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Designers, product managers, and researchers are in the business of creating products and/or providing services for real people. With KPIs, roadmaps, goals, and endless tasks, it’s easy to lose sight of the people that you’re building for. The cost of not having your various user types top of mind is high: working on the wrong things, shipping things that people don’t need, solving problems that don’t need to be solved, wasted resources—to name a few. 

So how do you avoid falling into the trap of busywork, rather than letting user empathy and understanding lead the way to better business results? User research personas are a great place to start.

What exactly are personas and what are they used for?

Personas—sometimes called UX personas or user personas—are a group of archetypes, usually expressed via fictional characters, that represent the different segments of end users that may use your product or service. 

Usually, personas are created based on user research and the deliverables are easy-to-use guides, like one-pagers, that anyone at your company or organization can refer to to keep users top of mind as they work on various projects and initiatives.

As for exactly what information is included in each persona, there is definitely some variation. Below is non-exhaustive list of some of the common topics that you’ll find in persona deliverables.

user research personas User persona information infographic

As you begin thinking about what you may want to include in your user personas, you should be aware that there are a lot great persona templates online, like this one from HubSpot or this one from the Figma community, which can be a useful starting point.

Let’s say that you work at a company that has a web-based event planning platform. All types of people plan events, right? So a general sense of the average user probably won’t get your leadership, product, or marketing teams very far when it comes to anything from feature prioritization to marketing messaging and everything in between. The needs, challenges, and behaviors of a couple planning a wedding versus, say, an operations manager planning a company wide retreat for 1000 employees, are probably going to have some significant differences. 

Let's say, at our imaginary event planning company, the product team wants to develop a feature where you can send event invites to your contacts. Creating personas for each type of user will allow all of the product stakeholders to have a quick reference point to make sure that they’re either considering all user types as they develop their concrete product ideas, or have the necessary information to prioritize which user types their solutions will cater to and why.

Overall, personas are easy-to-use references for all stakeholders to use and to keep themselves accountable (and committed!) to keeping users at the center of all of their projects, tasks, and initiatives.

How can I use user research to create user personas?

Try saying that three times fast! But I digress.

So how exactly do you go about creating personas? In order to understand the nuances between various user types within your user base, you’ll need to work with all of the relevant stakeholders to do some user research.  

If you have a UX research team, great! If not, user research is often used as a part of the design process in general, and so it could be that your UX designers and/or Product Managers have some of the necessary skills. You can also familiarize yourself with user research methodology by taking a course to brush up on your skills before you get started.

Related Read: 10 Best User Research Tools To Learn More About Your Customers

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Before you get started, align with your stakeholders on what information would be useful for them when it comes to personas.

As we’ve mentioned, exactly what information you put together within your personas can vary from organization to organization. Before you get started on planning your persona research, take a bit of time to meet with any of your colleagues who may benefit from your eventual personas. You may want to consider team members from marketing, product managers, user experience designers, your sales team, and even developers, for example.

When you meet with your colleagues, explain what personas are and ask them what questions they have about users that will help them make good decisions and do user-centered work within their field. Not only are these conversations generally interesting, but you’ll start to get a sense of what you’ll need to include in your persona deliverables to meet the widest variety of internal needs at your organization.  

Here are some guiding questions that may be useful when you’re meeting with stakeholders before you begin your persona research:

  • When you think about our user base, what do you think are the different groups or segments within it? Why?
  • In your mind, do you think that any of these groups are more of our core user base, or that they should be prioritized in any way? Why or why not?
  • What information about our user base do you feel that you lack? How would that information help you in your day-to-day work and decision making?
  • What assumptions do you feel that you’re making about our user base that you aren’t 100% confident in?

As you wade through your notes from these conversations, take a look at user persona examples, different types of personas, and user persona templates to get some inspiration for the categories that you’ll include in your personas.

Create hypotheses about user segments to prepare for your research kick-off

Now that you have a good sense as to what categories of information you’ll need for each persona, it’s time to form hypotheses about the different user types that exist in your target audience. Again, this is a great opportunity to consult with colleagues. Personally, I find that user researchers, support representatives, and data analysts often have some of the most robust theories about user segments that are a great starting point for persona research.

Your hypothesized list of user segments should be based on internal knowledge about users, previous surveys, user interviews, industry knowledge, or all of the above.

Let’s say that you work at an organization that offers budgeting software. Your list of user groups before you get started may look something like this: young couples just starting out, college students, middle-aged professionals saving more aggressively for retirement, etc. 

Tip: be open to surprises! We call this list of user segments hypotheses for a reason: your research may yield some new knowledge about users or unexpected nuances that cause you to add, take away, or reconceptualize some of the segments as you turn them into personas.

