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When I started learning design, I had never heard of a “user persona”, and certainly had no idea how to research them or use them effectively in my projects. In this article, I’m going to summarise what I’ve learned since then about what a user persona is and why they’re important not only to experience, interface, and interaction design – but even to visual and branding design.

A brief history of user personas

The user persona is one of the most significant design strategies to emerge from the user-centred design movement in computing from the mid-80s onwards.

Software designer and programmer Alan Cooper is widely credited with inventing user personas through his work as a software engineer in the 1980s. As time went on, he formalized the process of researching and generating user personas, and in the 1990s wrote the book The Inmates Are Running The Asylum, followed by About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design. He now runs Cooper, an interaction design consultancy.

In a blog article from 2008, Cooper explains how he would take an hour’s break from his desk while the computer compiled (this was 1983) the latest version of the project management software he was developing at the time, called Plan*It. He would spend this time walking around Old Del Monte golf course:

As I walked, I would engage myself in a dialogue, play-acting a project manager, loosely based on Kathy [Cooper’s colleague], requesting functions and behavior from my program. I often found myself deep in those dialogues, speaking aloud, and gesturing with my arms. Some of the golfers were taken aback by my unexpected presence and unusual behavior, but that didn’t bother me because I found that this play-acting technique was remarkably effective for cutting through complex design questions of functionality and interaction, allowing me to clearly see what was necessary and unnecessary and, more importantly, to differentiate between what was used frequently and what was needed only infrequently.

Cooper explains that in the years after that, he formalized this process of developing personas and began to use it in all of his projects.

What are user personas today?

Amazingly, it’s now over 30 years since Cooper’s strolls around the golf course. So how should we define user personas in today’s world of mobile devices, voice interfaces, and wearable tech?

Well, technology has indeed changed – in many ways making it easier to realize designers’ visions for the user experience of a product. Users no longer have to interact with computers through command lines or black-and-green screens. We now have hardware and operating systems that are optimized to facilitate effective user human-computer interaction.

But, broadly speaking, the nature and needs of humans as product users have not changed. People still want products they can understand, and which enable them to achieve their goals quickly, efficiently, without annoyance, and ideally with a little bit of enjoyment or humor thrown in.

Current definitions of “user personas” remain, therefore, very similar to Cooper’s original vision. In Inmates (p. 124), Cooper says:

Personas are not real people, but they represent them throughout the design process. They are hypothetical archetypes of actual users. [...] Personas are defined by their goals.

Shlomo Goltz gives his definition in a great two-part series in Smashing Magazine:

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.

Similarly, the authors of Universal Principles of Design state:

Personas involve the creation of profiles for a small number of archetypal users, each profile representing a composite of a subpopulation of users. [...] Each persona is typically represented with a photograph, name, description, and details about specific interests and relevant behaviors.

In brief, a persona is a fictional user, ideally based on real user research as part of the design process. The character, skills, priorities, and goals of this persona are used as a key point of reference during the rest of the design process.

Why use them?

Incorporating user personas into a design process can make designing itself more rewarding. As Goltz says:

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.

But the most important reason for adopting user personas is to ensure that you are designing for your users as they actually are, and as they actually behave.

If you don’t, there’s a risk that you only design for some of your users, or that you design for your users as you imagine them to be, or – perhaps the oldest vice in design – you just design the product that you would like to use yourself.

Examples of user personas

One important distinction to make is between a user persona, such as “Ara the Accountant”, and the document or deliverable in which that persona might be described and recorded for reference. While the piece of paper is a useful aide-memoire, and a shared point of reference for a team, ultimately what is important is the profile of the user we’re designing for.

It’s not a good use of user personas to limit our engagement with them to a quick  sense-check against these write-ups. As we heard Alan Cooper explain above, what is really crucial is to understand the persona deeply, and to be able to put yourself in their shoes as a user of your product.   

