User Personas: What Are They and Why They Matter in UX Design
This post was last updated on October 11, 2021.
Empathy is an essential aspect of daily life. It promotes social connection, deeper understanding of others and compassion for those around us. When we appreciate how others may be thinking or feeling, we’re more responsive to their needs.
The same holds true in app or website design, and this is precisely how user personas push the boundaries of user experience (UX) and functionality. Collecting authentic and meaningful data to understand your target audience will lead the way throughout a design project and help you make more accurate decisions.
Here, we’ll go in-depth to understand what exactly a user persona is, what makes it a valuable UX design tool, how to create personas of your own and persona examples.
What is a user persona?
A user persona is a fictional character that represents your target audience. Although a user persona is not a real person, it’s based on data and facts obtained through real-life interviews, surveys and other forms of user research.
The purpose of personas is to gather your findings and use them to define a realistic character that is likely to use your product. By personifying users, it helps to visualize them as real people. As such, you can relate to their limitations, struggles, successes and goals, ultimately enabling you to create a personalized user experience optimized for their needs.
This information is normally displayed in a visual document, so that it can comfortably serve as a reference point throughout the design process. Generally, a user persona document will include an image of the person, quotes and details about any behavioral patterns—all in relation to your product.
What user personas are not
Now that we've defined what a user persona is, it's helpful to clarify the following things it isn’t.
User personas which aim to build new experiences are not the same as buyer personas or marketing personas, which focus more on market segmentation to find new customers. While some data from these other personas may influence user personas, they are separate entities which serve a different purpose.
Personas are not projected visions of what you hope a target audience thinks. Effective personas are based on real data and concrete research, not fiction.
Personas are not representative of all audiences or all the needs of a specific product. Instead, personas pinpoint the most important audiences.
User personas are not fixed or permanent. Like your product, website or app, which has many iterations, remember to keep your personas relevant and up-to-date. Be sure to periodically review and update user personas in tandem with product updates.
Benefits of user personas
Know your audience better
The procedure of crafting personas will help you get to know your audience, and ultimately improve your user experience. You’ll be able to identify key issues, such as your users’ needs, goals and pain points. Ultimately, this will result in a better tailored user experience, making your product more valuable and enticing for your audience.
Make informed decisions
You’ll also be able to make smarter and more informed decisions regarding your product. For example, which features could benefit your users, what type of logo they’ll respond to better, or how to word your microcopy in a way that will speak to them.
Add a human touch
Creating a user persona can add a human touch to the potentially cold or distant process of data-collection. It helps us bring the research to life through a character we can resonate with and understand their needs and expectations. In essence, personas provide a deeper understanding of why you’re interested in your audience, and why they’re interested in you.
Improve the accuracy of your product
The more in depth and detailed your user personas are, the easier it will be to not only understand the needs of your users, but satisfy them.
Design a better flow
TL;DR: better flow = better business. Since a user persona symbolizes behavior patterns, you can anticipate these actions to streamline the way a user interacts with your website or product. For example, think about something as simple as login processes. By understanding your users “login intent” (their willingness to sign up), you can optimize this experience for them from the start. If your user is presented with the option to create a new login, or the alternative to use their already existing Google or Facebook account to log in, which will improve their experience?
If you have clear data that indicates your user is a social and somewhat tech-savvy person, it’s likely that they’ll opt for the existing log in to speed up the process. The less amount of time your users spend on the login page, the better. This enables them to interact with your product faster.
Personas enable you to speak more effectively to your customers in a language that resonates with them. More specifically, personas offer high level assurance that you’re communicating with your desired audience through the right channels, symbols or mediums.
From developers and designers to copywriters—having well-defined personas ensure that everyone is on the same page. What’s more, your personas must be agreed upon by the entire team that will work with them. This will lead to cross-team collaboration, informed decisions and thoughtful design to optimize the look and feel of your product or website.
This comes with one small caveat. Depending on the scope of the project, there may not always be one overarching archetype that can be used for every context. For example, consider a large company that may use several personas within a broad scheme, but may need to narrow down for a singular product within their offering. Understanding the scope of the project will lead to better and more effective user personas.
Create a user centered design
Ultimately, the goal is to design experiences that are tailored to your users. According to Aurora Harley, senior user experience specialist with Nielsen Norman Group, personas make users memorable for product team members. She explains, “Framing a statement around a specific persona breaks the listeners out of self-referential thinking and removes the speaker’s reliance on opinions, shifting the discussion away from personal judgments toward that particular persona’s needs. Once the team can easily picture the same set of users, it can create better designs for them.”
