Following my last article on the effectiveness of data dashboards to convey complex data on the web, this month I look at the ‘Persona’, a useful behind-the-scenes deliverable which works equally hard to ensure complex user data is both, simple to refer to and absorb. 


So what exactly is a user persona?

In short, a persona is a descriptive portrayal of a key user-type used in user-centric projects. Personas are usually developed on a project-by-project basis and illustrate concisely the user’s mindset, attitudes and behavioural traits in relation to a specific project. Personas are then communicated and summarized to the whole project team and stakeholders, usually through the creation of a one-page summary document. During an average project, 4-6 user personas will be created to provide tangible user perspectives that are referred to, effectively acting as a ‘user stand in (proxy)’, whenever the success of project deliverables is assessed.


Are personas really necessary? 

A reasonable question, especially where budget is limited and considering that the user will never see the personas developed. 

The answer… it depends on the project. The positive effects that UX design brings to a project are unambiguous. Today’s business community has, beyond doubt, a crystal clear understanding of the benefit and potential that a good, frustration-free user experience has on brand reputation, awareness and sales. Moreover, users themselves are steadily becoming UX aware, their expectations are rising exponentially, and their willingness to tolerate poor or inadequate experiences is rapidly diminishing.

So if the project brief mentions considering or providing an increased user experience or user-centric design methodology delivered through brand awareness, user contact and interaction the answer should be an emphatic YES. How else can users needs, want and goals be established? What functionality and features will users engage with? How should features be priortised? Will planned features be used?.. or will they turn into edge-cases where valuable budgetary resource is depleted for the satisfaction of only a fraction of users?

Additionally, in instances where essential user testing is unaffordable, the persona provides a user proxy with which task-based scenario can be tested. Furthermore, personas can be similarly used in post-live, iterative, development testing.

And, if that wasn’t enough, personas keep the user at the heart of the project and prevent the development team from losing focus. As professionals, the average development team will strive to keep their biases and excitement to incorporate the latest design trends or coding solutions in check. They will use their knowledge and experience to make decisions that they believe are right for the user, but the only truly effective way to eliminate personal opinions and presuppositions and get to the core of users needs and expectations is by developing personas. Once established and accepted, personas prevent team-vs-team and team-vs-stakeholder conflict and mediate user goal-based discussions leading to a more efficient development timeline.


Hang on, I heard personas didn’t work

It’s true that in the past a number of prominent members of the design community have voiced concerns and labeled personas as useless and unnecessary. On face value their arguments seem compelling but the issues raised to undermine the credibility of personas are in-part based around poorly conceived, inferior persona examples, a lack of understanding towards persona application and use, and confusion between different persona types (marketing vs design).

To date, I am aware of two scientific academic studies that have been undertaken to establish the effectiveness of persona use. The first study was in 2008 by Christopher N. Chapman and the second in 2009 by Frank Long. Unfortunately both studies were quite small with limited numbers, but importantly in both cases it was determined that the use of personas in the design process resulted in better performing products.

In recent years, with the growth and acceptance of UX design, personas have become more widely accepted. In particular, a growing body of peer-reviewed studies by Jeff Patton, David Hussman, Kim Goodwin and Don Norman has produced evidence that clearly points to the overwhelmingly positive UX gains that can be achieved through persona use.


So are personas new?

Although the concept of customer segmentation was developed by Angus Jenkinson in the early 90’s, it was Alan Cooper in 1995 who began to apply a goal-directed design methodology that included a concept of ‘user persona’ which later went on to be popularised in his 1998 book ‘The Inmates Are Running the Asylum’.


How do personas work?

In practice, it’s easy to see the appeal of user personas when faced with the alternative of pouring over cold, hard, abstract data from hundreds or even thousands of researched users.

The persona represents the users voice… their needs, wants and expectations. Through the application of scenarios, based on task maps and storytelling born out of the research, the persona is given context within to reside. This leads to greater understanding, which aids the project team in prioritising, validating or disproving deliverables such as the information architecture, content strategy, design decisions and functionality.

Persona scenario 890 3
In essence personas, used in conjunction with business goals and good design principles, help the whole project team to work in a more mindful way that keeps the user at the centre of everything conceived, designed and produced.


In the concluding, part 2, of this series of articles examining user personas we delve into how personas are constructed and what they look like.


References and further reading

Blog Articles

Persona Research studies

Slideshow presentations


The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Alan Cooper

About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design, Alan Cooper

Designing for the Digital Age: How to Create Human-Centered Products and Services, Kim Goodwin

The Essential Persona Lifecycle: Your Guide to Building and Using Personas, Tamara Adlin and John Pruitt

The User Is Always Right: A Practical Guide to Creating and Using Personas for the Web, Steve Mulder