Getting started with personas

Getting started with personas

The most effective way to understand and define your users

Designing truly effective user experiences requires a clear understanding of your users and there are few techniques more effective for this than the user persona. Personas give clarity to a project kickoff, enable efficiency during design and production, and help guarantee the success of the final product.

A persona is essentially a specific set of behaviors that are consistently shared by the same people. Behavior is the key here. Good user experience design is primarily concerned with user behavior — understanding it, guiding it, changing it. While it may be overwhelming to consider the range of behaviors of an entire user base, personas help a designer focus on a few memorable individuals.

A persona most importantly helps to identify user goals. An understanding of what a user wants or needs to achieve will allow a design to not only be user-focused, but goal-focused.

Crafting user personas was an essential step in our website redesign for Sloan. Sloan felt that the redesign needed to specifically address the needs of three customer groups: designers, architects and engineers. We set out to create personas for these three key groups. Our process followed four main steps:

1. Interview the users

The most important step in creating a user persona happens before a single interview is conducted. Choosing the right people is essential — they should be representative of each group but also provide a diversity that will give a more accurate picture of a specific user type.

Interview questions should range from general inquiries about a user’s work, life, and daily habits to specific questions about their experience with relevant products or technologies. If possible, conduct observation of your users’ behaviors. This will often reveal insights that could not be gained from traditional interview questions. Remember to stay focused on the user’s goals. What are they trying to achieve? What are their pain points? Where does technology come into play?

User persona data for core consumers of the product

2. Identify key behaviors

After interviews are conducted, responses should be parsed and key behaviors identified. This will usually involve reading through the transcripts and highlighting comments that define or indicate a behavior or attitude. These should then be compiled into a list.

For the Sloan user personas, we ended up with a combination of general attitudes and behaviors (“I like to speak directly with a manufacturer’s engineers”) and specific pain points related to the old website (“I get frustrated figuring out compatibility”).

Quote from an engineer - User persona data

3. Chart behaviors and look for patterns

Armed with a list of behaviors, it’s now time to look for the patterns that will build the persona. We find it helpful to create a chart with user types across one axis and key topics across the other. Most topics can be displayed as a spectrum (for example, low to high) upon which users can be plotted, depending on their expressed attitudes or behaviors.

When all user responses have been plotted, it’s time to group them into personas. Circle groups of users that are clustered together repeatedly. These circles indicate that certain users share common attitudes and behaviors and can be grouped into a persona.

Customer behavior study

4. Craft the persona document

While the research you have conducted will be a valuable asset in and of itself, it is important to prepare final insights for presentation to all stakeholders. Our persona document typically consists of a representative image, name and title, key quotes from interviews, and common attitudes, behaviors and goals.

Presenting our findings to Sloan was an important step in the website design process. It provided key insight to the marketing and management teams at Sloan, and it helped ground all future design discussions in concrete user data. We took things a step further by integrating personas into our competitive analysis. We matched screens from competitor websites with specific needs gleaned from user interviews.

User persona creation example

For us, personas are a key part of the creative process. They allow us to stay focused on user goals and behaviors throughout all phases of a project, they form the basis for communicating with stakeholders and team members, and they provide a barometer for evaluating the success or failure of a project.