User Persona

The Basic Idea

Sarah Thompson, the Fitness Enthusiast

Background:

  • Age: 28
  • Occupation: Marketing Specialist
  • Location: Urban area, Chicago
  • Marital Status: Single

Demographics: Sarah holds a Bachelor's degree in Marketing and is currently working in a fast-paced marketing agency in downtown Chicago.

Goals and Motivations: Sarah is passionate about maintaining a healthy lifestyle and staying fit. She enjoys a variety of workout routines, including gym sessions, outdoor running, and attending fitness classes.

Challenges: Balancing a demanding job and a social life often leaves Sarah with limited time for her fitness routine.

Preferences: Sarah is tech-savvy and relies heavily on her smartphone for managing her schedule, communication, and entertainment. 

How to Reach Sarah: Mobile Apps: She appreciates apps and tools that provide personalized workout plans, nutrition advice, and motivation. She values being able to connect with like-minded individuals.

With all this information, you may think that Sarah is a real person. She sounds pretty convincing and could be someone you met at your local gym, café, or park. However, in this case, she’s actually a carefully crafted user persona. 

User personas are fictional characters who represent the different types of users who might engage with a service, product, or brand. These detailed profiles are not descriptions of real people but are created using rigorous research and data about target audiences. 

The ultimate goal of a user persona is to make large amounts of user research data easily digestible, more memorable, and actionable. It’s believed that if designers can empathize and connect with the fictitious person, it will be easier to design products for them.  

By creating user personas before the design and development process, designers can gain insight into what’s important for potential users and what they need and expect from a product or service. 

As you can see from Sarah’s example, user personas go beyond basic demographic information; they start unpacking the daily routines, preferences, behaviors and motivations of the target audience members. Based on her profile, Sarah could be a potential customer for an upcoming fitness planning and motivation app or a new sports nutrition drink.

User personas are currently used in a variety of fields and industries such as user experience (UX) design, design thinking, product development, marketing and advertising, content creation, software development, EdTech, and healthcare. According to Lene Nielsen, a Danish professor specializing in personas, there are four types of personas, each with a different perspective:1

  1. Goal-directed personas: This persona focuses primarily on what a typical user wants to do with a product. It is used to examine the preferred process and workflow of a user to achieve their goals with a product or service. 
  2. Role-based personas: this persona is also goal-directed and focuses on the user’s role in an organization and their wider life. 
  3. Engaging personas: These personas examine the emotions, psychology, and background of the user and are designed to be more multi-dimensional for the designers who work with them. 
  4. Fictional personas: rather than emerging from user research, these personas are developed from the experience of the UX design team and are based on past interactions with the user base. 

 In UX design, user personas are categorized slightly differently as proto personas (based on existing assumptions, not research), qualitative personas (based on small-sample qualitative research), and statistical personas (where personas emerge from statistical analysis of large sample size surveys).2

Personas don’t represent users. They represent users’ goals. If you can’t reduce the number of goals of your user community down to very few, you don’t understand your users, your product, your business, or interaction design.


— Alan Cooper

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Key Terms

User experience (UX): refers to the overall impression and satisfaction a person has when interacting with a product, service, or system, encompassing aspects such as usability, accessibility, and emotional response.

Demographics: statistical data relating to the population and particular groups within it, often including age, gender, income, education, and location.

Target audience: the specific group of people that a product, service, or content is designed for. Often characterized by shared demographics, interests, or needs.

Human-centred design: a problem-solving approach that prioritizes understanding and empathizing with end-users to effectively meet their needs and enhance the overall user experience.

Persona spectrum: an approach to developing user personas that goes beyond the notion of a single, static persona, and instead recognizes the dynamic nature of users’ characteristics, motivations, and contexts.  

History

To understand the origins of user personas, we have to go back to the mid-20th century and look at what was happening in the world of marketing and advertising. Recognizing that a one-size-fits-all approach wasn’t effective in selling products, marketers began segmenting their target audience based on demographics such as age, gender, income, race, ethnicity, and location in an attempt to tailor their advertising messages to specific groups.3

In particular, there was a shift away from solely advertising to the white consumer, with agencies starting to acknowledge diversity. These companies would expand their efforts to the rest of the population, creating a wider market for the purpose of increasing profit.4 

However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the term ‘persona’ was introduced to the design community through the work of software designer and programmer, Alan Cooper. 

The name of Cooper’s first user persona was Kathy.5 At the time, Cooper was writing a critical-path project management program, and during the early stages of the project, he decided to informally interview a few colleagues who were likely to use it. Kathy (named after one of the women he spoke with at length) was the culmination of all his user interviews and helped Cooper to decide on the most important functions of his program and the design features that would appeal most to potential users.6 

Following Kathy’s spontaneous arrival, user personas were widely adopted in UX and product design. Cooper further popularized the use of user personas with his influential book The Inmates are Running the Asylum,7 published in 1999. 
Cooper emphasizes the importance of understanding users’ goals and behaviors to create user-centered designs and points to user personas as a way of achieving this objective. User personas are part of Cooper’s larger concept of ‘goal-directed design’ which is an approach to software development that emphasizes the needs and goals of users.8

The user persona creation process has shifted from focusing solely on broad demographics to achieving a more nuanced, detailed, and empathic understanding of users. Today, we focus on continuous refinement based on real user data and feedback, with teams regularly updating and validating personas as projects progress. This approach can be seen in methodologies such as Agile Development, an iterative software management methodology created in 2001 that emphasizes collaboration within teams, regular interaction with customers, and flexibility in the face of design challenges.  

