user persona

The Role of User Persona in the Product Design Process

The user persona remains one of the most crucial tools in the product design process and is commonly considered to be among the best ways to understand the target group.

And it actually is. At times, it may be difficult to take "Marketing Mark" or "Technical Ted" seriously, but they force designers to think of real, not generic, users, enabling them to create the products that make a difference. 

Persona, in the digital area, is hardly a new term, and even when you are not familiar with UX, you probably have a clue of what it is and what it is for. Yet, it doesn't mean that the topic is sealed and closed. 

In recent years, there have been comments - especially within the UX community - challenging the commonly agreed way personas are created and used. So, while UX personas are still a useful tool in the UX world, it is worth noting that personas are constantly evolving

But before we look into the pitfalls of UX personas, we should cover the basics. We'll dive into:

  1. Marketing Persona vs UX Persona
  2. What is a User Persona?
  3. How does the User Persona Benefit the Product Design Process?
  4. What are the Most Common Pitfalls Designers Fall Into While Creating a User Persona?
  5. Over to you

Marketing Persona vs UX Persona

First, depending on your field of expertise, there are entirely different things under the concept of persona. The most common mistake is confusing marketing personas with UX personas, and no wonder, as in both of these areas, they are kind of a Holy Grail. They are both fictional representations of real people whom we design for and sell to, and both should facilitate creating valuable products and effective campaigns. And yet, they are very different at the core.

Marketing personas are based mainly on research conducted via analytical tools similar to Google Analytics. They aim to segment the target group based on - mostly - demographic criteria to increase the effectiveness of advertising campaigns. These smaller groups can then be easily reached by properly optimized Google or Facebook Ads campaigns with tailor-made messaging that may change automatically depending on the segment.

Demographic information is essential even though marketing personas could also include other details such as business metrics (revenue, buying power) or personal background.

It’s important to remember how diverse our target audience may be when developing new user personas. If you think about your ‘model’ users only, you can accidentally omit a whole set of behaviors, needs, and difficulties that some real users will face when using the product. It can negatively affect its versatility, accessibility, and inclusivity.

Agnieszka Kozłowska Product Designer
at Monterail

Although it can include similar information, the UX persona emphasizes more behavioral and emotional aspects than demographic. It showcases users' pain points, motivations, hopes, fears, etc. 

UX personas, combined with an empathy map, help designers get into the shoes of whom they design for and create the product that addresses the users' struggles.

 

ux persona comparison

Demographics can't be the foundation of UX persona.
It doesn't tell the whole story.

What is a User Persona?

User - or UX - personas are archetypal representations of the actual users of a given product. Their goals, struggles, motivations, and behavioral patterns reflect the goals, struggles, motivations, and behavioral patterns of a larger group of users. 

Typically, a user persona is presented in a short document with a picture, a fictional name, and extended descriptions that include behavior patterns, goals, skills, attitudes, background information, and the environment in which a persona operates. 

To make it more appealing and realistic for designers, additionally, personal description is often enhanced by made-up personal detail and quotes. The main goal of creating the persona is to help designers understand their users' needs and create a product that actually addresses these needs.

user persona template

draft user persona

User Persona Template Examples from Justinmind.com

There are numerous ready-to-use persona templates, but the general scheme is always the same. And although we are far from claiming that attractive form doesn't matter, we also don't shy away from emphasizing that it should play second fiddle. The content encapsulated in one- or two-pager is crucial. 

User/UX persona template you should include the following information:

  • Name
  • Picture
  • Demographics background (gender, age, relationship status)
  • Goals & needs
  • Frustrations 
  • Behaviors
  • Personal touch (e.g. a quote or a slogan)

How Does the User Persona Benefit the Product Design Process?

A user persona is considered a foundation for creating exceptional products. It helps a product team answer one of the most fundamental questions: "Whom are we designing for?." 

Grasping the expectations, concerns, and goals of target users increases the chance that it will find real-life purchasers after launch. 

Does the concept of a user/UX persona still sound a bit LinkedIn-like to you?

Let's clear it up.

User persona helps build empathy

As we pointed out in the previous article on "Improving Product Design Process with UX Research", building empathy is the first stage (or one of the firsts depending on chosen workflow) in UX research, and UX research is crucial in design processes no matter the selected workflow. 

Personas are - after all - tools (yes, one of many) that enable designers to check whether their vision aligns with reality enough to invest in following it. 