How to create a persona
Whether you’re working independently or as part of a dedicated product team, these are the six steps of creating a user persona:
01. Conduct qualitative and quantitative user research
Start off by collecting data about your users (or potential users). This can be done in a number of ways, using both qualitative and quantitative research methods. Figure out which research methods will be most realistic and beneficial to your project.
Ideally, you should strive to implement a mix of both approaches for a more balanced and accurate result. However, this will depend on a few factors: your resources, how much time you have and which stage you’re at with your product.
Examples of quantitative research:
Online surveys: This is a simple and accessible way of doing user research, especially if you’re working on your own and don’t have the resources a larger company may have. You can use basic tools like Google Forms, or online form builders, sharing your survey in relevant groups on social media. These surveys can include both multiple choice questions and open-ended questions. It’s recommended to include your most important question near the top, increasing the likelihood of getting a full and well-thought-out response. Often, the most important question will ask users what their biggest challenge is in relation to your product. Responses to this question will give you deeper insights into your users, providing invaluable information to use throughout the project.
Web analytics: Analyze certain factors such as the number of visits to a page, time spent on site and the path visitors take before converting to users. There’s different software available for extracting this kind of data, like Wix Analytics. This data will help you gain deeper insights into user behavior.
Examples of qualitative research methods:
User interviews: These give you the chance to ask questions and receive in-depth information about an individual’s experiences with your product.
Focus groups: A type of group interview, where a small group of participants from your target audience discuss their feedback.
Contextual interviews: These offer a chance to observe someone using your product in their own environment, without asking pre-planned questions or giving them specific tasks. You can also observe how they interact with other competitor products.
Usability tests: There are different methods, but these are generally one-on-one sessions that involve observing a user’s experience with your product (or a prototype), and identifying their frustrations and challenges.
02. Organize your research
When it comes to mapping out your findings, all the different bits of information might get overwhelming. However, you’ll probably get a feel for your audience and gather helpful insights into user behavior through your research.
At this point, the idea is to collect and condense your data into solid analysis. You’ll want to observe the differences between each user and identify recurring themes, behavior and characteristics. This process will vary depending on the type of research you performed.
For quantitative research, you can visualize your findings with graphs. These will give you a clear indication of trends that you can incorporate into your user persona(s).
With qualitative research, there are a number of options. While there are helpful UX design inspiration and tools available online, sometimes a simple method for visualizing data is to use Post-it notes. You can transfer quotes by users onto notes, then group together similar or repetitive themes. For example, perhaps a number of users brought up the same pain-point, concern or goal. Placing these together will shed light on trends, thus gauging an understanding of your audience.
If you have more written responses from your survey or interview, you can gather all the text together, then copy and paste it into a word frequency counter (you’ll find many options for this tool online). This method will give you further insights into your audience by showing you what kind of language they use, whether it implies specific interests and hobbies, or demographics like age and background.
03. Decide on a number of personas
At this stage, you’ll have formed a better understanding of your audience and main user groups. The next step is to identify which user groups are the most important, and focus on them throughout the development of your product. Ideally, you should have between one and four groups.
For each main group, you’ll be creating one user persona. Make sure there’s a clear distinction between the groups and that you’ve clearly defined each one. You can categorize them according to age and technical ability, for example, or according to distinct motivations for using your product that should be separated into individual user groups.
A good practice if you have more than one persona is to categorize them into primary and secondary personas:
Primary personas are the most relevant and refer to the users that actually interact with your product—they are the focal point, and the decision makers.
Secondary personas are the users that may have additional needs. These personas may require adjustments to the product or service, without interfering with the experiences of the primary personas. This could refer to users that have visual impairments, so consider how to make a website accessible to ensure an inclusive experience.
04. Describe your personas
Now that you’ve gathered all your findings, it’s time to narrow it down into a specific persona (or personas). Use your research to define a few key details about your character, all the time remembering to relate it back to your product or service—whether it be an app, website or any other digital product.
Of course, there are numerous ways to structure your findings. However, you should include the following elements in order to cover all the action items needed:
Name: Create a fictitious name to make your persona feel more realistic. Words like users, buyers or customers lack depth or personality, so by using actual names it highlights the individual qualities of each persona.
Image: This can be a digital illustration of a person, or a photo from one of the many royalty free image resources. Having a particular character in mind can help you empathize and imagine them in various scenarios related to your product.
Demographics and dry details: This should include age, family status, job, location, education, background and technological capabilities. As opposed to the name and image, these should all be based on your research.
