#UX101: Creating and using personas

When I discuss the word persona with people, I get a lot of blank stares and tilted heads. The film buffs I know respond with, “The Bergman film?” and the rest of them just shake their head when I ask them what they think it means in UX. So, let me spend a moment describing the term in the context of user experience.

Personas are representative users that designers, developers, and other team members can use as “targets” for designs and features. They provide team members an “empathy point” that can be used to ensure user needs are being met when products or websites are being developed. How do you create personas? Read on…

Creating Personas

Personas should not be “imaginary friends”, they should be driven by real people and real data. Personas that are “made up out of whole cloth” don’t have the weight and realism that properly built personas have, so use them at your own risk.

How do you get that data? Talk to people. A LOT of people. Then analyze the data you gather to identify key characteristics, and understand wants/need/desires… get a sense of who these people are AS people, and then document that in personas you create.

And when creating personas, remember… less is more. Don’t try and impress people with a huge amount of information. Remember, unless you are doing a user research project, in most cases the persona is not a final deliverable, it’s a tool that informs design activities and helps communication. So define Persona details that are focused, succinct and usable. I like to keep it simple, and usually only flesh out the following:

Description: Who the persona is (a general sense of the person and the personality)

Goals: The ambitions and desires of the persona

Knowledge/Skill: Capabilities of the persona (in the domain that is being designed)

Start from that foundation, and add the details that are needed to paint a picture of the persona that the team can understand and empathize with. 

Using Personas in User Stories and Scenarios 

Once you have personas, you need to apply them in User Stories and User Scenarios. What are they? I like to look at things this way (using Title Case for key terms):

• A Persona is a character in a story.

• A User Story is a brief descriptive sentence that details the need/desire of the user. The Persona is the “subject” of the sentence.

• A Scenario is a more detailed paragraph that contains context and details about the situation and the user.

(I use the term User Story in the Agile SDLC context – some UX professionals use User Story and Scenario as synonyms.)

Be purposeful and thoughtful about use the Personas properly – you don’t want to have a Persona of Jane, a housewife, in a User Story about pouring concrete in a construction project.

Also, the definition of the Persona will inform the creation of new User Stories and Scenarios, because when you do the research to create the personas a natural output of that effort will be an understanding of what they want/need to do every day in their personal and professional lives.

The best way to integrate personas with user stories are to understand that personas are characters in a story, and they have emotions, drivers and motivations just like any characters in any good stories do.

I’ve often seen the parallels between user experience design and screenwriting, and this is another great example. Good screenplays/stories present characters/personas with situations that they have to overcome or respond to. How they do so shows the measure of the character… And helps the audience/designer understand them better.

So, write user stories and scenarios with your personas in mind and they will help you design the right solution that works for them.

Storyboards: Another way to use personas

If you are not narratively inclined, you can use personas in storyboards. This carries the aforementioned moviemaking metaphor to the next level, in that you are sketching out an experience the persona has in a “comic strip” fashion. This works great if you are an above-average artist, and really helps “tell the story” visually and effectively.

As I’ve stated before, use the method that works for you and communicates the situation in the most effective way.

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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