Personas, an introduction


Personas are used for developing ideas for the design of a product. They help the team get a feeling of the organization’s understanding of the target group and from there prioritize system features and content, so that it supports the target group in the best way. They give the organization a clear picture of how the target group uses a website and what they  expect from it. Personas will provide the team with information about the user goals, scenarios, tasks etc., which all have an impact on the design process. Everyone in an organization can benefit from personas, and everyone should somehow be involved with them. However the primary audience of personas is the design team. Personas help direct design decisions but other stakeholders may help create them. Engineers may find them useful as well when creating context.
The word persona comes from Greek and means mask. The use of personas was pioneered by software developer Alan Cooper after Angus Jenkinson in 1993/94 developed the concept of understanding customer segments as communities with coherent identity. The difference between a segment and a persona is that a segment is used to describe a group of people, whereas a persona is used to describe an individual. However the method of personas doesn’t necessarily involve real users but instead representatives of the users.
Basically a persona is a fictional person that represents common aspects of a specific target group. To create a persona you look at this target group’s behaviors, objectives, and their possible expectations of your product. There are multiple ways to name personas; user profiles, user role definitions or audience profiles, but in order not to confuse anyone, let’s just call them personas.
When providing a product or service for someone, you need to understand that your users are often not like you. Therefore you have to study your users to find out who they are exactly in order to create designs that live up to the users’ actual expectations and not the expectations you assume they have. All personas must include the same level of details. Some projects might need more or other details/characteristics than others depending, which areas are important to be highlighted. Some are described very detailed and are based on a lot of research data. Others are just short descriptions of the different types of users, but it is important that all personas in the same project are equally detailed. To help prioritize your design efforts it can be valuable for you to give your persona a certain status. Examples of this could be primary, secondary, supplementary or negative. This way you know what kind of attention to give to which users. When you develop a product you are designing for others than yourself, and it can be hard to imagine what others want, because you are very sure of what you want, which can be hard to abstract from. If for example you know a lot about electronics and work with it everyday and you are going to develop a product for a target group, who doesn’t know much about it, it can be hard to put yourself in their place.

What should a persona include?

Denmark’s leading specialist in personas, Lene Nielsen, describes the importance of identifying a focus area when creating personas. The purpose is to know, which information to include in your personas.

Before creating personas you should look at the situation for which you need them. If you are designing a website for tax you might need different information about the users than if you are designing a website for children’s clothes.
The description of the persona should sound as a real person even though it is fiction. That is fiction based on real data. Depending on the situation you should include a variety of personal information. However there are some information, which you almost always should include in the description[7]; first and last name, gender, age, background story, a telling quote, job title, goals, needs in different situations and a photo. Furthermore a persona should include scenarios that show how the persona’s needs can be met.


As with many other things in life there are certain challenges that might occur when developing personas. Not having access to the right or enough information when creating personas can be a big challenge. This might result in the personas not helping you at all or at least as much as you would like them to. Another challenge can be the organization’s way of doing business. If it has been selling products or services successfully throughout many years without the use of personas, it can be a challenge to get the organization to talk about their customers in a new way. Finally the designers can be a challenge as well. Since the personas are developed mainly for them, the designers need to use them and make them a part of the design process in order to exploit the personas as much as possible.

Different types of personas:

Personas can be done in different ways. Different gurus have different ways to approach personas, but according to the book Communicating Design by Dan M. Brown, they can roughly be put in to three different categories:
·      Data-driven – you create the persona from looking at certain patterns after analyzing a large amount of data.
·      Institutional – these adapt to how the company usually talks about the target group, but they only work if they suit your current purpose.
·      Procedural – based on the Customer Life Cycle. Different personas are developed for the primary tasks in the different stages of the cycle.
Creating personas based on a large amount of research and analysis can be very expensive and time-consuming. This means that smaller organisations might not have either time or money to develop personas.  For these organizations the so-called Proto-persona can come in handy. The Proto-personas are not developed from user research but from representatives from the organization having brainstorming workshops. Here they use their gut feeling to figure out who their customers are and what makes them buy and use their product. The Proto-persona can be used to give the company a starting point and start to create some early design hypotheses. It can also be used for the company to get a feeling of the customer’s point of view and make sure to include it when doing strategic planning. After creating the proto-personas it is important that the researchers validate them to make sure they are accurate.

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