Personas are a powerful technique to describe the users and customers of a product in order to make the right product decisions. This post shares my tips to create helpful personas for digital products.
1. Get to Know the Users
Any persona description should be based on knowledge gained from direct interaction with the target customers and users. This is necessary to build a connection with the beneficiaries of your product, develop empathy, and understand their current wants, needs, and circumstances.
Before you create your personas, you should therefore get to know your audience, for example, by observing how they currently get a job done and by interviewing them. Otherwise, your characters may not accurately represent your target group. In the worst case, they are based on ideas and speculation, not real people. Involve (some of) the team members in the user research work, including UX people and developers. This allows you to leverage their knowledge, and it establishes a shared understanding of the users and their goals.
Put aside any ideas about the desired user experience and the product features when you develop your personas. Describe the characters according to your market insights. Do not make them fit your ideas and assumptions!
2. Keep your Personas Concise
While every persona description should help the team members understand who the beneficiaries of the product are and what the goals they pursue, I recommend that you make and keep your personas concise so they fit on an A4 sheet of paper.
Be careful not to bloat them and don’t add irrelevant details, for instance, another spare time activity or a cute pet. While your personas have to contain enough information to be usable, too much detail makes them difficult to work with. Only include information that helps you make informed decisions about the user interactions, the visual design, and the product functionality. Leave out the rest.
My simple, minimalist persona template wants to help you write concise personas. You can download the template by clicking on the picture below.
3. Distinguish User and Buyer Personas
Create separate user and customer personas whenever the users and the customers are not the same people. This allows you to capture the user and the customer-specific needs, and it makes divergent or conflicting goals easier to see.
Say we want to develop a new, advanced X-Wing Fighter, admittedly a highly implausible but fun scenario. The Rebel Alliance pilots would want a plane that’s easy to fly and well protected. But the purchase department of the Alliance is likely to be concerned with its price and maintenance cost. Employing two different personas allows you to model the user and the buyer, and to state their different goals.
4. Choose a Primary Persona
Whenever you create several personas for a product, choose one primary persona. The primary persona is the character you mainly design and build the product for. Say we choose Luke, a pilot, as the primary persona in the X-Wing Fighter example above. Then meeting Luke’s goal—creating a plane that’s easy to fly and well protected—becomes our top priority. But if we choose John, a purchase team member, as the primary persona, then the resulting product would be very different.
If you find it difficult to choose one primary persona, this may indicate that your target market is too large and heterogeneous, or that your product has become too big and complex. If that’s the case, then consider re-segmenting the market, unbundling the product, or introducing product variants.
5. Make your Personas Believable
Your personas should help the development team empathise with the users and view the product from their perspective. To achieve this, your personas must be believable. The following three tips help you with this:
- Base your personas on first-hand user research (as discussed above).
- Choose a representative name and picture.
- Create and update personas together with the development team.
6. Focus on the Main Benefit or Problem
I frequently see personas that contain a lengthy list of goals. While is it is perfectly OK that a persona description states more than one problem that should be addressed or benefit that should be offered, I recommend selecting one main problem or benefit—the true reason why the persona would want to use or purchase the product. This creates focus and facilitates effective decision-making. If you feel that the other persona goals are too important to omit them, prioritise the goals and put the primary one at the top.
7. Connect Personas and User Stories
Make the most of your personas, and use them in the scenarios, the storyboards, the workflows, and the user stories you discover: your primary persona should be the protagonist in your stories. The template below puts the user or customer modelled as a persona into the user story (based on by Rachel Davies’ user story template).
As <persona> ,
I want <what?>
so that <why?>.
8. Involve the Development Team Members
The best persona descriptions are worthless if the people who should use them don’t understand or accept them. I therefore recommend that you involve (some of) the development team members in creating the personas. Ideally, the individuals should participate in the user research on which the personas are based.
If that’s not possible, then review the initial persona descriptions together with the team members and be open to feedback. Don’t add unnecessary or speculative details, but be willing to adjust the descriptions so that they are easier to understand for and resonate with the team members.
9. Don’t Forget to Update Your Personas
Adjust your persona descriptions, as you lean more about the users and customers and their needs by building prototypes and product increments. This is particularly useful in an agile context, where you want to minimise the amount of initial market research and start with provisional, good-enough personas to quickly test your crucial ideas. Adjust and refine your personas based on the insights you generate. Rewrite your personas or start with brand-new ones if you have to pivot and change your product strategy.
10. Recognise when Personas are not Appropriate
While personas are a powerful tool, there are instances when they are not appropriate. If you create a bespoke product that serves a small user group, then working with personas may not be necessary. Similarly, if your product does not have any end users, employing personas is not advisable.
Take a client of mine that develops a physics engine, software responsible for the clever animations in computer games. The users of the software are games developers who integrate the engine into their code. Creating personas for the physics engine is not beneficial in my mind. But for the entire game it is, of course.