Why are personas so important in UX design?

Whether it’s morality-encoded fables, myths that represent the sacred and blasphemous to a culture, or simply a television show you can spend seven hours binge watching on a Saturday, humans have – and this is no revelation – always had a soft spot for storytelling.

Stories remind us of what’s important. They capture crucial lessons and bestow wisdom, guidance and warnings onto the listener. Broadly speaking, stories contain in them all the contradictions and motivations that make up the human condition. You should think of a persona like a story, or a lighthouse.

What is a persona?

Personas in UX design are archetypal characters who represent needs, ambitions, goals and behaviours of a particular user segment. They guide the design process and ensure services and products meet user needs. They should be built using evidence and data collated from a cross-section of research methods, like user interviews, surveys, ethnographic research or SEO and analytics. They’re also carefully packaged and designed in a way both practitioners and stakeholders can easily understand and act on them.

Just as in mythology we have the hero’s quest, so too must every user undertake a journey. Some are simple. Others are perilous and littered with confusing content and usability errors. Personas are a map for these passages. They signify our hero’s mission (user need or task), their fated nemesis and dragon guarding treasure (pain points), as well as hidden clues leading to the elixirs (solutions) they’re searching for. Maybe I’m overdoing this analogy, but what can I say? I’m a big fan of Joseph Campbell.

When should you use personas?

You should use personas whenever you’re designing a digital product, really. Whether it’s a new or existing service, or even if it’s just been a little while since you did some user research. Having up-to-date, accurate and data-filled personas means whatever you create will be reflective of the audience you’re trying to design for.

It’s also worth noting the difference between UX design personas and those used for marketing segmentation. Where segmentation siphons users into neatly packaged boxes defined by their particular demographic – think, female, aged 25 – 30 from Bristol – personas dig deep into their emotions. We use them to understand and build empathy with our users, instead of relying on arbitrary external markers.

Perhaps most crucially though, they also establish what constitutes success for a user, as well as applying a metric to measure it in. This tactic keeps us on track through the design and build process, and they’re excellent communication tools when it comes to gaining stakeholder buy in.

Nomensa’s experience with personas in UX design

Given we’ve been working in the UX industry since our inception way back in 2001, you’d be right to think we’ve created hundreds of personas in our time. But every project is different. Some newer services may need more high-level, detail-rich personas, while an established organisation may only wish to factcheck existing research.

For example, in our data-driven programme of work with the Met Office, we were able to partner our UX design and research expertise with their super computer to create a rafter of highly detailed, complex personas. We were able to create such colourful outputs because of our extensive user research.

For example, we specifically investigated how health conditions influenced the way people interact with weather forecasts. We found that people whose health was affected by the weather – for example, by changes in UV, pollen counts or pollution ratings – were surprisingly passive about checking the weather

We then translated these usually lost little nuggets of user data into features like a persona-specific notification system geared at giving the right people, the right information, at the right time. This means that users with asthma are sent helpful push-notification with slices of microcopy reading: ‘don’t forget your inhaler!’ You can read more about our ongoing collaboration in our case study on the Met Office.

Met Office personas: The Preparer, The Opportunist, The Scheduler, The Researcher, The Route Planner, The Routine, The Vulnerable

Meanwhile, our work for Highways England saw us create a series of personas based on a particular behaviour. This was because any one user could be true of multiple personas, depending on the context of their interaction with the service. Consequently, we needed to feed in factors like work, leisure or social in order to capture the entire service.

If you would like to discuss how personas or our other UX design methods could rejuvenate, align or enhance your digital products – get in touch at hello@nomensa.com or give us a call on +44 (0)117 929 7333.

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