 

With user personas, designers gain the capability to step out of their own perspective 

design thinking

Design thinking process. Source: Adobe

We are all living in echo chambers and tend to hear only the things we believe are true; designers are not an exception. With user persona in mind, they can step out of this vicious cycle, gain a new perspective, recognize that people may have different needs and expectations, identify with them, and focus on supporting them in whatever they want to achieve. 

Although the user persona might seem a bit corny or gimmicky on paper, it should be considered a tool to infer what a real person might need. 

The more designers engage with the user personas and see the real people in these characteristics, the more chances their product will meet the target group's expectations. 

User persona helps make (and defend) design decisions

User personas can also be used as a basis for shaping product strategy. A deep understanding of user behavior and needs makes it possible to define the whole product road map.

User persona serves as a North Star to everybody involved in the design process, helping to keep consistency across the team.

With introducing user personas to your product design process, features can be prioritized based on the question "How well do they address the need of a persona?" instead of "How much we'd like to build something awesome?." So the discussion between - for example - business stakeholders and designers can be reduced to a minimum. 

How to Create a Helpful User Persona in 3 steps?

Step 1: Data Collection

The heart and soul of a helpful user persona is research. Conducted via surveys, interviews, observations, or a mix of these and other methods, it allows to collect the data needed to deep dive into users' minds and reveal their needs and expectations. 

Of course, the scope of the conducted research depends on a budget you've got at your disposal, and - although actual field research - is the most reliable, with time and money restrictions, data can be pulled out from the customer support, sales team, delivery managers and other first-line specialists, who already work closely with potential users of a product that you’re looking to build.

Step 2: Finding Behavioral Patterns

Once the target group is identified and data collected, there is a time to convert the information into meaningful insights, creating a user persona that would identify users' behavioral patterns. 

It relies on mapping each interviewee against the appropriate set of behavioral variables (meaning points where users' behavior differed) to discover broader trends. 

Step 3: User Persona Prioritization

Typically, there is more than one user persona, but the number of them also shouldn't be too big. It would blur the whole idea of creating a user persona as a North Star to every stakeholder. Of course, there can be a few personas but it is a good practice to prioritize them and determine the primary one. 

There is a rule “design for the primary – accommodate the secondary.”

It means that decisions should be taken with the needs of the primary potential user at the center of interest and then tested with the secondary personas in mind.

What are the Most Common Pitfalls Designers Fall Into While Creating a User Persona?

Personas can be powerful analytical tools often considered a bridge between research and design phases in processes, and yet - crafted the wrong way - may cause troubles. 

Poorly coined personas can lead you and your team astray, forcing the wrong design direction. It might turn out that you were solving the issues that no one needs to resolve, which can also mean that no one will be interested in using your product.

User persona shouldn't reflect an ideal buyer

It is tempting to aim high and assume that we will reach out to the most substantial purchasing group with an enterprise-size wallet and a tendency to adopt innovations. Yet, while creating user personas, it is good to stay on the ground. 

User persona should be data-grounded and contain the real, thoroughly analyzed data. Making them up as they go along based on what the sales team is talking about during coffee break is doomed to be biased. 

Personas should always be based on actual user data and then updated once you have more in-depth information on who uses your product. This information should also help you build up a list of differentiators for your model users, including their behaviors, emotions, habits, and expectations.

Karolina Saniewska Product Designer
at Monterail

A carefully crafted persona is based on a massive amount of data, and there are no shortcuts. 10-minute phone calls with current customers are not the data collection process that will bring us astonishing results (although it is better to have these calls than to joyfully improvise). 

Poor communication 

It sounds trivial but happens a lot: even the most carefully crafted persona is useless when people are not able to follow it, don't understand it, and don't care about it. 

"Paper" user personas that exist only as a dead file on a shared drive are a waste of money. Personas must live rent-free in the minds of stakeholders as a way to keep them on the same page throughout the whole design process. 

Focus on bullet points rather than telling a story

It is good to tell a story where the persona plays a character to avoid communication failure. 

Other teams will be more likely to remember stories than a stock photo and bullet points presentation. Also, showcasing the "behind the scenes" story about creating users' persona might be helpful to stress their importance to them. Let the stakeholders know that a considerable research effort stands behind the "Technical Ted." 

Over to you

Regardless of the selected template, framework, and approach, the user persona can be a foundation of the design process, but only if we treat it seriously. What does it mean exactly?

The response to this question brings us back to the core element of any product design process: UX Research. You can read all about it in the previous installment of our blog series on product design:

Improving Product Design Process with UX Research

 

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