducted the study with, the usability of the final designs were mixed. Some of the persona led group created good solutions, some did not. Likewise some of the groups that did not use the persona approach created highly user-focused solutions regardless, demonstrating that there is more than one way to crack an egg. The important thing is to chose an approach that works with the team the timeframe and the budget available to you.

  12. 17

    “…questioning the tenants of my discipline…”

    Maybe you could say that we’re all occupying a part of design, but I’m pretty sure this was supposed to be “tenets” not “tenants”.


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