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User Personas: Your Guide to Building Personas for UX

Looking to learn more about creating user personas? Look no further—read on to find everything you need to know about building user personas and turning them into key assets for your UX team, from persona mapping to creating your own user personas using templates.

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Chapter 1

Getting to know user personas

In this chapter, we dive into user personas and why they’re important for UI and UX design. We’ll also discover what makes a good user persona—from being unique to avoiding bias. Let’s get started.

What is a user persona? (And why it's important to define)

User personas are user profiles that represent the wants and needs of a subgroup of your target audience. These personas are an in-depth analysis of your ideal customer and their behavior patterns, goals, skills, attitudes, problems, and background information.

User personas help you identify key themes and thought patterns amongst your audience, which enable you to connect with your target audience and make better product decisions.

Design teams can use this information to create designs and build products and services that fit the needs of the audience.

You likely already have an idea of what a user persona is. Here, we want to dive deeper into the practice of creating user personas and share how to make them as useful as possible for your team.

What does a user persona look like?

A user persona profile represents a subgroup of your target audience and serves as guidance for making product and marketing decisions. Audience personas humanize your user research and real data, to enable you to create more understandable representations of what your audience wants.

The exact information you include in your personas is very context-specific—it depends on what you’re looking to understand. Some information is always a must, like wants and needs, whereas other information, such as gender and location, can often serve little purpose.

Today, user personas are moving away from relying on demographic data. As we’ll explore later, this information leads UX designers to make generalizations about who someone is, and their needs. Demographic data gives us specific data, but not valuable data.

That’s not to say that demographics are never needed in your user personas—it instead means that you should really consider the value—if any—you’re adding with specific demographics.

Instead, modern user personas should include the following information:

  • Goals
  • Purpose
  • Approach

Modern personas should understand who users are, as well as how they interact with and use your product or service. This gives a deeper understanding of how you can best go about improving your product.

What a user persona shouldn’t look like

In the past, a user persona would typically include information along the lines of:

  • A picture
  • A name
  • Age
  • Location
  • Job title
  • Education level
  • Marital status
  • Family status
  • Pain points/frustrations
  • Wants/needs
  • Biography
  • Personality traits
  • Preferred social media channels

Why are demographics outdated in user personas?

Simple. You always want to know how your users are feeling—what their thinking style is and how they are applying that to your product or service. The same goes for pain points and frustrations.

Age, gender, location, and other demographic data have little to do with this and may cause generalizations. They can often be a cause of bias or assumptions within personas—this does little to help (and lots to hinder) the application of your personas.

Developing personas should be done on a case-by-case basis that takes great consideration of user context. For example, when using personas to understand the adoption of a new product feature—is gender really relevant? Or, is it a piece of demographic information that permits implicit bias?

Maze’s Ash Oliver, UX Designer & Design Advocate, shared more on this:
“We’re talking about humans evaluating humans, so naturally there’s a lot of opportunity for bias. We come with it. It will be there unless we’re relevant and engaged in addressing it.

One of the ways we confront bias at Maze is we draw out stereotypes for this persona. By naming it and calling it out, we can confront it and identify it further down the line. This enables us to better see if something is a small part of a bigger stereotype. It helps us push past that.”

We asked Ash if there were other ways his team proactively tried to avoid bias.
“We strip out the personified parts of a person. I like ones that use metaphors instead of traditional names. Look for an entirely different name to “Dave the designer” for example, and align your names with your company vision or mission–it’s a useful way to remember the personas, as well.”

Ash stressed the importance of collaboration to help avoid persona bias.
“Working in pairs or collaboratively helps bring more diversity to personas. The more diversity you have within that team, the more lenses you can apply to this information.”

What you include in your user personas—from pictures to gender, age to marital status—decides the assumptions people make when dealing with these personas. This limits the effectiveness of your personas for conveying user needs and wants. We’ll explore more on avoiding bias later in this chapter.

