How and Why Personas Can Be a Powerful Part of Your Toolkit

Personas have been a major component in my user experience toolkit for many years now. I’ve used them in my own design work. I’ve helped organizations create and share personas across the enterprise. Now I’m working on a software product to help manage the persona process. I was recently asked to explain personas to an audience with highly varied backgrounds at a World Usability Day event. In this post, I’d like to summarize that presentation and share how and why personas can be a powerful part of your toolkit… even if you’re NOT a user experience expert.

Who Can Use Personas
More people in more organizations are being called upon to create outstanding customer experiences, or to deliver exceptional user experiences across digital touch points. While many of these organizations will have a team or a department or a staff member with ‘user experience’ in their title, the UX team alone cannot ensure these high quality experiences at every touchpoint. Exceptional user experiences require contributions across the organization. So, if you…

  • Program websites or software used by customers,
  • Or define customer policies or procedures,
  • Or produce marketing plans or content or customer communications,

then, whether you know it or not, you are already contributing to user or customer experiences.

Having a deep, shared understanding of users is key to delivering successful experiences, and personas are a great method to create that understanding. You’ll find that leveraging persona data to keep a continuous focus on client needs and behaviors will maximize your organization’s overall customer experience strategy.

We human beings are social creatures. We surround ourselves with familiar people – real and fictional. We share stories with and about the people around us – even people we don’t know. Just think of how many details you know about celebrities you’ve never met (and are not likely to ever meet). This is a natural, desirable human trait – one that helps us operate in our daily lives.

But what about our business lives? Are your users as familiar as your friends and colleagues? Do you know as much about your customers as your do about the celebrities on the news or in magazines? And even if you know your users well, are you sure that others on your team do, too? And even if your teammates know something about your customers, how sure are you that they focus on the same aspects of your customers that you do?

That can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be. Many organizations are using the technique of creating personas to make their customers and users as familiar as the performers, celebrities, athletes and musicians that are constantly competing for our attention.

What Makes a Persona Powerful and Why?

Personas are descriptions of users who embody (or personify) the characteristics of important user profiles. There isn’t a single one-size-fits all format or recipe for personas, but there are several common elements that we’ve see in successful personas:

A Persona is a single individual. A persona is different from a profile or a segment. Both have their uses and values, but one of the primary benefits of a persona is ‘personalization.’ A persona allows us to focus on an individual rather than a group. So we can talk about Megan, not female professionals between the ages of 25-40.

A persona is based on research about a group. The information in a persona shouldn’t be un-grounded; it should reflect the actual details that have been learned about a user group through whatever research methods are appropriate. Both qualitative and quantitative findings can play a role in your personas.

A persona is fictional. A persona should not be directly based on a single, real individual. Basing a persona on research about a group allows you to pick and choose the details and attributes that will be most appropriate and useful. Using a real individual as your persona can create issues. A real user may not have all the attributes or characteristics that you want or need for your persona. And if other team members actually know the individual, you can create limitations or unwanted assumptions and expectations.

A persona is memorable. A persona allows us to take advantage of the human desire to see and know individuals. Personas have names, faces and backstories. This helps make them memorable. Rather than talk about your “primary business segment,” personas allow you to talk about “Anna.” We can remember her name, what she looks like. And those details will help you remember other details that will help you in your work.

A persona drives business and design insights. A persona should also include information that helps your team or your business. A well-written persona has details about a user such as:

  • What tasks do they perform?
  • Why do they perform them?
  • What problems do they encounter in performing these tasks?
  • What do they value?
  • What would create an exceptional experience for them?

These details can help you in your work. A persona can help answer needs of different teams and stakeholders throughout the organization. For example:

  • A Project Manager can use details like these to determine if a feature is really needed.
  • An Interaction Designer can use this information when creating workflows or information architecture
  • A Visual Designer can use this information when thinking about how to engage a user.

So well-written personas are more than just colorful details, they are details designed to provide your team with the user insights they need to create exceptional user experiences.

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