The new mobile app was going to be great. The project was finally approved and things were moving ahead. The project stakeholders were assembled for the first of many meetings. The topic: budget and timelines. The funding wasn’t what everyone had hoped for, nor was the schedule, so something had to go. And that’s when it happened–the moment the reason for the app was forgotten. Someone in marketing said, “We did personas for the company re-branding work a few years ago. We’ll just skip the user research and use the same brand personas for the mobile app project to save time and money.” And so, without a UX person or champion for the user at the table, the mobile app project moved ahead with the old reused and recycled brand personas–and the real target audience was left behind.
Personas have come a long way since Alan Cooper introduced them 30 years ago. They have become a widely used way to represent users in marketing, sales, design and development processes. However, this adoption has its ups and down. While UX professionals understand the impact of a decision like recycling an old persona, many others use the same unchanged persona for every projects, for years to come.
When appropriate and used correctly, personas can be extremely powerful, helping create better solutions. Great personas can lead to inspiration, innovation, and a focus on customers. But there are bad personas too: they might be shallow and fluffy, or worse yet–fictional. Imaginary characters or a complete lack of personas are problems teams may face—but another danger is the continued use of one static persona to represent the audience for all projects, again and again, regardless of the design challenge. These everlasting, all-powerful personas can lead teams down the wrong path.
In this article, we’ll outline why one static persona shouldn’t be used for every project, and help you explain to others throughout an organization the benefits of updating or creating new personas when appropriate.
The Benefits of Personas
User-centered design (UCD) puts people before products To create something usable, valuable, and relevant–whether the end product is a mobile app or a piece of content–the creators need to understand the intended users. Personas take knowledge from research and synthesize it in a relatable, tangible way to help teams have a shared understanding of the user and focus efforts on a common goal. Donald Norman simply states two major reasons to use personas: as a communication tool and to establish an empathetic focus. They can be used to:
- Establish a shared understanding of user’s needs and desires.
- Easily and concisely communicate user characteristics.
- Create consensus on audience segments/priorities.
- Bring clarity and focus when making decisions.
- Defend decisions, inform or persuade using knowledge from research.
- Keep audiences top-of-mind throughout the process.
- Humanize the intended user to create a greater sense of empathy.
This article won’t detail how to create the personas, but it is important to identify some of the different types of personas and when they would be used. (For information on personas creation and benefits, check out the links at the end of this piece.)
Persona Types and Nuances
If anything has contributed to negativity regarding the use of personas, it’s confusion surrounding the different types of personas and when to use them. All personas represent people, so they all include fundamental information: gender, age, education, job, industry/company and typical demographics are standard. Goals, motivations, behaviors, challenges, and “day in the life” examples are common, but the level of detail and highlighted items varies. Why? Because each persona type has a different purpose.
Design or user personas: Focus on goals, current behaviors, skills, attributes, pain points, and environment. They use specific details related to a particular design problem and not generalities.
Marketing or brand personas: Represent user types within a targeted demographic that might use a brand, product or service in a similar way. They are more general and used in relation to marketing messages or sales potential. Other variations used in the sales and marketing process may include:
- Buyer personas: Describe buyer types and stages in the buying cycle. These customer profiles have a strong focus on intent and buyer preferences not just tasks. In business-to-business situations, more details about the persona’s professional role and responsibilities along with influencers and additional decision makers may be included.
- Behavioral personas: Built using massive data sets to analyze actual customer behavior and identify patterns. These actionable personas aim to predict how customers will react to something, like a promotion, call-to-action, or feature. They include details to help address specific marketing challenges and opportunities.
Provisional personas: When there is not enough information or only secondary research, provisional personas are what Cooper has termed an “educated best guess” about the user’s needs. When there are no facts to inform the persona creation, there should be no narrative or details, just a few goals and characteristics. It is critical that anyone using them understand that they are not based on data or primary research.
Identifying the best persona type and appropriate details, depends on the project, the challenge or problem to be solved, and what you know about the people you are trying to create a solution for. For example, a high-level general brand persona isn’t going to help a content marketer. A valuable persona for content marketing should include key details about content preferences, formats, how they prefer to access content/using what device, and trusted information sources. Fluffy narratives about Sue’s cat Snickers and her getaway vacation in the islands may make for entertaining reading but won’t help with targeted content creation.