Choose your research methodology and get started

There are a wide variety of user research methods, yielding both qualitative data and quantitative data, that can be useful for persona development. Check out the chart below for some guidance.

user research personas Research methodology infographic

Once you’ve decided which research methods make sense for your persona research, congratulations: you’ve arrived at the fun part. It’s time to create a research plan, recruit the right users to interview, assign roles and responsibilities, and get started on a period of in-depth exploration of your target users.

Some tips for analyzing data and creating persona deliverables

  • Be willing to challenge your original user segment hypotheses. It’s possible that during your research, new user types or unexpected nuances surfaced – go with it! Assuming that your research was done according to best practices, your data is generally more reliable than your assumptions.
  • Don’t analyze your research data alone. Even if you’re leading the persona research at your organization, every researcher has some level of bias that can influence the interpretation of your findings. Make sure that the analysis stage involves some of the other stakeholders so that you can mitigate bias and make sure that your personas are as accurate as possible.
  • Make your personas simple and visually appealing. When you went through persona templates and examples, you probably noticed that generally, personas don’t resemble reports. They don’t include all of the painstaking details and nuances that you’ve learned, but they summarize it effectively. The reason behind the concise format is that you want stakeholders to use your personas once they’ve been created. A one-pager that communicates each persona well will be much more likely to be adopted into key workflows at your company.
  • Be inclusive. Any visual representation or demographic information that is included in your personas should represent the true diversity of your user base. Particularly when you rely on things like stock photography, you could unintentionally create a homogenous perspective on your user base that isn’t accurate. 
  • Create your personas in as many formats as possible. Most personas are delivered in the form of documents or PDFs, but getting creative could make a further impact on your colleagues. For example, consider working with your design team to create persona posters that can be displayed around your workplace. 

You’ve created your personas: now what?

Once you’ve conducted the necessary research and created your persona deliverables, it’s tempting to think that the project is over – but it’s not quite over yet.

You set out to create personas so that you could have a real impact on the work that you and your colleagues do. In order to make sure that your personas are actually getting used and influencing everything from user flows and design to decisions around marketing messaging, you have to make a concerted effort. 

Let’s dive into persona adoption.

What does persona adoption look like, and why does it matter?

When your colleagues adopt your personas, you’ll start to hear their names come up everywhere from brainstorming meetings to product readouts. Instead of people talking about “the users,” they’ll get more specific. They’ll want to explore how an idea or a feature helps Barebones Budget Bob solve his needs, for example.

The beauty of persona adoption is that once every primary group of users is discussed in a nuanced way, your team is much more likely to be making user-centered decisions that reflect the lives, needs, and sentiments of real users rather than some mythical, non-existent average user.

Over time, that’s likely to not only help you create a user-centered culture at your company, but also to influence bottom line business metrics and KPIs.

Some concrete ways to jumpstart persona adoption at your organization

  • Organize persona kick-off events. Not everyone at your organization will know what personas are, why they matter, and how they are relevant to their day-to-day work. Create an engaging, interactive presentation to introduce both the concept and the specific personas that you developed to everyone.
    Tip: I’ve found that doing this by team, rather than company-wide all at once, generates more nuanced and interesting conversations that increase persona enthusiasm overall.
  • Get your leadership on board. Depending on your role within your organization, you probably work with some level of leadership. During the period of initially launching your personas, schedule 1:1 meetings with company leadership that you have access to in order to get buy-in from the top. When leadership is on board, more people will ultimately adopt your personas in their day-to-day work.
    Tip: if you aren’t sure where to start from lower down in your company’s hierarchy, have a conversation with your manager and brainstorm who may be relevant.
  • Once again, get creative! If you haven’t created user persona posters for the office yet, consider it. Another researcher told me that she designed persona cards and scattered them on the cafeteria tables at her office, which resulted in colleagues that she had never expected to be interested asking her for some more information about how to utilize personas. Think about your organization’s culture and how you can integrate personas in unexpected places.
  • Communicate to your colleagues that personas are living and breathing documents. This means that you want to present your personas as a work in progress and involve your colleagues in thinking critically about them. If they have questions about how you reached certain conclusions, they should ask. If they have a good case for additional personas, let them know that they can come to you and discuss. The more persona maintenance and development feels like a team effort, the more people will engage with them.

Create personas to fuel a user-centered culture that impacts your company’s KPIs

After reading this article, you’re aware that creating personas with user research methodology and ensuring adoption after the fact involves some real effort. If you follow through with the process, you’ll notice that everything from design decisions and functionality prioritization, all the way to marketing strategy will be more informed by real data and match up better with real-life. 

So, by investing the effort to lead a persona creation initiative, you’re helping your organization build a user-centered culture that will increase the likelihood of meeting your team’s most ambitious goals. 

If you’re wondering what else you can do to contribute to a user-centered culture at your company, make sure that you subscribe to the CX Lead newsletter!

Happy researching!

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By Cori Widen

Cori Widen currently leads the UX Research team at Lightricks. She worked in the tech industry for 10 years in various product marketing roles before honing in on her passion for understanding the user and transitioning to research.