7 Core Ideas about Personas and The User Experience

Jeff Sauro, PhD

A public personality, an assumed identity or a character in a novel–the term persona is used widely in our vernacular.

But, when it comes to User Experience (UX), a persona takes on a more specific meaning.

Personas are a widely used in UX Research with 65% of practitioners reporting using them on projects.

Here are seven core ideas everyone in the UX field should know about personas.

1. Personas predate UX Research

I was first introduced to personas, like many others in the eponymous field of UX, in the late 90’s from the book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum by Alan Cooper. Cooper, however, wasn’t the originator of the concept. It had been around in some form in marketing and advertising for decades.

At about the same time as Cooper, marketing director Angus Jenkinson developed the concept and methodology of personas for usability in the mid 1990s. Jenkinson had previously introduced the “moment of truth” or “touchpoints” concept in customer relationship management (CRM) in 1988 and first described the idea of personas in a 1994 paper “Beyond Segmentation.”

Cooper developed a similar concept during this time and, starting in 1995, recommended creating software with a specific, not generic, user in mind.

A “user” means different things to different people and is often used generically to describe the average customer, which is not the same as a persona. In UX, personas are employed to define and design interactive products. As Alan Cooper says, personas are “profoundly simple but remarkably powerful.” More on the history of persona development

2. A persona is not a hypothetical customer invented by the marketing department

“Persona” is frequently used interchangeably with “user” although the two terms differ in meaning when it comes to usability.

Personas (as we use them) are an archetypical user of a system, an example of the type of person who would interact with it. Personas are profiles of fictional characters or people based on ethnographic research, surveys or interviews. Most famously personas get fancy head-shots and names like “Marcus” or “Shannon.” I’ve even seen life-sized personas. The people and pictures can be fictional but the details should be factual.

Personas are not a list of tasks, duties or responsibilities. They are archetypical users whose goals and characteristics represent the needs of a larger group of users. They function as stand-ins for real users to guide decisions about design and functionality.

When you’re busy developing software it’s easy to starting wondering what a hypothetical user could or might do with your application. If you try and build for all users you build for no users. A persona is intended to focus design thinking by posing the question: Would Marcus do this?

Hear what Alan Cooper has to say about personas.

3. A persona is not about customer likes and dislikes

While you can collect data for personas using surveys, personas are not based on what customers like or don’t like about a company, website or product.

Personas concentrate on what a user does, what frustrates the user, and what gives the user satisfaction. A good persona is a narrative that describes a person’s typical day and experiences, as well as skills, attitude, background, environment, and goals. Personas identify the person’s motivations, expectations, aspirations and behaviors. Personas bring the “user” to life, providing a specific target to aid developers in designing a final product.

4. Personas answer very specific questions

Personas are able to provide details to important questions that a “user” cannot define.

  • Which information is necessary at which point of the day?
  • Is the user concentrating on only one thing at a time?
  • Does the user have frequent interruptions during their experience?
  • Why is he/she using the product?
  • What motivates him/her to use this specific product over a competitor’s?

By using a persona to answer these questions, product design teams can actually be in the user’s shoes, and can better meet a real user’s needs and wants. Personas are not what people tell you about themselves; they are observations and descriptions of why (motivation) a person does what he/she does.

5. Personas can provide a very real benefit for user experience research

Personas are effective during the design and development stage. They help take focus away from requirements and deliverables so designers can focus on the user’s goals. Personas give a name, face, and narrative to the “user” for whom you are designing; they make the concept of the user into an actual person with opinions, feelings and a voice. If you don’t know who you’re designing for, you can’t actually design anything.

(Hear Whitney Quesenbery discuss the Characteristics of Effective Personas )

Personas identify opportunities for improvements to a website or software’s experience. Kendra Shimmell, director of training and education services at Cooper, says, “Personas are a way to give the user a seat at the table every time.” A persona helps keep the end-user involved in the product from the very beginning.

Personas are beneficial for:

  • Defining a specific user’s goals and needs
  • Giving design teams a focus with a common understanding
  • Identifying opportunities and product gaps to drive strategy
  • Concentrating on designing for a manageable target who represents a larger group
  • Replacing the need to canvass an entire user community, significantly reducing time and cost needed to obtain user requirements
  • Helping designers empathize with users (designers can actually walk a mile in the persona’s shoes) to understand behaviors, motivations and expectations
  • Helping prioritize design elements and resolve design disagreements in an economical way
  • Designs can be continually evaluated and validated based on personas to reduce the frequency of usability testing


6. Don’t Overdo the Persona Process

Although personas provide many cost- and time-saving benefits, there is a downfall to using them. If a team spends too much effort and thought developing the persona, delving too much into the tiny details of the persona’s narrative, it can consume a sizeable amount of time in the development process and create large, cumbersome documents. This bloated effort contributes to personas as a superfluous activity.

Creating a good persona requires a composition of qualitative and quantitative research but should be presented in 1-2 pages, no more. It is not a job description. Remember to stay away from minutiae like tasks, duties and responsibilities so you can concentrate on skills, attitudes, motivations, environment and goals.

7. Opinions are good but motivation is better

Although listening to your customers is great and important for business, the danger comes from catering to what the customer thinks he/she wants. I get nervous when I hear companies building personas from focus groups.

Many times users do not know exactly what they need but think about what they want. If they do know what they need, they may not be able to articulate it well. Avoid asking for opinions and concentrate on motivators.

Observation is key when creating and using personas to understand what drives the user (the “whys”) so you can build around that. Personas allow you to understand, identify and communicate what the user needs efficiently and effectively. Personas, along with usability testing, identify specific opportunities to improve, innovate on, and bridge the gaps to make sure you are delivering a fully functional and usable product with the most value to the user.

The process of creating effective personas is a topic for another blog but in the interim, here are some additional resources.

Additional reading on personas:
Personas 101: What Are They and Why Should I Care?
Personas in User Experience
Personas (Wikipedia

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