Personas: Not a Once and Done Activity
The ubiquitous nature of personas in the today’s marketing and design world means more companies are likely to have personas. This is great in theory as it puts a focus on the customer, but the reality is that organizations often use the same personas over and over. Too often they are seen as a one-time investment and not updated with new research. Whether to save time or money or simply due to a lack of awareness, this decision undermines the effectiveness of the tool.
The purpose of a persona is to capture a user’s goals, needs, and interests to deliver what is of most valuable and relevant to the audience. A persona is the user’s voice–and listening to that voice is not a once and done activity. When facing resistance to updating personas, or you aren’t certain if it is time to revisit them, consider these reasons to update:
Persona creation is a customized process.
Effective personas must have context and be specific to the design problem. They should be focused on the goals and behaviors specific to the product, service, or brand. A persona from a marketing initiative won’t help the team design a new mobile app.
If the business has changed, the audience has changed.
If business objectives, products or services have evolved or changed, the target audience has as well. Personas should be re-visited anytime there are any significant changes in targeted prospects, the existing customer base or the overall business.
Staying competitive warrants change.
The competitive landscape changes fast, and with it people’s perceptions and behaviors can change. Innovation, new technology and services impact what people want–and expect from companies. For example, what users wanted before the first generation of a mobile app may be radically different now after the competition has produced new and better alternative tools, making people expect more.
New technology creates new use cases.
Personas capture a moment in time and the current technology. While a brand persona may have a longer life, personas for technology products and services may need revising more often. The personas from the website launch three years ago aren’t going to guide you a successful use of augmented or virtual reality.
External factors influence behaviors, attitudes, and trends.
Trends, activities in a region, even different stressors in the world like weather and politics can influence behaviors and results in new behaviors and attitudes. As such, a new product will need new persona research, to update responses to new trends.
Relevancy requires recency.
Using information that may no longer be relevant can lead to an inaccurate understanding of the person and the problem. Relying heavily on an outdated person could lead to solving the wrong problem instead of creating an appropriate solution.
The Value of Personas: Convincing the Organization
While researchers and UX teams often create personas, they don’t own them. Personas should be shared and used across an organization. They contain valuable information for all departments and can help provide a focus on the customer throughout all touchpoints with a company. When introducing various departments to personas, explain the value of this research tool as it applies to their role and work to get them interested and onboard.
These examples illustrate the benefits of personas related to different areas of expertise and roles to help explain the value across an organization:
- C-Suite: Align executives on target audiences
- Marketing: Craft relevant messaging
- Sales: Decide what is “nice to have” versus “need to have”
- Product managers: Identify new features possibilities and priorities
- Copywriters: Tailor website content
- Information architects: Inform wireframe designs
- Designers: Narrow design directions, avoiding bias or self-reference
- Developers: Validate functionality or prioritize bugs
- Researchers: Create testing scenarios
- Customer support: Drive customer feedback initiatives
- Everyone: Pay attention to the customer experience from start to finish!
Champion for the User
Not every project warrants a new persona or extensive revisions to existing ones. Consider the project time, current business situation, goals, audience, and the available information.
Whether an organization creates personas or not, spending time with the target audience and users is going to validate–or challenge–assumptions internally. For times when new or updated personas are the best thing for the project and the target audience, take these two steps to get others on board:
Step 1: Get everyone involved early. Explain the benefits of personas as they relate to them or their work. If they meet the personas early in a project, they are more likely to support the concept and see the value.
Step 2: Keep the personas top of mind. Share them across departments and make sure they are used throughout all project stages–not hidden in a project folder. Make the personas a member of the team–don’t forget about them!.
Updating personas doesn’t have to be time consuming or very expensive. If a persona is outdated and static, it offers little value. If you truly want to engineer a better experience or product, create personas based on real, relevant and recent information to guide your solutions. Personas can be effective design and communication tools—but just like understanding your audience, it’s an ongoing process not a once and done exercise.
- Creating Personas, UX Booth
- Perfecting Your Personas, Kim Goodwin for Cooper
- Personas: The Foundation of A Great User Experience, A UX Magazine Primer on Personas
- Best Practices on Creating Effective Personas, Tips from Salesforce
- Are your personas outdated?, Nielsen Norman Group
UX research - or as it’s sometimes called, design research - informs our work, improves our understanding, and validates our decisions in the design process. In this Complete Beginner's Guide, readers will get a head start on how to use design research techniques in their work, and improve experiences for all users.