What are user personas for and why should we use them? Where do we start when creating one? All your questions answered in this guide!
Back right up. Who are we designing our products for again? No one has all the sure-fire answers to designing a wildly successful product, but there are methods out there that are definitely more likely to help you do it. One of those methods includes knowing who you’re designing for in the first place by creating user personas.
This post will explore how user personas can act as a design compass while using your wireframe tool, along with the steps for creating one. You’ll also find some great tools to quickly and easily put one together!
What is a user persona?
The user persona was developed back in the 90s as a way to gain powerful insights into a product’s target audience and the user’s habits and preferences. It continues to be used today by UX design teams and marketing departments across the world.
User personas are a representation of your app or website’s user base segments. They act as a benchmark for design and teams to work with to create the optimal user experience. It is a fictitious profile based on the type of people who would be the main users of your app.
The structure of a user persona
The user persona normally consists of both a fictional name and a picture of the person. This is followed by a short bio, along with a description of their age, gender, occupation, hobbies, likes and dislikes, which are non-fictional and based on real aggregated data.
How a user persona works
Knowing your users makes it easier to remember who you’re designing for, as the users of other products might not be the users of your own. User personas turn “the user” into an actual person you can get to know and conceptualize.
Hanging user persona profiles on the office wall or notice board, uploading them to your UX research tools or sending them as PDF for PP files to your colleagues to refer back to every time they design a new feature helps keep your product on track.
This is because a user persona turns the abstract concept of “the user” into a person with thoughts, feelings and emotions.
This person represents a group of users who share similar characteristics and goals. These goals will dictate the best design patterns for your website or app to provide the best user experience. It will also dictate how best to solve certain design problems.
Even when it comes to simple updates — being on the same page as the user can prevent backlashes against updates, such as the unwanted change Instagram made in 2018 when vastly altered their users’ experience by replacing vertical scrolling with horizontal.
Even when it comes to designing enterprise software, user personas can provide invaluable insights for creating smooth user flows, something that until recently, many companies have ignored in favor of price.
When to use a user persona
Consider the following situation: you’re designing a new cooking app and your main idea is to help people compile a list of healthy recipes for during the week. But then it hits you — people generally have varying amounts of time on their hands, money in their pockets, motivation or skills when it comes to cooking. The app should therefore be tailored to its main user base segments.
Your natural inclination might be to create a survey feature when the user downloads and opens the app for the first time. It might ask them questions about their lifestyles, their hobbies, how much they exercise, what their budget is per week, etc.
The survey feature might seem like a great idea at the start, but think about how much more time you would need to design an app that caters to all users, along with the extra time spent in development. For the user, it means the added interaction cost of actually filling in the survey and answering the questions, instead of getting straight into what they downloaded the app for: recipes!
You then realize that the time to do the survey was before the design even started. User onboarding must be quick, otherwise you risk losing them. The worst part is that they might even be your ideal users. You don’t want to lose these users by trying to cater to the masses because it’s precisely these users that will generate the most revenue for your product.
Therefore, the time to create a user persona is before the design begins, not after. The time to use this user persona is during the design stage, not in the development stage. Sticking to this rule will not just save you time and money, but also ensure your product is a hit with your users.
How user personas help design
Instead of trying to develop a detailed cooking app which attempts to tailor itself to every user on the planet, we can go about finding the users that will want to use our app in the first place, and tailor it accordingly. Depending on the amount of research you do, you’ll probably find the need for that survey didn’t exist in the first place as your main audience only includes a segment of society.
Instead, could create a user persona for this app who is a blend of the main groups of your potential users which might be:
- People on a limited weekly budget and schedule
- People who take an interest in fitness and wellness.
This one user persona will be interested in simple, healthy and cheap ingredients they can prepare quickly but can also turn into interesting dishes that they can bring to work in a tupper. You might discover additional useful information, such as that the app should feature plenty of recipes with quinoa, couscous, brown rice and whole wheat pasta that take no longer than 40 minutes from preparation to finish.
You will have saved the time required for integrating two hour recipes into your cooking app. It will be less bulky to download and will be more concise and intuitive to the types of users that are interested in it.
Netflix is a great example of an organization getting its product right for its users. It avoids the basic, and maybe outdated, business idea — the “lets aim to satisfy everyone” approach. It doesn’t contain every movie and series possible, instead it includes films and series (even original) based on research.
Netflix uses Big Data as a means of analyzing its customer database, their patterns of behavior and viewing habits. This doesn’t mean that you need to know about Big Data in order to create a UX profile, but it does highlight the importance of basing your users’ interests on facts rather than presumptions.
How user personas help get buy-in
Creating a user persona therefore adds real substance to your value proposition. Not only does it help demonstrate that your app could likely be a success and achieve more shareholder buy-in in addition to getting approval from managers and CEOs, it also helps prevent the classic “design by committee” conundrum.
