Introduction to User Personas
What is a User Persona?
User Personas are realistic models of the people you are trying to help. They often take the form of a 1-page character study, and include a name, photo, personal details and specific goals. They come in many shapes and sizes, and are built from direct and indirect observation of real or potential users.
Three Principles of User Personas
- Specificity: Models a single person who stands for many
- Personality: Provides enough detail to create a character
- Authenticity: Derived from observations and real experiences
Profile-Style User Personas (pictured below) provide a familiar format that is easy to compare and share internally and among stakeholders. They can include a range of relevant data points depending on the space, and are often reserved for the “high-fidelity” stage of development.
Why are User Personas important?
Personas are the center of user-centered design. Without user personas, it would be difficult or impossible to design solutions that remain friendly from every perspective. From aligning teams to defining solutions, personas play an integral role in every design solution.
Five Benefits of User Personas for Business
- Provides common language for discussing users internally
- Maintains user-centered mindset throughout design and development
- Captures the breadth and depth of support opportunities
- Empowers rapid alignment when making early design decisions
- Contributes insights to other business units and product-related efforts
The evolution of User Personas
Personas as a design tool were created in the late 1980s by software developers who wanted to bridge the gap between users and developers. In doing so, they created the “user persona” as a modelling tool, which has continued to evolve alongside new technologies and development methodologies. 
Are User Personas the same as Market Segments?
User Personas can look similar to market/customer segmentation but they serve very different purposes. Whereas market segments help teams find new customers, User Personas help teams build new experiences. Teams need to do both to launch a successful project, and segmentation results are a valuable source of information for UX Researchers looking to study future users.
User Persona Structure
User personas are designed to quickly convey a shared set of user needs to design teams. They include a mix of text and visuals and are arranged in a variety of formats. While there is no right way to structure a user persona, teams should select a fidelity that reflects their stage in the design process.
Prototype vs Qualitative Personas
Prototype personas help teams collate their collective experiences and assumptions about users early in the design process. In effect, they are the “best guesses” of the design team, and contain many unvalidated assumptions and principle-based decisions. In contrast, qualitative personas have been derived from direct observations of current/potential users, and provide detailed ethnographic insights.
In practice, UX design projects are the most efficient when they begin with prototype personas that capture the team’s collective understanding. These prototypes help teams align quickly and identify areas of research and design exploration. In reality, prototype and qualitative personas exist on a spectrum, and as prototypes gain fidelity they become increasingly qualitative.
|Prototype Personas||Qualitative Personas|
|Derived from collective experience||Derived from direct observations|
|Provides basic narrative to personify goals||Provides verbatims and ethnographic details|
|Great for rapid alignment and ideation||Great for detailed analysis and implementation|
Six parts of a user persona
While there are many different ways to structure and inform team members about user perspectives, including the following elements will ensure you cover all the action items needed.
1. Photo/Mood Board
Persona photos are powerful empathy builders and help teams discuss user experiences more accurately. While illustrations or stock photos suffice for early persona development (i.e. before user interviews or research), the best User Persona photos are everyday portraits of the people you’ve observed.
2. Personal Details
Age, education and geographic location are often useful attributes for designers trying to empathize with their users, but not always. Aim to only include data points that are both defensible (i.e. grounded in observations or statistics) and relevant to the experience. For example, factors like devices, tech exposure and preferred browser are often more informative than income.
Include 2-3 sentences that capture the user’s environment and domain knowledge while avoiding long-winded narratives that aren’t based on experience.
4. Patterns & Behaviors
This section is critical for user friendly design. Insights captured in this section are best when based on pooled observations of actual users, but can be prototyped using collective experience. Start by outlining the relevant activities, attitudes and aptitudes of your user.
5. Goals + Motivations
Clearly articulating the intention of your users is a major difference between user/ux personas and other marketing or customer profiles. Comprehensive user personas address all three levels of user goals: Life goals (want to be), End goals (want to do) and Experience goals (want to feel).
Giving personas a voice can help design teams communicate with them more effectively. The most useful quotes are usually verbatims captured in research settings or indirect channels (ex. customer service conversations, social interactions).
If direct quotes are available, for example when creating prototype personas, teams can consider “favorite quotes” instead, leveraging resources like brainyquote.com to find inspiring people and prose.
|Behaviors + Patterns||Goals + Motivations|
|Drives to the grocery store once a week||Wants to find the best deal on staple foods|
|Pays bills promptly with mobile banking||Wants to build a stronger credit score|
|Listens to podcasts on the way to work||Wants to find interesting new ideas to try|
|Never takes Main Street in the morning||Wants to avoid sitting in traffic|
|Always shops around before purchasing||Wants to stretch discretionary dollars|
User Persona Types
Primary, Secondary, Customer and Served Personas
To help prioritize design team efforts, user personas are classified into four types. In general, the number of user personas that a team creates should not be more than they can remember.
