Personas: A Classic User Experience Design Technique

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What are personas?

Personas are a classic technique employed by user experience designers for describing important user groups by creating fictional representations of them. As a general guide, two to seven personas are enough for most situations, with most projects requiring four or five.

Personas typically include characteristics such as demographic information, educational or professional background and experience, technical proficiency, motivations, and needs or tasks to be achieved. They often include a name and a photo to make them more memorable and vivid.

There are many templates and styles for personas for different services and products. Here’s an example shared recently by Rebecca Blakiston, User Experience Strategist at the University of Arizona.

Photo of a student with text describing student's goals, behaviors, and constraints.

Why should libraries use personas?

Using personas helps build empathy toward the target user while we’re in the design process. They help us avoid designing for ourselves by acting as a reminder of who we’re targeting with our services and systems. In creating personas around distinctive types of users, library designer teams can also avoid one-size-fits-all products that don’t suit any group particularly well. Used well and integrated into conversations, personas can also act as shorthand between design team members when referring to the needs and perspective of a kind of user.

Let’s consider an example.

In our library design projects, we often talk about our audience as faculty, staff, graduate students, and undergraduates. Creating personas around these groups can help us tease apart which paths through our services and systems are more likely for different groups and help us frame experiences differently based on user expectations. This might help us decide ways that library services or systems need more focus on beginners or advanced users, which might affect how we use language or how we present help options or features.

Without considering each target user group individually, we run the risk of flattening the experience to an average, idealized path that doesn’t really represent the path of anyone in specific. Personas are one way to prevent that.

How to create a persona

The basic steps for creating personas are:

  1. Gather data - While personas may be fictional, good personas aren’t just made up from what you think you know. You need to gather data. Research techniques include interviews, focus groups, user testing or other observational techniques, surveys, chat transcripts, web analytics data, and more. Anywhere you can learn something about the people who use your service or system is fair game.
  2. Look for attributes and themes – When you have your data, review it for themes. Are there a lot of new users or power users or both? Are there common tasks or needs or frustrations? Are there groups with limited access to technology or with access to cutting-edge technology? Anything that stands out, note it as a theme.
  3. Organize the themes into groups - Group the attributes and themes into clusters to begin forming characters. What groups of users emerge? Do some themes seem to connect with each other? Note, personas can be created around roles, tasks, group affiliation, or other factors that make a describable identity.
  4. Create realistic narratives for each - Personas are typically composites of several user characters. Use the details you’ve gathered to write descriptions of each persona. Pay special attention to these characters’ needs. Add names and photos if you’d like.

When creating your personas, watch out for:

  • Flat personas - Though good personas are based on research, they are not meant to be merely demographic profiles or summaries of data. Personas help humanize this kind of data and make it easier to take in and to remember. Be sure to give your personas realistic narratives that offer a view of their day-to-day needs, as well as their skills, attitudes, environment, and goals.  
  • Overloaded personas - Personas shouldn’t represent every need of every user, but instead focus on major needs of important user groups while still being realistic. This is why you should create a range of personas – to represent key differences between users in order to balance overall needs while looking for ways to serve different groups differently.
  • Fake personas – Personas created from our general assumptions, without user research, may not add value during the design process. For example, I may think I know typical undergraduate search behavior, but I may not understand their deeper motivations, life circumstances, or challenges that interact with their behaviors. Because people react differently under pressure and with distractions, a strong persona includes unique factors (such as family or financial situation, disabilities, technology constraints or even experience level) that influence their behavior. Including these kinds of authentic details, identified through interviews and surveys, helps us better understand real users.

Note: This is part 1 of a 2-part series on personas. In the next post, I’ll delve into how we’re creating personas for the U-M Library website redesign project.