What makes a good user persona?

So, how can you make sure your personas are as useful and informative as possible. First, ditch the idea that the way to build personas is set in stone. There are plenty of ways to go about creating user personas—ways that we’ll develop in chapter two.

For now, let’s consider the characteristics of a good user persona.

User personas are unique

One easy trap you can fall into is plugging new information into past personas.
User personas shouldn’t be copied and pasted from past research or projects—they need to be unique for each project. By all means, utilize a user persona template to formulate your research—but that’s all it should be: a template.

User personas use real data you've collected and observed

When building your user personas, make sure you’re using real, up-to-date information. You want quantitative information from surveys as much as you want qualitative information from interviews and actual customer stories.

Don’t attempt to create personas from data that wasn’t collected for this specific project. You want the buyer persona creation process to start with project-specific user research—that’s the only way you can be sure you’re using relevant research to reflect your target personas.

It’s worth your time and effort to invest the necessary resources into creating an accurate user persona research process.

Building personas 🏗

Jump to learn how to effectively build user personas.

User persona profiles focus on the present

Sure, you’ve got an idea of what you want your customers and target audience to think and feel—but it’s essential to remain realistic with your personas. Ideally, every piece of information you include in your buyer personas should link back to data you’ve collected or observed.

It’s easy to develop personas that are based on stereotypes and expectations, but that’s not beneficial to your product. These types of personas are called proto-personas, and are a big no-no in UX/UI design. You want a realistic character that represents your target audience as they are, not as you wish them to be.

User personas are context-specific

This can often dictate the success of your personas. You want your user personas to include information that’s relevant to the particular context in which they’re applied. We touched upon this when discussing the relevance of certain demographic characteristics that are frequently used in user personas.

You want to make sure you’re including information that’s relevant to your product and project. Your buyer persona needs to focus on the context-specific behaviors and goals related to your product.

Don’t include information for the sake of including it—make sure it’s relevant and specific.

The best personas are created through research, a combination of data and educated guesses.

Ash Oliver, UX Designer & Design Advocate at Maze

User personas avoid biases

A good user persona aims to avoid biases, both in the creation and distribution. It’s easy to jump to conclusions when interpreting personas, but those conclusions are often rooted in pre-judgment and bias.

One way to avoid implicit bias when it comes to building buyer personas is to only include information that causes behavior or thinking.

You want to understand the reasoning, reaction, and guiding principles of your audience, not superficial demographics that mean little upon closer inspection. This not only helps develop deeper, more meaningful buyer personas, but it also helps mitigate any bias when it comes to using personas throughout your business.

For example, user personas often contain a photo and a name to ensure they’re memorable—this is traditionally an essential part of personas: they must stick in your team’s minds.

This has previously meant a smiling picture accompanied by a descriptive name—like ‘Mary the Mom’—but memorable doesn’t need to mean mundane. Choosing pictures and names your team is familiar with can leave the design process open to bias—there are ample preconceptions about being a mom.

Instead, why not challenge the preconceptions and biases associated with your users? Here’s an example from the user personas developed for the UK Ministry of Justice:

The UK Ministry of Justice's user personas

These five personas—Zeus, Icarus, Achilles, Prometheus, and Hades— aim to limit bias and mitigate stigma when it comes to discussing solutions for people in prison. They’re memorable in a different way—and they limit bias in an environment where preconceptions run rife.

Personas in UX design: What are they for?

Now you know what a persona is and what makes one great, let’s take a look at why exactly they’re key for UX teams.

1. Making product decisions

User personas are used to help organizations make informed decisions. They highlight what’s important to your users and what they want and need from your product.

User personas help shape product strategy and enable teams to prioritize features and solutions. Alongside other forms of user and product research, such as usability testing and customer surveys, user personas help create a user-centered point-of-view to inform product decisions and direction.

Let’s consider an example:

Say you’ve got a variety of features that you can and will implement at some point. They’re features you’ve identified as important through research methods, but you’re still a little unsure of where to start.