- Primary user personas are the main targets of experience design. Teams typically align on 2-4 primary personas, where each is distinct from the rest of the set. For example, a ride-sharing app would segment primary personas between riders and drivers, as their goals are connected but contrasting. For an in-car entertainment experience, primary personas may differentiate drivers and passengers.
- A secondary user persona is mostly satisfied with the requirements of the primary personas, but not entirely. In the ride-sharing app example, secondary personas may be those who want to coordinate moving large groups, such as organizations or HR departments. If your team has more than 4 secondary personas, you may want to reconsider the scope of the project or the segmentation of primary personas.
- Often the people who purchase a solution are not the ones who will use it. This buyer group is captured in a customer persona, which is generally considered a secondary persona to be mindful of (unless they require an admin interface for example, in which case they could be primary as well).
- Served personas are not users of the solution, but they are the ones it is used on. For example, an MRI patient doesn’t use the machine interface, but they are served but its design. Served personas are treated like secondary personas, and they provide a way to consider the broader impact of design decisions.
User Persona Examples
The following User Persona examples demonstrate the range of information that profiles can provide. Each can be considered as a starting point for persona development: In practice, teams often create basic profiles such as these to help identify users to interview. As research progresses, so does the fidelity of the personas.
User Persona Examples for Banking
One of the most interesting aspects of designing banking experiences is that they must be user-friendly to people of all ages and walks of life. This is where observation-based User Personas are most powerful.
As an example, consider the following two prototype personas: ETF Ellen and Trader Tim. These personas have been segmented based on generic investing behaviors, and could be used as a starting point for discussing potential users as a team.
Note that while demographic factors like age, assets, mortgages and marital status are also important, it’s likely that personas defined by risk tolerance, investing activity or other behaviors would prove more actionable.
User Persona Examples for Automotive
The path to purchase/lease is vehicle can take years and includes countless impressions and micro-events. Because of this, marketing/funnel-based segmentation is often applied to help teams find potential buyers. While necessary, knowing that someone is ready to consider a new vehicle won’t describe the experience they’re looking for. For that, you need User Personas.
Consider the following two prototype UX personas: Commuter Kate and Weekends Will. These personas have been segmented based on transit patterns, and could be used for exploratory Design Thinking brainstorms before being updated with more solution-specific insights.
User Persona Examples for Insurance
Like banking, insurance deals with a lot of sensitive user data — something that in the past has been notoriously difficult to design enjoyable experiences for. This has led to solutions that succeed in function, but fall short of friendly.
Fortunately, today’s integrated Design Thinking process has removed the technology bottlenecks, allowing teams to focus more attention on the experience. The following persona examples are from opposite ends of the insurance spectrum: First-time buyers and retired downsizers. As with all examples, these are merely a starting point for conversations, and would be updated to reflect direct observations.
How to Create a User Persona
Creating a user persona is a team exercise that requires empathy, analytical thinking and the frequent challenging of assumptions. The most inspiring User Personas provide a range of insights from user interviews, usability testing and other qualitative UX Research methods.
Regardless of the fidelity of the persona you are creating, the same 5-step process can be applied. This section will examine each step of the process in more detail.
How to Create a User Persona in 5 Steps
- Sort users strategically
- Research the real experience
- Map patterns and primary goals
- Combine insights into a first draft
- Validate user personas as a team
- Step 1
Sort users strategically
The first step in creating a user persona is find out what user persona you want to create. While it sounds simple enough (“The Customer!”), it’s where design teams often go wrong. This is because, in order to know what persona you want to create, you need to appreciate where they will stand in relation to all of your users. A user persona never exists in isolation, and trying to paint all of your users with a single brush is sure to end in compromise.
For experience designers, dividing users by their roles, goals or behaviors is much more informative than demographic or channel-based market segmentation.
Below are just a few of the ways you could divide a coffee shop’s customers.
- By role: The Commuter, The Writer, The Producer, The Road Tripper
- By goal: Start, Meet, Focus, Eat, Give, Work, Use The Bathroom
- By behavior: Every Day, On Weekends, On the Run, On Occasion
There is no “right way” to determine your initial groups, as long as they reflect the needs of your design team. For example, if you were redesigning a location’s interior, goals may be more helpful. If designing a loyalty service, behaviors may be most useful.
Note: Dividing users by their roles is often useful in enterprise solutions where job titles provide a lot of behavioral consistency. When it comes to consumer-facing projects though, roles become tricky: Real people have several roles at any given time, and trying to select just one risks oversimplifying.