Psychographics: These include goals, pain points, behaviors and opinions. Pinpointing these details will encourage you to take a closer look at your persona and help you understand their motivations. What moves them to take certain actions, and why would they decide to use your product? This can also include looking at competitor brands that users interact with. To illustrate, for an apartment searching app, a possible goal that could arise is to spend less time physically visiting apartments. Another pain point for the same app could be that in real life, the apartments don’t match the photographs and descriptions that appear online.
Summarizing quote: This should be a concise sentence that sums up the one thing your user persona needs the most with regard to your app or website. Although it’s made up, base the quote on your research, and imagine what your persona would say if they were a real person. Continuing with the example of an apartment searching app, a quote could be something along the lines of, “I want to find a new apartment in the most efficient, stress-free way possible.”
05. Visualize your user personas
Now it’s time to design your user persona document. Ideally, a user persona will serve as a reference point throughout the whole design process, accompanying you and your team when making decisions about your product and helping you get through any creative blocks.
Making your user persona visually appealing—with clear points and an eye-catching design will encourage your colleagues to work according to it. After all, whether you’re collaborating with developers, copywriters, UX illustrators or web designers, the extensive research you carried out will serve as an invaluable tool for them, too.
You may also decide to include your persona in the case studies section of your UX portfolio, another reason why you should pay attention to its design.
If you’re creating a few user personas, make sure to keep them consistent in terms of the design. You can play around with different color palettes and layouts, but the overall look should be cohesive. To cut down on text and form a more approachable design, consider incorporating infographics or icons from a free online icon pack.
Pro tip: Pay attention to hierarchy, emphasizing the most crucial bits of information, so that it will be possible to grasp the essence of the persona with just a quick glance of your design portfolio.
06. Integrate user personas
It’s time to bring your personas to life. Keeping your personas in the forefront of your decision-making will lead to better outcomes. This is true across the board—from stakeholders to designers, who must all agree upon and respect the user personas.
Remember that as your site, app, software or product evolves, you must keep your personas fresh and up-to-date. This can also mean adding new personas, eliminating existing ones, or making small adjustments accordingly.
User persona examples
In order to successfully satisfy your users’ needs, it is essential to identify both the users, and their needs separately. To quote Alan Cooper, software designer and programmer who founded the concept of goal-directed design, “Personas are the single most powerful design tool that we use. They are the foundation for all subsequent goal-directed design. Personas allow us to see the scope and nature of the design problem.”
With this in mind, let’s explore some hypothetical user persona examples, and how they impact design and user experience.
First, let’s imagine that you have a medium-sized bike rental service that offers a range of leisure city bikes, road bikes and adventure touring bikes. You want to create a website that is compatible for the type of users that you’re directing your services to.
After you’ve conducted research and analyzed the competitive landscape, you understand that your target audience can be represented using the following personas:
Benji is a 35-year-old broadband technician for a large telecommunications company in Seattle, Washington. Benji is single, he enjoys spending time outdoors, loves extreme sports, leads a health conscious lifestyle and already has experience with a variety of online rental services.
Benji is looking for a quick and efficient experience that can give him a range of information. He wants to know what type of bikes and pedals are available in his area, including the sizes and the prices of each. Based on Benji’s previous online experiences, it’s clear he is knowledgeable but curious. He researches the competition to make informed buying decisions. He enjoys extra details, such as suggested map routes with a range of difficulty levels.
Benji’s goal is to rent a bike quickly and make the most out of his experience.
Melanie is a 47-year-old married mother of two, who lives in Bellevue, Seattle. She works as an HR director for a chain of supermarkets. Melanie is a slight technophobe who doesn’t trust easily. She appreciates reading customer reviews and is cautious with her online purchases.
Melanie is looking for a family-friendly bike ride as a weekend activity that’s inclusive and not dangerous. Her priority is to find reliable bikes that are safe, and a price point that isn’t cheap, but still affordable. She’s interested in helmets, bike sizes, add-on bike seats, protection, insurance and overall knowledge about the experience with her kids.
Based on her online behavior, Melanie wants to know if her kids will need any extra training, and if so, is it offered? She is also curious about the cancellation process, payment procedures and last-minute rentals. Melanie pays attention to details and fine print, if she sees a spelling mistake on a website, this is a bad sign for her.
Melanie’s goal is to find a trustworthy bike experience for her family in one convenient place.
Using these personas together
Based on these two personas, the idea is to gather all the necessary information to create a flow that is accurate to both their needs: What user experience and design steps can be taken to make their online activity easy and satisfying? How can you ensure that these two personas can co-exist within your site?
By understanding their motivations, limitations and goals, you’ll reach your own website goals (in this case, converting website visitors, so they purchase bike rentals) in a way that is mutually beneficial.
By Dana Meir
Design Expert & Writer
By Kylie Goldstein
Branding Expert and Marketing Blogger