By considering your user personas, you can see what changes will make the biggest impact on the most users. There are likely areas of your product that more than one persona is interested in, so maybe it’s those areas that you want to target and prioritize. UX designers need to know what the end-user wants—personas help communicate this effectively and minimize speculation. Ash
Oliver, UX Designer & Design Advocate here at Maze said:

“I think about personas as a composite sketch; a key segment within your users. There’s a variety of different personas, for sales, marketing, product–and even different types of personas within those fields. They’re a framework so you can create products that resonate and are valuable to users.”

2. Understanding and empathizing with users

Personas aim to evoke empathy and enable designers to better understand the users of their product. This allows them to gain a perspective that’s different from their own and focus on the end-user.

It’s very easy as a UX designer to create products in somewhat of a tunnel—without adequately considering the needs and wants of your audience. Personas enable designers to empathize with issues and understand how the issues affect their interactions with the product.

User personas represent real people—they include information on likes, habits, attitudes, pain points, and much more. The descriptive and personal nature of personas allows for deeper empathy and understanding from designers.

For example, which of the following persona example snippets is more likely to evoke empathy when designing a social media app for seniors:

Green is 55-65 years old and has never used social media. They’ve got an iPhone and an iPad to browse the web. They don’t know how to send images from one device to another. They want to have one place to store and share their photos.

Green is a newly retired senior who spends a lot of time at home. They love spending time with family and snapping pictures of their grandkids, but they don’t know how to share the images they take. They’d like to view them on the bigger iPad screen but they’re unsure how to send it from their phone to their tablet. They want to be able to look at pictures of their family on all their devices. Now that they’re retired, they've got way more time and energy to spend on their family.

They both say the same thing, but one user persona profile is purely factual where the other paints a picture for designers to understand. This is key for evoking empathy—you want to create a story around your solid data for your team to understand.

3. Aligning teams

User personas are a great way to communicate user research findings to teams that otherwise have no interaction with the end-user. They’re memorable, digestible, and easy to distribute to the different teams in your organization.

User research teams invest great time and energy into finding and listening to research participants. Communicating the findings with the whole organization is an essential step in building actionable user personas.

For example, let’s say the whole organization is working towards creating and communicating a new feature to users. This new feature is being developed as a result of in-depth user research and the emerging user personas.

Each team develops a strategy for how they’ll manage their responsibilities—the product team, the marketing team, the customer success team, etc. Each team needs to make sure their strategy aligns with the rest of the organization to ensure a smooth, accurate development and deployment of the feature.

User personas help guarantee everyone has the same information on the main customer groups—there’s no room for different interpretations or assumptions. Ensuring teams understand the personas is key for their use cases, which in turn highlight the beneficial business implications of collaborative user research.

Keeping teams on track is key, and multiple personas enable teams to be user-centric throughout the entire UX design process—whether that’s product development or a marketing campaign.

Closing out on user personas

That’s a wrap on chapter one of our Guide to User Personas—you’ve now got a stronger understanding of what makes a great persona.

For more on how exactly you can create personas for your customers, next up we have our nine steps to building personas.

Frequently asked questions about user personas

What is a user persona?

A user persona is a profile that represents a subgroup of your target audience. User personas are based on real-life data and reflect the wants and needs of your target audience.

Why are user personas important?

User personas are important because they help:

  1. Make informed product decisions
  2. Empathize with user experiences and needs
  3. Align different teams

They’re an essential tool for businesses looking to make better, more informed decisions when designing products.

What is the difference between a user and a persona?

The difference between a user and a persona is that a user is a real-life customer, and a persona is a representation of a larger group of potential customers. Your user personas should reflect the wants and needs of your users.

How do you identify personas?

You identify personas through user research such as user interviews, surveys, behavioral analytics, and more. You then create user personas to reflect the real-life wants and needs of your target audience.