- Step 2
Research the real experience
When you know what segment your persona will represent, you can immerse yourself in their perspective. In essence, the goal of step two is to build a database of relevant insights that are inherent to the segment. There is an array of quantitative and qualitative ux research methods that can be used, with interviews and surveys among the most powerful.
User persona interviews
Interviewing multiple people that meet your criteria is the gold standard for user research, and the best way to generate the details that inspire big ideas. Depending on the opportunity, interviews can be supplemented with a variety of UX research methods such as surveys, diary/photo studies, touchstone tours, usability labs and personal inventories.
Tips for more insightful user interviews
- Conduct environmental interviews where the interaction occurs
- Assume the role of the apprentice and not the domain expert
- Avoid closed-ended questions that can be answered with a yes/no
- Avoid making the user a designer on the spot
- Encourage storytelling and analogies
- Ask users to show you what they mean
- Organize insights while the conversation is still fresh
User Persona Surveys
Surveys are an especially powerful ux research method because they can provide statistically significant insights about demographics, behaviors and goals. This makes it easier to create authentic identities and rank priorities as a team. Tools such as Typeform and Survey Monkey make distributing surveys simple — although designing the right questions still takes considerable effort.
- Step 3
Map patterns and primary goals
After conducting user surveys, interviews and other UX research methods, you are ready to cluster insights and identify important patterns. Common clustering methods use one- or two-dimensional visualizations to segment data based on relevant variables, such as the frequency (quantitative) or intent (qualitative).
For example, clustering may help identify differences between people who use your product daily vs those using it less often. By examining these two clusters in detail, UX teams can determine if distinct personas are needed to avoid compromising the experience of each.
How will I know when I’m ready? When you can confidently list the most relevant behaviors and goals for each of your user segments, you are ready to move to the next step.
- Step 4
Combine insights into a first draft
With clear segments, shared behaviors, and a selection of quantitative and qualitative insights to draw from, it’s time to draft the persona. You can begin with a user persona template that reflects the level of fidelity you’re going for, or create one of your own. When creating your own, be sure to consider the six parts of UX personas outlined in the section above.
When you’ve completed this step and captured the most relevant insights and attributes in a your user persona, it’s time to review and revise it as a team.
Three UX Persona watch-outs
- Avoid excessive fictional descriptions. Include just enough for empathy
- Avoid introducing solutions in your narrative — focus on pain points instead
- Avoid ranges for personal details — real people don’t have 1.5 children
- Step 5
Validate user personas as a team
Given the significant influence of user personas on every downstream design decision, it’s critical to take time refining draft personas as a team. This process is often completed in design thinking workshops, using creative tools like the gallery walks or role playing to bring different perspectives together.
User Persona Tips
Testing User Personas: Exit Interview
A revealing way to test the veracity of user personas is to see how your team members answer interview questions on their behalf. While you can expect a lot of divergence here, the clarity gained in this step can pay significant dividends.
Consider the following questions as a starting point for creating your own exit interviews. Feel free to get creative with your line of questions, and reformat them as needed to suit the various collection methods (i.e. surveys vs gallery walk vs live discussion).
- What do you use most often?
- What are your favorite shortcuts?
- What aspects drive you crazy?
- Who do you turn to for help?
- How do you work around issues?
- What makes a good day? Bad day?
- What is currently wasting your time?
- What is your top priority? Second?
- What helps you make decisions?
- What are you doing next?
- How did you start work today?
- What is a typical day?
- How often do you do this?
- What slows you down?
- What do you do daily? Monthly?
- What does success look like to you?
- What do you enjoy most about work?
- What do you procrastinate on?
- What do you prefer to tackle first?
- What do you prefer to tackle first?
If answering those questions was different, or if it yielded very different results for members of your team, you may need to revisit your research notes or revise segmentation.
Introduce persona early and often
Once you’ve developed your persona, make a point to introduce them at the start of every design project and revisit them continuously throughout the process. When new members join your team, be sure to give them the same introduction as you would when first presenting them, otherwise they will start to fade as projects progress.
Save your personas a seat at lunch
Customer obsessed teams will often take their personas one step further, bringing them into the daily office life by creating visual reminders in high-traffic areas. While it may sound silly, this simple tip will do more to align teams on who they’re working for than you’d expect.
Give your personas their own social account
If you want to take your user personas to the next level, you can even consider giving them an email address and social media profile. Furnishing their profiles with the types of posts they would share will bring a new level of realism than ever before. Plus, it’s easy to add them to your own account and share updates — including reactions to breaking news — over time.
- Cooper A, Reimann R, Cronin D, Noessel C. About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design. John Wiley & Sons; 2014.