What makes for a good set of personas?

Personas ought to be geared toward a specific mindset.

An illustration of polaroid photos depicting different personas speaking about their preferences when listening to the radio.

Personas are a design tool that many dismiss as outdated or useless, but this reputation is undeserved.

It’s easy to see why people think personas are a relic of the past. Most examples that people see are poorly made and based on little research, making them of dubious value. But not all personas are like this.

This article outlines the case for why we need personas, and how to create a set that helps everyone better understand who they’re designing for.

Why do we need personas? 

If you’re creating a product or service, you need a rich picture of your audience, including their needs, attitudes, goals, and behaviours.

Of course, we gain this insight from talking to people in research, but we also need a way to summarise what we know about our audience. We need to think beyond the last ten people we interviewed and have a way to share knowledge of our users with stakeholders.

Personas solve this problem. They’re an artefact used to summarise the most important insights we have about who we’re designing for and generate empathy for these people.

Usually in a set of 3-6, each persona is a fictional character (based on rigorous research and analysis) that represents a different group of people with similar values around the use of a product or service. Once created, personas are a living document and need to evolve over time as research uncovers new insight.

What about segmentation?

The difference between personas and marketing segmentation is a common misunderstanding. Both seek to represent groups of users, but do so for different reasons and in different ways.

As we outline in this article, while segmentation seeks to identify and measure the size of different groups at a high-level, personas are devised to provide a rich understanding of the user context, needs, motivations, behaviour and the associated design challenges or opportunities.

10 characteristics of best-in-class personas

So what do good personas look like? 

1. Based on research. This should go without saying, but personas need to be grounded in insight that’s been gathered in research. Typically this would be at least 20 interviews.

2. Just the right number of them. 3-6 is ideal. If you have too many personas, people won’t want to read them and won’t be able to process the information you’re sharing.

3. Focus on needs, attitudes, goals and behaviours, not demographics or market segments. For example, if we were creating personas for mortgage customers, rather than having a “First time buyer” persona, you might have one called “No-one understands my situation” because this is an important group of people who span all buyer types. The best personas are usually defined by a mindset, rather than conveniently fitting into existing audience groups.

4. Not mutually exclusive. Marketing segmentation takes every person in the population and assigns them to a group. Each is mutually exclusive: you cannot be in both the “retirees” and “full-time employed” segments. Personas are different and recognise that people can have different needs and goals, depending on the situation. For example, a supermarket shopper might be “I just need to grab something and go” one day and “I enjoy spending time discovering new things” another.

5. The most prominent text describes their mindset, not their name. Each persona should have an evocative and memorable name such as “The radio’s always on, but I’m not always listening”, not “Sally”. In fact, some of the best personas don’t mention the fictional character’s name at all.

6. There isn’t too much (or in some cases, any) demographic information to distract from the behavioural content. Most of the time, this information is irrelevant filler that has little consequence on how we design for people who are represented by each persona.

7. Easy to understand. You should be able to read a persona for 10 seconds and get the gist. To do this, they should:

8. If the personas represent a wide audience of different roles, they show examples of ‘people like me’ to demonstrate how they can be applied in multiple contexts and to multiple types of people.

9. Represent the wide range of people in the population: their age, race, abilities and other characteristics. This is especially relevant when choosing a photo or illustration for each persona. Think carefully about how an image might bias someone’s understanding of a persona.

10. Actionable. The best personas end with a “Designing for me” section that summarises how to meet their needs, with statements such as “Connect me with similar people who could help me” or “Show me what I need to do to progress”.

Creating new personas is a time-intensive exercise that requires a deep understanding of an audience, underpinned by research. When done properly, they can be a valuable tool for any organisation and ensure that customers are represented throughout the design process.

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