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How to use personas to create user-centred digital experiences

Personas are a part of the user experience design process that attract a lot of criticism. I think this stems largely from a misunderstanding of what personas are and how UX and digital teams use them to build digital experiences that meet the needs of users. In this post I’ll describe what user personas are (and what they definitely are not) and how they help break down the task of creating valuable experiences for all your users. It is worth noting, in this article, we will predominantly discuss  personas with a digital lens. Ultimately, your organisation should consider personas in a way which can help you become more user-centric – digital or otherwise.

 

What a persona is. 

A persona is an archetypal character who embodies certain essential characteristics such as behaviours, motivations and goals of a particular subset of the users of a product or service.

In the ‘digital’ world, personas are focussed around specific products or services but some organisations may choose to build their personas with a wider marketing lens. Others, may go as far as organisation-wide personas (this can be a tricky goal to achieve, so I’d suggest starting small and focussed first).

For Product, UX, or Service designers, the aim is to meet the needs of all potential users but obviously trying to keep in mind hundreds, thousands or even millions of individuals is an impossible task. Personas, by grouping together large swathes of different users by their goals, needs and behaviours, let designers concentrate on a manageable and memorable cast of characters. They provide project teams with a tool to help inform decisions such as product features and priorities, interactions & navigation and align stakeholders and goals (where necessary).

With the right amount of research, personas strike a balance between the specific and the generic. They allow us to craft features and journeys for groups of users based on their needs and motivations whilst not getting bogged down in the details of one person. 

 

What a persona isn’t.

A persona is definitely not one, actual user (this is one of the reasons why personas are criticised outside of UX and digital circles). To be clear – we’re not trying to reduce living, breathing human beings down into a one-pager about goals and needs. They’re a tool to help us think about our users, that’s all.

“But we’ve already got marketing segments”. Yep, they’re a useful tool to make sure you’re directing your comms to the right demographic but personas represent behaviour, allowing you to make decisions on why a user might complete an action. 

 

What are the benefits of personas and why they are so important?

  • Personas help keep the team focused, acting as a reference point to the target audience.
  • They aid understanding of the pain-points of your audience – where you need to pay particular attention to their needs (this is especially useful when you’re beginning to think about your content strategy)
  • They are the basis of building user-centred empathy maps and user journeys.
  • They help you think up new features for a specific target audience. I like to think of them as giving you room to be creative, while staying user-focused.

 

Personas also have benefits outside the design process. They demonstrate to stakeholders that the design team has understood the business objectives of the project as well as the target audience, and gives these stakeholders a chance to feedback before any user journeys, wireframes or prototypes have been constructed. More importantly, as mentioned above, they’re an indispensable tool to help manage stakeholders and decisions during the lifecycle of a project.

 

When in the process should you develop personas?

Day 1. No matter where your final project is leading to, I’d recommend allowing a healthy amount of time during ‘discovery’ or ‘pre-discovery’ stages for some solid research. You could be shaping personas right from the beginning, simply going and speaking to your organisation to understand what you already know about your audiences (understanding those segments) and drawing up rough ‘pen portraits’.  In an ideal process, with specific time allocated to user research, we’ll start making what looks more like a persona as soon as we identify the first behavioural patterns in the research.

 

  • People with same background or interests (for example: young families, digital savvy)
  • People who have the same goals when using the product (for example: emergency donor, fundraising event participants)

 

At this stage it’s fine if these are still very high level. As you go along the process you’ll gain more information about them, allowing you to re-group and refine them even more. Information from user interviews, surveys and focus groups will make your personas richer and more engaging, helping you to remember them and their specific needs. Research is key to bringing a level of confidence to your assumptions about your audiences.

 

How should personas be constructed?

Not (just) by yourself. Another reason why personas tend to fail is they are usually created in small, siloed teams or by external agencies without involving other areas of the organisation. Taking the people on the journey of building the personas is just as important as what’s in them. Get understanding and buy-in as soon as possible.

Now the persona itself. It is always good to decide on a template before you begin research, that way you’ll remember exactly what you need to cover. Start with the information that is most important to your design work, add flavour such as bio’s & quotes later. Some useful characteristics to include might be:

 

  • Demographics: Age, location, family status, work habits, education etc
  • Digital info: use of social media platforms, devices, browsers, general digital savviness
  • Goal: what do they want to achieve? (Overall goals relating to your product or service, it’s not specific tasks that are useful here).
  • Needs: what do they need to see and to feel in order to achieve this goal?
  • Pain point: what’s likely to frustrate this process?

 

It’s important to keep referring to the research. Avoid any assumptions or general thoughts we have – we are not the target audience. Equally, avoid the temptation to create 100 different personas. During your research, you’ll start to identify common behavioural traits between audiences – cluster these in a meaningful way and aim to keep your set of personas small to begin with to avoid blurring them into each other by focussing too much on tiny, nuanced differences.

 

How to keep personas alive during the process

This is the tricky part. At the beginning everyone remembers the personas – both team members and stakeholders. But as soon as you go into sprints and the work becomes hectic, decisions start being made much more quickly. At those time times it is important to remember our audience.

One way I’ve found to keep the personas in the teams’ and clients’ minds is to keep them alive with small details. Try to think of ways to make them memorable. When working on a fun campaign for a charity client recently we decided all our personas would dress up as Spice Girls, and we kept referring to them as Tina/AKA Ginger Spice. Funny names, goofy pictures – even when the schedule is tight and the client is applying pressure, it will make the team smile.

Another way might be to encourage someone to champion the user or audience during discussion and decisions – often, this will be the designer (Product, UX, Service etc) but it doesn’t have to be – Product Owners tend to work well too.

 

‘Low budget, tight time’ personas

“Research is out of scope”. When working with small budgets, or when you don’t have the time to do extensive user research, this key part of the process, getting to learn your audiences’ needs and pain points, needs to be very quick and efficient. But you shouldn’t forget your personas. Make the best of what you have to keep them in the process:

 

  1. Use a mixture of different kinds of user research, even if they’re done quickly. Start with ‘pen portraits’ and validate later.
  2. Make personas and keep referring to them as you construct user journeys
  3. Find unique pictures or visual elements to represent your personas so you keep referring to them throughout the project

 

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