People

Alan Cooper

American software designer and programmer who pioneered the use of personas as practical interaction design tools. He has authored several influential books on interaction design and digital products including The Inmates are Running the Asylum (1999).

Consequences

User personas have become an important component of human-centered design and are an essential tool for ensuring that products and services resonate with their intended audiences. Rather than developing products and services based on the preferences of the design team, user personas help to ensure that the final offering is tailored to the needs, wants, and requirements of the people who will actually use it. 

The first empirical study to look at the benefits of using personas was conducted in 2011 by Tomasz Miaskiewicz and Kenneth Kozar.9 The authors found that personas enhanced decision-making within the design process, most notably by enabling designers to focus on users’ needs and motivations rather than the capability of available technology. At the same time, personas were also used to determine if the right problems were being solved, help prioritize target audiences, challenge assumptions about users, and prevent self-referential design.  

The use and development of user personas has also had a positive impact on inclusion, diversity, and accessibility within product design. As we saw earlier, advertising and marketing have historically overlooked minority groups. A recent development in the field of user personas is the introduction of the persona spectrum, a revolutionary approach that recognizes diversity among user bases and encourages designers to make their products and services as inclusive as possible.10 

Rather than developing a single, static persona based on discrete categories, the persona spectrum acknowledges that users exist on a continuum. This results in inclusive design solutions that cater to a wide range of users. Airbnb, for example, incorporates inclusive design in its app by providing features such as font size customization, color contrast options, and screen reader compatibility so that individuals with visual impairments can use the app. 

Controversies

When designed well, a user persona is an invaluable tool for decision-making during the design process. However, problems arise when the creation of personas is flawed. Simply going through the motions, following what worked in the past, and not questioning the usefulness of the data, can all lead to poorly crafted user personas. In an attempt to move the design processes forward quickly, personas can become simplified and overgeneralized to the point where they lose relevance. 
One of the biggest pitfalls of user personas is the potential for cognitive bias to subtly influence how they are created, leading to skewed representations and stereotypes. Confirmation bias, for example, can negatively impact user persona development. It leads us to notice, seek, and give greater weight to evidence or information that fits with our existing beliefs and to disregard contradicting data. 

Consider a designer creating a user persona for a health and wellness app. Based on their own experiences and what they already believe, they may assume that the app’s primary user base will be young people aged between 18-35 years, and mostly women. When looking at the research, the designer is drawn to data that confirms their belief, disregarding the significant number of retired people also using health and wellness apps. As a result, the designer develops a skewed user persona that overlooks a significant segment of the user base. To avoid this happening, and to achieve truly user-centric products, designers must acknowledge and mitigate cognitive bias early on. 

Within the UX community, an ongoing debate rages about the continued usefulness of user personas. Some argue that the field should stop using user personas altogether (because of their inherent biases and assumptions) and that designers should focus on interviews with actual people.11 Others agree that user personas can be poorly crafted, but still believe that they are useful when done correctly.12

Personas and patients

Personas are making their way into healthcare contexts where they can support the development of digital tools and interventions, and enhance the effective use of medical data. Personas are now used for developing a range of eHealth interventions, including stress management apps for cancer survivors and interventions for binge eating and weight management.15  

A study by Jae-Tung Kwon et al.16 looked at how personas can be used to support clinicians’ use of patient-reported outcome measures (PROMs) in their practice. PROMs are standardized, self-report questionnaires that enable patients to report on aspects of their physical, emotional, and social well-being and are commonly integrated into health information technologies and digital health systems. However, one of the challenges of using PROMs is understanding how responses relate to patient stories to effectively identify and address the needs of individual patients.  

The authors conducted online workshops with eight older adults to co-develop personas that reflected their collective experiences at different stages of their cancer treatment. Following the workshops, four personas were developed to help clinicians link PROM responses to patients’ life stories. These personas were then applied to four practice scenarios, mimicking a real-life interaction between a clinician and each persona. 

The authors found that personas can help healthcare providers illustrate patients’ life stories and contextualize quantitative PROMs data. More specifically, they believe that personas can help clinicians utilize PROMs data as a way to initiate conversations with patients to better understand their unique life situations. 

Personas in Educational Technology

For educators, one of the most important tasks is understanding the needs and motivations of their learners so that they can develop engaging courses. This is especially true in the case of EdTech, where designing enticing and relevant products and services is key to success in an increasingly competitive marketplace. User persons help EdTech providers identify the unique challenges faced by educators and think about how technology can best support teaching, leading, and learning in both online and offline classrooms. 

