Whether building a website, app, or product, it is important to understand who the target audience is. For example, a blog might be designed around a particular topic, such as how to use a product or some other specific interest. Whereas a website may be designed to reach certain customers, or an internal application may serve specific teams. This is where creating user personas comes into play; it is a great way to better understand your target user group.
What are user personas?
User personas are a profile that represents the characteristics, preferences, and user needs of real people who comprise the target audience for your product. The approach of creating personas originates from IT system development in the 1990s. Alan Cooper’s book The Inmates are Running the Asylum, published in 1999, was the first to describe the technique of personas to describe fictional characters or users.
When documented well, user persona profiles are a helpful way to articulate specific needs, emotions, frustrations, pain points, behavior patterns, perspectives, and questions that target users may have. They are valuable when tied with a scenario to determine how a user would interact with a product to reach their end goal.
User personas are commonly used in UX design. By keeping these top-of-mind in your team’s development, you’ll work toward the same goal of building an exceptional experience for real life users based on these unique characteristics.
The Interaction Design Foundation has identified four types of personas that can be a great starting point for crafting user personas:
- Goal-directed personas – Describes, specifically, what the goal of each user is within the product or experience you’re creating.
- Role-based personas – Uses goal-directed information as well as behavior to understand the goals and needs of a user.
- Engaging personas – Often encompasses goal-directed and role-based, but delves deeper into psychology, emotions, and personal backgrounds.
- Fictional personas – Drafted not from user research, but from assumptions and experiences of the team creating the personas.
Using one, or a combination of these personas, can help your team outline who your users are, and why they need your product or solution.
The problem with user personas
As simple as they may sound, utilizing personas is not as straightforward. Poorly created personas can be difficult for even the most talented web-design team to work with. A persona that is too abstract is likely to be ignored by most web developers; therefore, it is critical to create a persona that is real enough for even the most technical to grasp.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of personas is the fact that they are based on creativity as much as they are based on science. This means that generally speaking, personas are not verifiable, and may be seen as irrelevant. However, these imagined users are anything but irrelevant. To use them successfully, you must create user personas that are as accurate as possible. The more your team can view the persona as ‘real’ the more likely they will consider them during the process design.
User personas benefit your whole team
Personas are a favorite term among those working in marketing, but their usefulness should not be restricted to the marketing department. These end-user identities are very useful to:
- Designers, who can use them to create informed wireframes that adequately plan for a variety of user scenarios.
- Developers, who can use them to ensure an efficient, accessible product is built and functional.
- Writers, who can use them to build appropriate voice, tone, and style within the content that attracts and assists the user.
- Digital marketers, who can use them to understand search habits and create targeted ads, paid ads, or campaigns driven to meet users in the search experience.
Usability.gov, a leading resource for user experience (UX) best practices and guidelines, notes that personas help all team members build empathy for end users, and provides a way to help stakeholders and leaders stay focused on goals and growth of the product. User personas also provide an efficient way to test and prioritize results of the product.
Why does this matter? Because not incorporating the user into website planning can lead to truly tragic results. For example, look at this comparison of the usability of (former) United Airlines versus Delta Airlines websites:
United likely did not keep personas in mind when they created a website that used confusing lingo, offered redundant options, and discouraged browsing by not remembering basic user-provided information. By simply creating personas, and building a website around them, United could have avoided many of the complaints their website later received.
How to research and build effective user personas
Although personas are often fictionalized, imagined users, there is no reason why they can’t (or shouldn’t) provide useful insight into how a website or product might be used.
Gather real user data
Effective personas should be based on real user data. Finding the information to create relevant, effective personas is as simple as asking real people real questions. User data can also be collected from a variety of sources, including web analytics, heat mapping data, and online surveys. For best results, use a combination of these data points to get a complete understanding of what people need or are seeking.
Asking users questions, whether online or in-person, can be especially helpful. See how Hotjar recommends creating online surveys and polls to help build effective user personas.
Identify patterns in user research
Once you’ve conducted your user research and interviews, gather your notes as a team and identify trends or common themes from what you’ve seen. For example:
- Are people leaving your site or app from pages lacking effective calls-to-action?
- Are there parts in the conversion funnel that are confusing, leading to high abandonment?
- Where are the points of frustrations for users, whether searching for a solution, or navigating your website?
- What do people need with a product or website like yours, or more explicitly, what problems are they trying to solve?
By whittling your data into succinct answers, you can better visualize the highest needs of your audience.
Begin naming and separating your users
Taking the data you’ve condensed, see if there are separations in specific user journeys. “Dave the Doer” might be a goal-oriented persona who wants to get things done without interruption because he’s a busy man. “Brenda the Browser” might have more time to spare, comparing options to solve her problems before choosing a product.
While demographics like age, gender, or location (rural vs. urban) might need to be considered depending on your product or website, consider the tasks and habits first to build effective user personas.
Integrate user personas throughout your product evolution
Once your website or product is launched and out the door, don’t let your user personas collect dust. Tim Noetzel, full-stack product developer, says that his team integrates their user personas into daily team stand-ups, brainstorming sessions, stakeholder meetings, and more. Even bringing personas back into design review sessions keeps everyone’s focus on the real people on the other end of the product.
To utilize personas that contribute to creating more user-friendly web projects, focus on balancing creativity with market insight.
Well-executed personas are based largely on rich behavioral characteristics, attitudinal data, and insights about mental models, and they require qualitative research with real users to uncover the why behind users’ behaviors..
Jotting down notes and observations about real users is always better than nothing, but if you’re ready to put it to practice, consider a UX persona template to help organize your findings and solidify who your users are. Bring them out for meetings and future product development touchpoints to keep them top-of-mind.
Many user personas can be designed in a grid-like or table format, starting with an image and short biography of your user at the top, and fields that better explain additional information, such as:
- Motivations and goals
- Anxieties and frustrations
- Everyday tasks (home and work)
- Experience goals (what they like or don’t like about certain online experiences)
- Product goals (what they’re looking for in a solution and why)
Some templates can even narrow attributes like frustrations and motivations, putting personas on a “scale” of 1-10 for each attribute. Take a look at Behance’s user persona, which uses bar charts and visual graphs to more easily convey the habits and attributes of their user personas.
Here are some great user persona templates from the professionals to get you started:
- Hubspot’s “Make My Persona Tool”
- Yale University’s persona worksheet
- UX Planet’s 18 free user persona templates
Keeping your personas fresh
Just like people and technology, personas can change. Therefore, it is critical to regularly make sure your personas reflect the behaviors of your target website users. Repeat the steps taken to create your personas to update those that no longer match actual user behavior. The process of refining personas is as important as creating them.