Designing Effective Personas

Personas are fictitious descriptions of a product’s typical user which are often used at the start of the design process. When developed effectively they quickly build empathy for users and enable product teams to more effectively make design decisions. They additionally highlight user pain points and opportunities which can lead to new product avenues and features.

With the benefits of personas well documented, we have seen their use rapidly growing within organizations. This can be a great benefit to consumers of those products, however, with this sudden rise in popularity comes the desire to quickly develop personas without using the correct methods, resulting in personas that lack realistic details and don’t consider the reality of users’ lives. This can prove harmful not only to the design process and final product, but to the individual using the product or service.

Below are a few simple steps that you can follow in order to produce compelling personas that limit bias and drive effective design.


1. Get Stakeholders Involved in the Process

The biggest challenge you’ll face is often not in the research itself, but getting key stakeholders to commit to the process of discovery. The more (and sooner) you can identify and involve stakeholders the better. Look for opportunities to have them feedback on research questions, invite them to observe research, and ask them to take part in analyzing and presenting findings. It might seem unnecessary at first, but this kind of involvement will increase empathy and understanding, and ensure that personas are utilized throughout the rest of the design process.




2. Agree on Objectives 

The first step to creating personas is to meet with the product team to agree on the purpose of your personas. This will ensure not only that the team is aligned on the research objectives but will additionally surface specific research questions that need to be answered to move forward in the development process. Spending this upfront time will make your personas far more effective, making it more likely that they will be continuously referenced during the development lifecycle.




3. Determine Who You Need to Research

Based on your objectives and research questions, determine who you need to study. For exploratory research of this nature, this should include representative individuals who can be recruited based on key behaviors, abilities, demographics, and psychographics.






4. Design your Study to Allow for Intimate and Revealing Conversations

The most effective personas are well-rounded, developing a complete picture of your target user by including details that reveal deeper truths about their everyday lives. Having a deeper understanding of your users, beyond just how they interact with your product, will enable us to foresee how they will interact with the product or service and ultimately ensure that we create a more effective design.

Though we can’t make users open up to us about their personal lives, we can create an environment in which they feel comfortable sharing more intimate details. This is done by meeting with users where they are both physically and emotionally. By conducting a study one-on-one, in the user’s own environment we not only find a more realistic picture of their everyday life but give them some sense of control over the interview, helping to put them at ease.

In addition to the environment, spending time developing impactful questions at the start of the process will ensure more meaningful answers. In particular, you will want to use open-ended questions or activities that allow users to expand on their experiences and own realities. Though it may not happen immediately, you will eventually find a tipping point where you move from asking questions and receiving answers to asking questions and receiving stories.


5. Use Storytelling as the Basis of Analysis

Gather everyone that observed research to participate in the first phase of analysis: storytelling. Whoever observed a research event should actively participate by sharing the story of the participant that they observed to the larger group. They should tell the story in neutral terms focused on specific behaviors of the person and calling out any of their own extrapolations. Everyone else should be taking notes, detailing specific nuggets of information or overarching themes that they find in the story.  If multiple individuals observed a research event and heard the story differently it is possible to investigate why there were different interpretations and reduce our own bias.




6. Look for Polarizing Characteristics between Participants

When building personas, start by looking for polarizing characteristics. What were your participants motivations, behaviors, and barriers? How are they similar and how are they different? These polarizing characteristics will be used to create the basis of your personas. For example, in a recent study we had a group of participants who were extremely analytical in their decision-making process, potentially taking years before purchasing the product we were researching. On the opposite end of the spectrum we had a number of participants that were much more emotionally driven and would quickly make a purchasing decision when they found a product they liked. By investigating these polarizing characteristics, we began to understand purchase drivers and barriers and how to design around these factors.



7. Build your Persona

Once you have analyzed all of your data and pulled out the significant findings you need to turn this data into personas. This could be anything from a high-fidelity layout to a structured word document. Important considerations here are the abilities and needs of the team, how much time there is available, and how the document will be used.

When considering what to include in this final document, at a minimum, consider the persona’s behaviors, barriers, and most importantly, opportunities. Other relevant details can be added as necessary. When possible, think about how data can be visually displayed as graphs or charts, quickly conveying information to the reader.

Though often debated among practitioners, consider leaving photographs and names out of personas as they easily introduce bias into the process with team members assuming that the persona represents a specific gender, age, or race. Instead, use icons to represent each persona type and name the persona after defining characteristics rather than a realistic name. For example, on a recent client project we referred to one of our personas as the “Information Curator” as they did an extensive amount of research before purchasing the product we were researching.



Now that you have created your persona(s), the final step is presenting your findings back to the project team and any key stakeholders. It is important to make this process as immersive as possible particularly if there are individuals in the final presentation who were not able to attend any of the research sessions. For example, while you may not want to include a stock photo in your persona, limiting bias, printing out and posting photographs of users in their own environments can quickly provide context and understanding of the actual users that the personas are based on. It is important that the project teams don’t think of these personas as a simple poster or piece of art but that they understand that these personas are representative of a group of real users’ experiences and needs, driving them to come back to these personas again and again during the design and development process.

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