This is where your product turns into an inconsistent mess due to too much feedback from the wrong people. You’re also more likely to end up with feature creep, with too many unwanted features. More on features and personas below.
How to create a user persona
You could compare user personas to novelists’ characters profiles; they’re not essential, but without character profiles, it’s going to be very difficult to maintain a consistent character throughout the story. The character will seem flat and will often go off plot.
Creating user personas will make defining your website or app’s product requirements and subsequently designing it much easier. Why? Because it entails doing proper research into your main user base segments. Creating user personas often involves three steps:
- Gathering data about your users
- Putting the data together
- Creating your user persona
Before you begin gathering data about your ideal users, you should first ask yourself three crucial user questions, which Raven Veal over at careerfoundry.com defines as:
- Who is my ideal user?
- What are the current behavior patterns of my users/potential users?
- What are the goals and pains of my users?
Asking these questions will help you plan and shape your user persona research. The third question is the most important, as it will define the reason your product will exist in the first place. You can expand on the third question in the following way:
User persona goals
What do your users want to achieve long term and short term, and why? How important are these goals in their lives? How are they currently trying to achieve them?
User persona pains
Then, what stands in the way of their goals and frustrates them? Have they ever tried to solve these pains before and, if so, how? If they managed to find a solution, did it work and would they do it again, or would they prefer a better solution?
Is a user persona a quantitative or qualitative approach?
Many wonder about the approach to research they should undertake when researching a user persona. Should the approach be quantitative or qualitative? The answer is that usually the best user personas are created out of both inputs. Why shun one method for another when they can be combined?
Quantitative data will make your user personas more understandable, while qualitative data will make them more believable and will help your team identify with them on a personal level.
For quantitative testing, you’ll be trying to gather as much data as possible about your potential user base segment. This involves collecting data such as facts about their day-to-day lives: where they live, the industry they work in and how many times they use certain apps like yours.
If you have a product that already exists and want to improve it, then the chances are that you will already have some quantitative data available to you in the form of transactional data such as purchase orders, CRM data and site traffic analysis. However, if you’re designing a new website or app, then you can use the following methods to acquire quantitative data:
- Interviews (observe personality body language and emotions)
- Open-ended questions
- Shadow their day-to-day tasks
- Observe how they use other products
Direct interviews with your potential users and using surveys with open-ended questions helps reveal more about their thought and behavior patterns.
Shadowing users as they complete their tasks shows how they currently approach their challenges and whether or not their approach can be improved, i.e. what tools and methods they use. It also shows if there are any differences between what the user does, thinks and says if you compare it to interview data.
Laura Klein, in her book UX for Lean Startups, gives an example of product testers actually accompanying users on a grocery run before making a shopping app. She maintains that observing their behavior is key to understanding their emotions — that what the user wants and what they think they want may differ.
Gathering data for user personas
Once you generate enough data, you’ll need to create a visual representation of it to make it easier on the eyes. There are many ways to do this, but perhaps among the most helpful are spreadsheets or affinity diagrams.
For survey and user testing results or CRM data, you could display the relevant facts in a Google Sheet.
You could then break the data down further by visually representing it with the use of line graphs or charts. Depending on what exactly it is you need to find out from your user base, or if you’re designing to improve an app or website, you might also use columns for pages most visited, time spent on that page, elements interacted with, etc.
Affinity diagrams that use sticky notes are a simple but effective way of taking both quantitative and qualitative data and ordering it into different sections.
If you put the information on different color sticky notes for each section, it helps add further clarity to the visual representation.
Another aid to the design process is the Empathy Map. These can also be composed of both qualitative and quantitative data and can also be used in conjunction with your user persona after it is created, essentially making it a by-product of the persona.
Empathy Map — by Pedro Sanoja
Empathy Maps revolve around the target user and are usually broken down into four sections: what they think, feel, say and do.
Building your user persona
Using of the data gathered for each user persona, you’ll want to separate it under different headings, such as:
Other important elements that should make up your user persona include their influences — what affects his or her opinion (this can be a family member, a blog, certain trends or abstract ideas such as UX design).
How many user personas should I create?
The less personas you have, the easier it is to design for each one and the less likely you are to end up with the dreaded product “feature creep”. Sometimes you may find that two groups can be fused into one user persona if they share enough similar attributes, but in other cases this may not be possible. Each user persona will then represent your ideal user.
When it comes to designing for more than one user persona, it might be useful to think of a Venn diagram where some features of an app overlap and are shared between personas and others are used only by distinct personas.
The app might be designed to completely satisfy two personas, but have the features set out in a way that each persona would easily and intuitively be able to find the section that’s important to them.
Analysis of a user persona example
What information should a user persona convey?
