When do we need Personas?

Not everyone is a fan of Personas. Many have seen Personas get commissioned with little thought about how they should be used. They end up just being a deliverable that was deemed necessary at the time, but that was later abandoned in a dusty drawer somewhere.

Some think Personas are a little odd - in the way that they simultaneously present themselves as both an individual and a set of people. It can be hard to understand how these handful of individuals can provide us with the coverage needed. The thought might be: “What if someone else comes along? Will they like our product or service too?”

Also, with the trend towards agile working practices, lots of organisations are now getting such regular contact with their users (doing usability testing and other UX research in every sprint), that they might not need a reference tool to help them keep their user’s particular ways of doing things in mind.

For one reason or another, Personas might have fallen out of favour with you. But maybe they’re worth a second chance. When approached in the right way, Personas add significant value. They come in handy in those gaps between bouts of research (even when those gaps are thankfully getting shorter) and particularly for supporting people who may not have first hand or detailed familiarity with the user research behind them.

(Image credit: Nicolas Nova)

What are Personas though?

Good question! Personas are archetypes that bring to life a particular set of users in a useful and reliable way. They are a design tool - often confusingly conflated with ‘segmentations’, when they’re not the same thing at all! It is possible (and actually very useful) to map personas to segmentations. But they’re not that closely related really.

Segmentations are a marketing tool - a quantitive breakdown of customers or prospects into defined groups. Like Personas they tend to include a set of demographics. But while marketeers include these to use these for targeting, designers use demographics to build empathy and understanding.

And this is why they use a single person to embody a set of characteristics. It’s all about the emotional response. You aren’t meant to believe that this person exists. They are a proxy to help us remember a particular set of motivations, contexts and behaviours that were observed in research. More than that, they provide a frame of reference that builds our capacity to anticipate the emotional response that our work will illicit.

Referring to a ‘Carol Convenience’, a ‘Tony Technical’, or a ‘Brian Bargain Hunter’ persona gives us a very quick and precise viewpoint to consider. It’s quicker than saying ‘think about the user who is motivated by x, in context y…’ and much more precise than just referring to a generic ‘user’.

To be adopted, trusted and believed in - they must be evidence-based of course. Qualitative methods such as user interviews or usability testing sessions are typically used to gather in the raw data. Quantitive methods can also be used to validate and add weight to the observations identified. To be useful, they need to contain the right level of detail to support the anticipated design challenges ahead. Therefore it is good practice, to make the associated research report as widely available as the Personas themselves (containing the supporting evidence for each persona).

So when should we use Personas?

There are many times when you’ll be glad to have Personas. Here are just a few examples of where you can put them to effective use.

1. Whenever you need to get closer to users

You’ll need to read and re-read Personas in order to keep them in mind. So having them on the wall or in a handy portable format is absolutely key. Be wary of long periods in your project where there is no user research going on - this could be exactly the moment to remind everyone in the team about the personas - helping them to keep their empathy alive.

2. Whenever you need to align perceptions

Larger projects will usually involve larger numbers of people - each with their own impact on the overall product or service and each with their own particular views. Personas are a great way to get everyone on the same page in order to aim for consistency across a range of digital channels. It is important therefore to get into the routine of referring to them by name across the whole project team. If possible, ban the word ‘user’!

3. Whenever you’re looking to bring focus to your product or service

Personas are a great tool to help with prioritisation of content and features. The idea is to evaluate your backlog of requirements through the eyes of your personas. You’ll need to ask which ones support the ways each of your personas like to operate? Which ones are less important and could end up diluting their overall experience?

4. Whenever you’re looking to identify new opportunities and stimulate ideas

The other side of evaluating your backlog against your Personas is that you can also spot areas where the Persona are not being adequately supported or encouraged in order to add new items to the backlog. As your designs evolve, they can continually provoke new ideas on how to better engage your specific users with content and / or functionality.

5. Whenever you’re working on other UX deliverables

Personas can be useful to support other deliverables too. For example, you might consult them when drafting recruitment screeners (to ensure you get the right participants for your research) or when writing user stories or user journeys. In fact, you might do well to consider creating your Personas early in a project in order to get full use from them.

What have we learnt then?

Personas help to answer a simple question: Who is it for?

You should not proceed without asking this question. When you’re designing or building something, it is essential to be curious about who the ‘something’ is for. How else can you think about stated and implied needs (also known as “quality”)? How else can we be confident that what we’re spending all our time and resources on will be worth the investment?

Personas provide a great way to “check in” regularly with our users in order to refine our work, validate that we’re heading in the right direction and ultimately to increase the chances of landing our product or service. All of this is in the spirit of figuring out whether what we’re doing will fit well with people it’s intended for. This means understanding the emotional reality as well as the likely context, motivations and behaviours of our users. Effective Personas provide a consistent short cut into this world and help us make smarter design decisions. So the real questions is this: when don’t we need them?

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