User profiles and personas are similar in that they both provide information about your user population that can be used to design better applications. As I described in my last post Why User Research and Personas are Critical When Designing Business Apps, in order to be accurate and effective, both personas and user profiles should also be based on user research. However, the nature of the information in personas and user profiles is different.
A user profile provides a summary describing a collection of users. Since the profile is meant to include all the users within the group, the details in the profile generally describe ranges or frequencies of responses.
This quantitative picture of a group of users can be valuable for identifying design and development priorities, and is often a good starting point for user analysis. However, the quantitative profile can have some limitations. Averages and ranges don’t always give a complete or accurate picture. For instance, learning that a collection of 100 users has an average age of 35 may lead to different decisions than knowing that 50 users were age 20 and 50 users were age 50. Plus, the segmentation produced by profiling may result in a large set of user profiles, and statistics can sometimes be impersonal and hard to remember.
Despite their differences, profiles and personas work well together. While a user profile provides a composite summary of a group of users, a persona describes a representative (but fictional) individual. Rather than describing ranges for the entire group (e.g., ages 20-50), a persona has specific details (e.g., age 22) that accurately reflect and highlight important features of the group. The profiles can provide input to the personas, and the process of creating personas and the nature of personas themselves can address many of the limitations of user profiles.
The process of creating personas should include analysis of the user profiles, including identification of important clusters of users within or between user profiles. Ideally, this analysis and prioritization will produce a small and manageable set of personas, since there does not have to be a 1-to-1 correspondence between personas and user profiles. Plus, the persona itself should be written in a way that will encourage readers to recall the persona and use the detail to enhance the design and make informed choices.
So while personas and profiles may be based off the same user research, they provide different, but complementary views of your users. Also, the process of compiling profiles, then analyzing the profiles in order to create a targeted set of personas is a great alignment exercise, and the output (the personas themselves) provides an accessible and easy to remember description of key users, including their attributes, needs and priorities.