The What, Why and How of User Personas

One of the few proven ways to be successful in any business is to understand your customer’s needs and deliver quality products or services that satisfy those needs in the best way possible. Yes, it does sound too bookish but the truth is knowing your end user is the kernel of a customer-oriented business model. Though it seems to be a generally acknowledged and elementary principle but oftentimes entrepreneurs get so drawn away by their business idea and the profits it is going to generate that eventually they end up forgetting about the end user and selling what is already built instead of trying to create something customers really need.

This is also applicable for digital products and services. In the digital world we not only need to develop useful and high quality products, but also delightful user experience throughout the whole process of obtaining and using that product. So it is essential to know your users, their thoughts and concerns, their lifestyle, and clearly visualize how your product fits into their lives and workflow. This is what user personas are for. Personas help you keep the end user in mind throughout the whole development and design process.

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What is a user persona?

A user persona is a fictional character that represents a cluster of end users with similar characteristics, including purchasing behavior, character traits, interests, etc. Although personas are imaginary individuals, but they are developed using quantitative and qualitative user research data and represent typical end users. User personas should be as realistic as possible to aptly express the major needs and wants, expectations and frustrations of the customer group. This is a great way to solve many dilemmas during the design and development process, when you need a side eye with an unbiased opinion. When you have a defined user persona, you can have a clear picture of what he or she would prefer in a given situation.

User persona development is very often confused with market segmentation and sometimes they are even referred to as synonyms. There are similarities between these two categories, but they certainly are not the same. Segmentation is first of all a marketing tool used to research and identify customer groups with common characteristics (usually demographical and geographical). It doesn’t focus on an individual customer and their stories. Instead segmentation gives more insights on how the product may be accepted by target markets.

User persona is more of a UX design technique, that helps understand the goals and motivations of users. It focuses on an archetypal character providing robust information about the story, intents and goals behind users’ behavior. So if market segmentation sets the ground for more efficient marketing, personas help you empathize with your user as an individual.

These two techniques are complimentary and can well be used together to understand both the market segments as a whole and a typical user with feelings, goals and expectations. In fact every market segment can be represented by a user persona.

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Why do you need to develop user personas?

User experience is all about creating a seamless and useful interaction between the end user and the product from the very first sight up to delivery and support. And obviously UX Design can’t be complete without a well-defined user persona in mind. Why?

Imagine yourself trying to buy a gift for someone you don’t know but whom you want to impress.

So the #1 benefit of using personas in UX design is keeping the focus on the end user. Knowing what a typical user would do in this or that situation, knowing the goals that would bring the user to your product or service makes it much easier to create designs that will appeal first of all to the users of the product and then only to the management. As Steve Mulder states in his interview to UIE,

“The hardest thing for designers to keep in mind is that they are not designing for themselves. They are designing for the needs of the people who will actually be using the product. Personas are one of the most powerful tools for helping designers keep users in mind.”

Another great benefit of personas is they can be used to effectively communicate the characteristics of the target audience to stakeholders, management staff and other people involved in the project. It is easier to understand something when you are given a proper example and user personas tend to be that example.

Copywriters can also benefit from using personas as a reminder of who they are writing for and what language and tone they can use to better connect with the audience. This is actually a vital factor not only in SEO but also in UX Design, because the language used on a website or other digital product can either boost conversions or ruin them.

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How to create user personas?

Though imagination is highly welcome in this process, you can’t solely rely on it when developing user personas. Instead you can make use of both qualitative and quantitative research methods to gather robust data for the project. In fact quantitative methods, among which most popular is user survey, help you understand what is happening, while qualitative methods can tell you why it is happening. So for a richer insight on user behavior and expectation you could make use of both methods.

The first step in user persona development is the market segmentation. When you have defined the target markets, you will be able to recruit study participants that correspond to the demographical characteristics of that particular segment. E.g. 20-23 aged females living in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

With this information you can then carry out either user survey with a larger sample size (quantitative) or one-on-one interviews with up to 30 potential customers (qualitative) to gather data. In fact it would even be better to combine those two methods for more grounded results. Another great source for research data can be web analytics. If you already have a running website or other digital product than the real user analytics can give additional insights into what a typical user does and wants.

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And finally when you have collected all the necessary information, it’s time to analyze the user behavior patterns that will emerge out of the research data and brainstorm with the whole design and development team to come up with a few user personas, usually not more than 5 for a single project. It is better to keep the focus on just 2 or 3 personas rather than try to cover all the users out there.

There are different approaches to when it is best to start user persona development. But I would suggest that the sooner you create user personas for a project the more effective they will be.

There’s only one thing you need to consider. User personas shouldn’t become stereotypes and come in the way of creativity. When you feel there is a significant change in business that contradicts existing user personas, have the courage to do this all over again!

Armen Ghazarian
Armen Ghazarian
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