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.
What is a persona?
A persona is a fictional character who embodies certain essential characteristics of a particular subset of the users of a product or service.
Product or service designers aim 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.
In other words, personas strike a balance between the specific and the generic. They allow us to craft specific journeys for different kinds of users but without introducing so much complexity that we don’t know how to proceed.
What is a persona not?
A persona is definitely not a real user. I think this is 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.
What are the benefits of personas and why they are so important?
- Personas help keep the team focused on the target audience.
- They aid understanding of the pain-points of your audience – where you need to pay particular attention to their needs.
- 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.
When in the process should you develop personas?
In an ideal process, with specific time allocated to user research, we’ll start making personas as soon as we identify the first behaviour 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 and surveys will make your personas richer and more engaging, helping you to remember them and their specific needs.
How should personas be constructed?
It is always good to decide on a template before you begin research, that way you’ll remember exactly what you need to cover. Some important 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?
- 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.
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.
“Low budget, tight time” personas
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 users’ 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
- 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