You could use headings like these to get you started:

  • Fictional name: e.g. David the Director. This serves as shorthand, so that when you’re designing or discussing with a team, you can refer to a persona by name.
  • Job title and profession: e.g. Managing Director, International Accountancy firm.
  • Photograph from stock image: being able to put a face to the name will help you to integrate user personas into your process more fully.
  • Age and other relevant demographic information: e.g. Age 52, married, 3 children, lives in a 5-bedroom house in the suburbs, drives an SUV. 
  • A day in the life: This will help you to understand the context in which the user will relate to and use your product – including how their time is spent (work, socializing, family), how much pressure is on their schedule, and what their daily wants and needs are.
  • Goals: These can range from quite general goals (e.g. feeling confident using technology) to quite product-specific ones (e.g. booking a flight in under 1 minute)
  • Fears: e.g. feeling slow and out of touch with technology, paying too much for flights and violating my company’s expenses policy.

It’s easy enough to make up a persona like this – I just created “Ara the Accountant” in about 10 minutes (we’ll get to Ara in a minute). But there’s no value in user personas if they are not based on real users and real user research. 

And once that research is done, it’s not enough just to look at your design and think, “yeah, David would use this app I guess”. Instead, you’ve got to get a feel for David’s worldview, and imagine using the app while pretending to be him. It’s then that you’ll start to be able to imagine their feedback:

“Why do I have to sign in again?”
“Why does this thing not remember the last route I flew?”
“I had to search through my past bookings to find out which hotel I went to last time.”
“These prices are higher than I know I can find by searching myself.”

How to create good user personas

1. User research

The obvious, but easily overlooked, fact of user-centred design is that it should be based on robust market research, both to establish the demographics you are designing for (it’s not possible to design for everyone – or at least, it’s not possible to design for everyone while producing only one “product”), and to ensure that the personas you work to actually resemble your typical user groups. 

User research can be conducted in a number of ways – including questionnaires, interviews, and observations. Generally it’s more fruitful to observe what people do than to believe what they tell you.

 

2. Analyse your data

Depending on the product, you might not need a lot of survey or interview responses to get a good picture of who your core user groups are, and what they will need from your product. Once you’ve got your data, try to identify similarities between different responses. 

One way to create these groupings is to take a block of post-it notes, and transfer each theme or idea that emerged in your research onto a separate note. On a wall or large table, organise them into themed groups. This is the beginning of an “affinity diagram” or “affinity map”, which will give you information you need to start constructing distinct user personas.

 

3. Based on the groupings and patterns you found in your data, create some draft personas.

Here’s an example — a brief write-up of “Ara the Accountant”, produced to inform the UX design of a new car rental app, might look something like this:

  • Ara the Accountant
  • Age: 34
  • Location: New York
  • Status: Married, no children
  • Quote: “I need to be able to complete my car rental booking quickly. And to change it without extra charges or phone calls – I don’t have time for that. I often visit the same cities each month for business and I shouldn’t have to spend hours searching for the cheapest rate.”
  • Day in the life: “I get up at 6am, go for a jog before breakfast, then shower and get dressed and I’m ready for the day. I work from my home office and I’m usually working from 8am to at least 6pm. I have a lot of clients and have to make sure that I’m on top of the work so that I have time to travel to important meetings instead of just dialing in. I try not to work into the evenings but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Once we’re done with work, my husband and I like to just curl up and watch our favorite TV shows.”
  • End goals: 
    To maximize her use of time, and definitely not spend it on things like booking travel
    To project a professional appearance and build long term relationships with big clients
    To increase her annual earnings without working more hours 
  • Fears:
    Being stressed and overworked
    Feeling like essential arrangements are not properly taken care of
    Being late for an important meeting with a client

Try it for yourself!

Why not have a go at creating a user persona document? You could use “Ara the Accountant” as a starting point for the exercise, or, if you have time, you could think up a product idea and then conduct some user research amongst family and friends to help your learning. 

Further resources

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to learn more about user personas, check out these awesome resources:

Creating user personas is just one of the techniques students learn about in detail on UX Academy. The program includes 480 hours of coursework, expert professional mentor support from start to finish, and an in-house careers service. 

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