Currently, the market is filled with digital products, including web and mobile applications. Yet somehow, according to statistics, 90% of new startups fail. Some of the main reasons are lack of market need and no interest from users, which may indicate some apps were built upon wrong assumptions of their founders. The top rule when creating a new digital product should be then to understand that you (as a creator) are not your user, and the key to success is to understand your audience, and then meet their needs. User personas are a great tool to achieve that.

What is a user persona?

A user persona (called also “a persona”) is a fictional character based on real data. It represents the key segments of the (potential) users of a product or a service. These users share similar behavior patterns, product requirements, preferences, and goals.

Building personas is an essential step to understand who your users are. It answers the question “Who do we design for?” which affects the whole process of product design and development. The more realistic the personas are, the more market-fit products can be created.

Personas should be based on qualitative and quantitative user research, to properly reflect key characteristics of the audience of the product. It is important to remember that the personas are as good as the research behind them.

If you do not have any data to back up your personas and you base them only on your assumptions and guesses then they are called proto-personas.  It is not recommended to base your decisions only on such models, because they may be created around your own beliefs and background and not those of your users. However, if eventually you choose to create proto-personas, make sure to validate them with user research in the next step.

Why are user personas important?

Long story short, personas usually serve as safeguards against the most common mistake - designing for yourself. They not only help to understand the target audience, but they also consolidate data gathered during user research, and evoke empathy among the team and stakeholders. Getting into your (potential) customers' shoes supports the creation of really useful and valuable products for the target users.

To be more precise, well-done personas help to:

 

  • Create a market-fit solution

The fact that personas are created as derived characters from user segments decreases generalization, so we can fully focus on the specific needs of specific people.

The understanding of users’ problems and needs, the background of their behavior, and their expectations lead to the creation of useful products that offer exactly the features that users really want to use. At the same time, personas help to avoid wasting time on building features that aren’t useful for the audience.

If the product is already live, creating personas help to uncover gaps and contribute to the constant improvement of product usability.

Personas not only express users’ articulated needs but also may uncover such needs and goals that users may not even be aware of. It  helps to drive innovation and explore new areas of the market.

 

  • Make design decisions

Personas serve as a design compass. They help to prioritize and focus on the features that are most important for users. Referring to personas shows the best design patterns for specific target groups and prevents designers from being tempted by generalization.

They can also serve as a tool to cut unnecessary discussions about features that will not be used.

Moreover, keeping the focus on real users across the whole design phase helps to keep consistency across the product.

 

  • Consolidate data gathered during user research

Personas help to aggregate large amounts of data gathered during user research.

As visual representations, they are easy to understand, memorable, and converge all information of the target group into one place. The use of personas eliminates wasting time on going back to raw data from user research and provides instant insight into the audience’s attributes.

Furthermore, when the product is already running and personas are ready, they can be extended by ongoing user research results. Personas that are kept up to date provide a great source of knowledge everyone can refer to.

 

  • Evoke empathy among the team

User personas are human-like representations of target groups, who have feelings and emotions the team can empathize with. They provide a common understanding of users’ motives and ways of interacting with the product.

Personas can be hung on the office wall or board to keep the team focused on target groups and used during the whole process of development. How? For example, whenever someone in the team needs help making a decision regarding the product, they can refer to personas and ask “Would John use it?” to quickly validate if the feature is relevant enough.

 

  • Teach external parties about target groups

The personas serve as a digestible way to transmit information about the target groups to other people. They can be exported as PDF or JPG files and sent to outside agencies to provide a clear description and achieve a common understanding of the target audience.

 

  • Support decisions across the whole company

User personas, as representatives of target groups, are a great tool that supports a decision-making process also outside of the design phase. Referring to user personas might be beneficial for many areas of your business, for example:

    • Sales & business - Knowing a lot about your audience can affect your value proposition and business model. It may make it easier to achieve more shareholder value because personas make the target group and the idea behind them more tangible. Awareness of users’ motives, needs, and frustrations might increase lead generation by better adjustment of the approach to the target group. 
    • Marketing and social media - Marketing materials need to be adjusted to the audience to be effective. Personas are a great tool to use while creating marketing campaigns and materials. 
    • Developers - When they can empathize with users it is easier to make a decision which approach is best to take while programming.
    • Copywriters - Personas may support copywriters by ensuring the content of the product is tailored to the audience.
    • Quality assurance - It may be easier for QA Specialists to test the product when empathizing with users. Test scenarios based on real use cases bring better results. 

Additionally, if the company tends to conduct workshops using role-playing exercises, personas are great, ready-to-use characters to take.

 

  • Recruit participants for user testing

If the product is already live and running you might want to empower it with complementary user research, such as usability testing. Personas serve as great guidelines to recruit participants for qualitative studies.

Looking for a partner to help you deliver your digital project?
We've created many successfully projects for companies from all over the world

When to create personas?

As early as possible. The key moment is the beginning of a project, during the pre-design phase to ensure that the solution will be adjusted to real user needs.

Defining the target group too late might cause a lot of problems. The biggest one might be a lack of interest from the users’ side, which will end up in a great loss of time and money. Still, better late than never! It may be beneficial even for ongoing projects to keep track of the trends and adjust the features the product offers to current user needs.

It’s important to understand that user personas should never be “finished”. Times change, the same as users’ behavior, expectations, and needs. Personas should be updated with the results of continuous user research to ensure the best possible match to the target group during each stage of the project. 

How many personas do you need?

Actually, the fewer personas you have, the easier it is to design to meet their needs. Your aim is to have one persona representing one target user group. Some companies target their product only to one type of user, and in that case, one persona is enough, but larger ones, especially enterprises, may need more.

So, if you find that your customer group is very diverse and can be divided into different segments, feel free to create more personas. Make sure each one is different, memorable, and easy to distinguish. If they feel too similar they probably should be fuzed into one. Just make sure they share common attributes that overlap each other.

If you end up with more than one persona, you should pick the most important one - an ideal user - and call it a primary persona. The rest should be called secondary (or, in special cases, complementary) personas. They are also important, but not as much as the primary one. It is especially helpful while prioritizing features and justifying the decisions.

You should limit yourself to a maximum of 3-4 personas that represent main user groups. The goal of personas is to focus on the most important audiences, not to meet the needs of everyone attempting to use your product. Remember, you cannot please everyone and if you try, you can end up with a “feature creep” - a too-complicated-to-use product. 

Part 2 is coming!

In the 2nd part of this article, I will focus on explaining how to create a good persona and what it should consist of. I’ll also add a few tips from my own personal experience of creating personas many times before. You will also be able to download our great template that will help you to create a user persona for your own project. Stay tuned - or sign up for our newsletter and we will let you know when 2nd part of this article is available!

I am a placeholder image
Agnieszka Körber
A passionate User Experience Designer and Cognitive Scientist. She's been easing interactions between humans and digital products for the last few years.