Tra Huynh et al., approached the development of personas in education from a phenomenological perspective by exploring rich details of a small group’s experiences.13 

Their resulting personas were applied to a design problem with a faculty professional development website and issues engaging diverse undergraduate students in research. The authors found that the personas were effective in addressing educational design issues and enhancing evidence-based reform. 

User personas are not only important for designing EdTech products, but for marketing them as well. In 2017, for example, the University of Edinburgh produced a set of five online learning personas for marketing their online master’s portfolio.14 A quick Google search of ‘personas in EdTech’ will provide you with countless pre-prepared user personas specially developed for education purposes. It’s not simply enough to know who you’re designing a product for; it’s also necessary to know how to communicate with your user base to ensure that they will want to engage with your product.

Related TDL Content

This is Personal: The Do’s and Don’ts of Personalization in Tech

User personas may be an effective tool for understanding potential users, but what happens when the personalization of digital products and services goes too far? Preeti Kotamarthi explores the complex world of personalization in tech through the lens of her own experience trying to out-smart Netflix’s recommendation algorithm and offers some useful ideas about how to make personalization actually work for users. 

Human-Centred Design and Behavioral Science: Chris Larkin

Join Chris Larkin, senior director of impact at IDEO.org, to learn more about human-centred design and its applications in this episode of The Decision Corner podcast. She discusses a range of topics, including mental strategies for organizational behavior, process vs. product, and the surprising ways that design experience manifests itself in a team context. 

References

  1. Nielsen, L. (n.d.). 30. Personas. The Interaction Design Foundation. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/book/the-encyclopedia-of-human-computer-interaction-2nd-ed/personas#heading_Four_different_perspectives_page_12414
  2. Laubheimer, P. (2020, 21 June). 3 Persona Types: Lightweight, Qualitative, and Statistical. Nielsen Norman Group. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/persona-types/
  3. Mascola Group. (n.d.). History of Advertising: 1950s. Mascola Group Blog. https://mascola.com/blog/history-of-advertising-1950s/
  4. Chen, J. (n.d.). Marketing to Minorities: Expansion and Development (1950s-1990s). Duke University Libraries Exhibits. https://exhibits.library.duke.edu/exhibits/show/marketing-research-for-people-/marketing-research-timeline
  5. Cooper, A. (2020, 4 February). The Long Road to Inventing Design Personas. Medium. https://onezero.medium.com/in-1983-i-created-secret-weapons-for-interactive-design-d154eb8cfd58
  6. Delve.ai. (n.d.). The history of buyer personas. Delve.ai. https://www.delve.ai/blog/the-history-of-buyer-personas#:~:text=1985%3A%20Alan%20Cooper%20creates%20the,his%20designs%20more%20user%20friendly.
  7. Cooper, A. (1999). The Inmates are Running the Asylum. Sams Publishing. 
  8. GCD Tech. (2014, 11 February). Goal directed design. GCD Tech. https://gcdtech.com/resources/blog/goal-directed-design/
  9. Miaskiewicz, T., & Kozar, K. A. (2011). Personas and user-centered design: How can personas benefit product design processes? Design Studies, 32(5), 417-430. 
  10. Rawat, D. (2023, 5 June). Unlocking Design Potential: Embracing the Persona Spectrum for Inclusive User Experiences. Medium. https://dinesh-rawat.medium.com/unlocking-design-potential-embracing-the-persona-spectrum-for-inclusive-user-experiences-e904574ec323
  11. Kernaghan, C. (2022, 15 December). Stop using user personas, and start talking to people. UX Collective.https://uxdesign.cc/stop-using-user-personas-and-start-talking-to-people-ba996f1a6a2
  12. Brummer, C. (2021, 31 August). Rethinking User Personas. UX Booth. https://uxbooth.com/articles/rethinking-user-personas/
  13. Huynh, T., Madsen, A., McKagan, S., & Sayre, E. (2021). Building personas from phenomenology: a method for user-centered design in education. Information and Learning Sciences, 122(11/12), 689-708. 
  14. Smash Consulting. (2017). University of Edinburgh Online Learning Personas. https://ugc.futurelearn.com/uploads/files/6c/77/6c777951-c3a2-4dd4-b540-b8941e03948d/Online_learner_personas_final.pdf
  15. Bartels, S. L. et al. (2023). Using Personas in the development of eHealth interventions for chronic pain: A scoping review and narrative synthesis. Internet Interventions, 32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.invent.2023.100619
  16. Kwon, J-Y. et al. (2023). Seeing the person before the numbers: Personas for understanding patients’ life stories when using patient-reported outcomes measures in practice settings. International Journal of Medical Informatics, 172. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijmedinf.2023.105016

About the Author

Dr. Lauren Braithwaite

Dr. Lauren Braithwaite is a Social and Behaviour Change Design and Partnerships consultant working in the international development sector. Lauren has worked with education programmes in Afghanistan, Australia, Mexico, and Rwanda, and from 2017–2019 she was Artistic Director of the Afghan Women’s Orchestra. Lauren earned her PhD in Education and MSc in Musicology from the University of Oxford, and her BA in Music from the University of Cambridge. When she’s not putting pen to paper, Lauren enjoys running marathons and spending time with her two dogs.

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