Your user persona will need a fictional name and photo. The name should be one that is fairly common (think more along the lines of “John Smith” rather than “Hubert Cumberdale”). The person in the photo should reflect the average age of users in that group, while the clothes they wear should also reflect their occupation and personality. A short bio adds some context to the character by briefly summarizing their background, profession, hobbies, frustrations and goals.
Each persona should obviously be different, easily distinguishable and memorable. Bold color schemes are one way to do this. Think about matching the colors in the image with the general theme of the document.
The bottom line is designers and developers should be able to internalize the persona to the point where it’s easy to recall what they represent. Check out Justinmind’s very own user persona template below to get a feel for what they should represent!
Justinmind UX user persona template
The Justinmind user persona template serves as a great example of showing crucial information at a glance. The reader isn’t overwhelmed with detail, with only the most important ones shown being shown in a hierarchical manner according to importance, with the most space dedicated to motivations, goals and frustrations.
It’s a persona that opts more for visuals, rather than text, using bar charts and meters to give an at-a-glance feel for the personality it wants to convey.
Note that this user persona has a crucial element throughout and that is consistency. The entire persona can be summed up with the quote in the top right-hand corner: “I want to help my team deliver great user experiences”. Everything from the bio, goals, frustrations and even the influences section reflects this quote.
If your user persona is consistent, they will seem much more real and be more memorable. If they are inconsistent, they will feel more like a lie and you’re hence more likely to end up with an inconsistent product.
At a glance, and from the colorful persona picture, we can already see that this user is a young innovator who is looking to place more of an emphasis on UX in an attempt to reform old UI design practices at her corporation. She’s young, single, full of energy and wishes to take charge and grow the UX team in her company, possibly looking to become a manager at some point. She echoes the type of person we at Justinmind are setting out to help with our prototyping tool.
What are lean personas?
Normally used in conjunction with lean UX design, the lean persona is a technique advocated by the Agile methodology that we, here in Justinmind, have also adopted. The lean persona can be thought of as a lighter, faster rendition of the typical user persona which aims to provide the basic, most fundamental information about a user base.
Using lean personas in your UX strategy
Drawing on the principles of the Pareto Effect, lean UX calls for a persona that requires 20% of work that produces 80% of total insights. It relies more on qualitative rather than quantitative data and can be used based on analytics data that you already have at your disposal, reducing the need to invest time and money into empirical research.
Lean personas work if you are limited by budget and time constrictions, but also if you’re in a market which requires constant iteration — they provide the perfect solution to the problem of updating user personas, because lean personas are cheap, quick and easier to create. This method can insure that you get your product off the ground faster, while using up less resources.
User persona generators
There are no straight up rules for creating user personas. You can put a physical persona together using paper and a photo, or you can make one digitally and print it out or share it with your colleagues.
However, if you’re not sure where to begin, or the right format your user persona should take (they will be different for each company and purpose), then a great starting point would be one of our user persona templates examples. These templates already have the structure predetermined and are fully editable, or you can leave certain elements in if they already match your current user personas.
Furthermore, if there isn’t a user persona template that matches your needs, or you want to get more creative, then you can try one of the following three user persona generators:
The Hubspot user persona generator that makes for an exciting editing process. It’s totally free and you can just jump straight into the creation process the moment you land on the website. Select your user persona avatar from the range provided, and then continue to answer a series of questions about details like their education and where they work.
Meanwhile, Hubspot does the heavy lifting, by putting your user persona together automatically as you just answer the necessary questions.
2. Up Close and Persona
Up Close and Persona is a persona generator that helps you generate buyer personas, which are more geared towards B2B activities. This generator works much like Hubspot — you answer a series of questions and Up Close and Persona generates the deliverable for you.
The questions you have to answer when generating buyer personas with this tool tend to be more financial-based and business-focused than with the Hubspot user persona generator.
3. User Forge
User Forge is a great tool to generate both user and buyer personas and keep them all in one place. You set up a “workspace” where you can then create user personas by answering a few questions in a popup window and adding them to your workspace. The beauty is that you can revisit your workspace and update the personas whenever you need to.
One thing that separates User Forge from the other user persona generators is that, in the same workspace, you can also create user stories and story maps with the personas you generated.
The takeaway — user personas
Without a doubt, the user persona plays an important — if not fundamental — role in UX design. Whether it’s a consumer app or enterprise software — designing with a user persona in mind is always going to increase its chance of success. The reason is that you’re giving the user what they need as opposed to what you think they want.
An added bonus is that user personas are also a great way to get interdisciplinary departments on the same page, as well as obtain client and stakeholder buy-in.
Unless you’re designing an app or website for yourself, what’s the point in designing anything without first consulting your users?
Originally published at https://www.justinmind.com on July 30, 2020.